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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Cutting it on a gruelling final push to the finish

Robert Deacon recounts his experiences on the last leg of the USA's combine harvesting circuit -- and finds that wing mirrors are ideal for flying the Irish flag

Robert Deacon

Published 01/02/2011 | 05:00

Robert Deacon headed north to Canada after he completed last year's combine adventure
Robert Deacon headed north to Canada after he completed last year's combine adventure
Robert Deacon headed north to Canada after he completed last year's combine adventure

As our crews finished cutting the last of the wheat and canola crops in Langdon, North Dakota, nothing but an old wire fence separated us from the fields of Canada.

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Having started in the desert-surrounded fields that border Mexico to now be finally standing at the fence separating America from Canada was truly a surreal moment. But, as is the custom harvester way, this moment was to be shortlived as all combines, tractors, carts and trucks were turned for the gate.

We headed for the yard where the combine transporter trailers had sat with their ramps still down since being unloaded four weeks beforehand. We still had the final stint of the American harvest ahead, but for this we needed to head back down south to South Dakota where the bean and corn harvests were starting.

Individual American state laws can differ slightly when it comes to load height and width restrictions. A greater oversize load allowance in North Dakota allows combines to be transported on trucks without having to remove the outer dual wheels, which takes the work and sweat out of loading the combines. Instead, it transfers the worry to the moments when you meet trucks coming the opposite direction on the road.

Due to the width of the load, the wing mirrors were good for nothing, except to support the Irish flag for the journey down south!

As combines started to arrive in the little town of Columbia, South Dakota, work began on assembling new 35ft flex-headers, which are used to cut edible beans. These cutting heads are necessary because the bean pods grow quite close to the ground and the ability of these flex-headers to follow varying ground contours mean that no crop is lost under the knife.

The beans we were harvesting were grown for human consumption so combine settings were of major importance to prevent loss of quality through split beans. All the combines harvesting beans also had to be completely cleaned out, because one grain of any other crop in a load would make the entire load ineligible for human consumption. The beans were all hauled to a small elevator in Minnesota where each bean was individually checked for quality before being loaded onto a train. This was a tedious process and took two days to fill a single train cart.

Parked

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After a fortnight, the edible beans were finished up and all combines, except for three, were parked up for the winter.

All efforts were now based around the major crop of South Dakota which is 'dry corn', or maize produced for ethanol.

Dry corn is harvested at a moisture content of 14pc or lower. The three combines were fitted with corn heads to face into the high-yielding crop. Each combine now had its own designated tractor and chaser bin and double the numbers of trucks to cope with the bulk of dry corn.

The type of header used strips the corn cobs from the stalks, which prevents much of the trash passing through the combine and allows operating speeds of up to 8mph.

Dry corn is the new cash crop of the northern states, with most farmers using traditional crops such as wheat, barley and beans purely as break crops to keep their soil conditions in order. Luckily for all involved with the harvest this year, South Dakota had a historically dry October and November and, as the final few fields of corn were ripening, we got the year's first few inches of snow as a reminder of the harsh winter that this landscape endures. This was enough of a warning for custom harvesters to finish up their last few acres of the season.

Fleet

We had set out nine months earlier with nine new combines, three new tractors with chaser bins, two fuel trucks, and a small fleet of trucks and trailers. Our crew consisted of three crew chiefs, 16 Irish members, seven New Zealanders and a labrador named Tut. We used four different header fronts and cut seven different crops along the way. With almost 70,000ac covered, the 2010 American grain harvest was over.

All that was left to do was to drive the combines and tractors 103 miles to the John Deere dealer in Jamestown, North Dakota, where they were traded in with an average of 600 drum hours a piece.

Driving there was a job given to whatever poor individual didn't happen to be looking busy when volunteers were being sought. With all combines and tractors now gone, the trucks set out with combine and header transporters stacked up on each other, or grain trailers for the three-day journey back to the base in Arizona.

As the new year has rolled around, preparations for this year's harvest have already begun, with the first of this year's combines and tractors being collected directly from the John Deere factory in Illinois.

All of Tim's Peterbilt truck and trailer fleet is also getting its winter servicing so that it is ready for the challenge of another American harvest.

Demaray Harvesting is now looking to recruit operators for this year's harvest.

Tim is looking for applicants with experience with machinery and who are willing to live and work in the constantly moving world of a custom-harvester crew. He suggests that all applicants are at least 21 because a lot of state-border crossings insist on drivers being this age to pass through. However, all applications will be given consideration.

So if you would like to experience all the machinery, landscapes and travel of being a custom harvester for a season, you should visit Demaray's website, www.demarayharvesting.com, and fill in the online application form, preferably by the start of next month. It truly is the experience of a lifetime.

Dedicated to Mam. You encouraged us to experience all that this life offers.

With Canadian visa in-hand, Robert has left the USA and is heading to work with a farmer/contractor in Alberta, Canada. The Farming Independent will again follow his pursuits as his new employer carries out custom spraying, tilling, grass chopping on his 6,000ac farm

Indo Farming