After we had moved our harvest gear from our job in Yuma, Arizona, back to the yard in Casa Grande, we had a few days to service gear and organise ourselves for moving further north. The nine combines were hauled in all directions, with jobs starting in southern Texas, Kansas and South Dakota.
As it turned out, I was going to get a chance to work on my still-typically Irish tan by hanging around in the good weather of Arizona for another while, as firm owner Tim Demaray had taken on a new contract for two trucks to go hauling corn silage (maize) for a local company, Arledge Hay. So, leaving the American grain harvest for a month, I had to now join a chopper crew, side filling and driving a bullnose Peterbilt truck.
Arledge Hay was set up 25 years ago and dealt originally with baling and selling hay all over America, later moving into chopping maize as well.
Being the American way, the opportunity for expansion now means that Arledge Hay is running two Krone Big X V12 and seven Claas 900 choppers -- self-propelled silage harvesters -- and also has two Claas 850 choppers that are contracted to local dairies for green-chop throughout the year.
Trucks are used to haul the maize from the field to the pit or maize bagger. Arledge Hay has six rigid trucks and seven semi-trucks on 36ft trailers, but with running such an amount of choppers, there are about 20 extra trucks hired in from New Mexico and Idaho, where the maize season starts later than Arizona. Arledge Hay does not actually run any push-up shovels themselves, a company from Idaho runs articulated Case and Steiger tractors and push-up blades to take control of the pit.
Early on our first morning of 'custom choppin', myself and the other elected driver, proud Corkman John Casey, had to collect our hired trailers for hauling maize. The 36ft trailers use a chain unloading floor run off the hydraulic tipping gear of our trucks.
Although slightly aged, the trailers seem pretty sturdy for the task of trying to stay in beside a chopper over the ridged-irrigated fields of Arizona.
Heading about 20 miles east, we pulled into the field where two Claas and one Krone choppers were waiting to begin the season. Being the eager Irishmen, we snuck in beside the choppers and loaded up two superior-looking loads, towering a good four feet above the already extended sides on the trailers. With only a two-mile draw, I was soon backing into the maize bagger. Engaging the hydraulics, I was to find out the limitations of my tipping gear as the load barely moved enough to open the back doors of the trailer before it came to a halt.
So, after breaking one pitch fork and wearing the handle thin on another, the load eventually decided to co-operate and move. Lesson learned in the baking sun of Arizona! I tweaked my pressure relief valve slightly and lost my desire to try and break my original net weight of that first load.
The next few weeks went pretty trouble-free, thankfully, and I got to haul into some of the most eye-opening dairies, varying from a herd size of 1,300 to almost 10,000!
The vastness of the animal housing and feed pits alone have to be seen to be believed. For our last week on the choppin' crew, we moved into Chandler, which was originally the home town of several dairies but now, after a boom of house building, only an odd dairy is surrounded by schools, houses, shopping centres and industrial estates.
Unfortunately, though, this gave us the task of trying to haul maize through four-lane rush-hour traffic, pedestrian crossings and more traffic lights than is healthy. On one 11-mile haul, we had 17 traffic lights to contend with, which would dishearten the most eager driver.
After four weeks of chopping, the work in Arizona was finished and Arledge Hay was loading up choppers to move to Idaho to start a 6,000ac season there, but the call came to return trucks and man power to the grain harvest, which had now progressed to all crews working in South Dakota.
Picking up two hopper-bottom grain trailers, we headed east out of the Arizona desert into New Mexico, where we collected bulk fertiliser to haul to Nebraska. This, I must say, is possibly the most epic road trip, passing from the valleys of New Mexico into the oil fields of Texas and then crossing into Oklahoma, where we passed through an amazing lightening storm which lit the whole sky as bright as daylight for miles around.
After Oklahoma, we crossed into Kansas, which has fields of maize as far as the eye can see and is mainly chopped and hauled to the cattle feed lots in Texas. By now, the weather was starting to cool down as we headed further north into Nebraska, where we dropped our loads of fertiliser and drove to Columbia, South Dakota, where I hooked up again with Kevin Wansing's crew, who were just finishing up cutting wheat.
Dropping my grain trailer, I picked up a combine transporter trailer and the crew started removing the combines' dual wheels and dropping the grain tanks as the sun set on Columbia's small gravel main street.
The next morning we set out loaded with three combines, a tractor and grain cart and headed for Langdon, North Dakota.
The landscape truly reminded me of home with green fields, trees and even the odd field of baled silage. North Dakota is covered in fields of wheat and canola but, because of its northerly position, it has a very small window of opportunity for harvesting, from the time the crop ripens until the threat of snow soon after. Even in the small town where we were staying, the number of combines working, and constantly arriving, shows the volume of work and limited time frame.
We started cutting wheat as soon as we had unloaded and fitted our duals, covering about 750ac in four days. We then had the misfortune of having to deal with dew every morning, but managed to cut until midnight or after before conditions got too tough to thresh. When we had caught up on the available ripe wheat, we swapped our 35ft draper heads for 14ft pick-up reels, which are used to pick up swathed canola. Canola is becoming a major crop in North Dakota, being processed into canola oil, which is used for cooking and also used in the ethanol production. Canola is an enjoyable crop to harvest, with a picking-up speed of up to seven mph.
Unfortunately now, though, the weather has stopped us in our tracks. All machines sit idle as we hope for a break in the rain clouds so we can get back to harvesting to try to stay in our time frame.
With edible beans and corn starting to ripen in South Dakota, the pressure is on.