Combine manufacturers have made giant strides toward machine automation. Yes, there still needs to be an operator in the cab (and we’re likely some distance away from changing that), but a growing number of today’s combines are making their own decisions about how to adjust their operations on the go for maximum threshing efficiency and minimum field losses.
That’s why, during the preview press conference for Germany’s Agritechnica show in early September, the questions were so pointed. A couple of ag journalists wanted to know why a German manufacturer had won one of the show’s prestigious Innovations medals for an automated threshing adjustment system, when other brands from other countries are also incorporating something similar in their commercial designs. Was this national favouritism?
Not so, said the head judge, who defended the panel and said it was comprised of judges from several countries. But really, the big take-away for anyone with ears to hear was that “smart” features are no longer a surprise in new combines. In fact, it would be surprising to see new designs without them.
Here in North America, we saw John Deere debut the S700 Series combines in June with Auto Maintain to keep combine adjustments maximized without operator input. Using information from what the brand calls ActiveVision cameras and other sensors, an onboard computer analyzes images of the kernels and makes up to five different threshing system adjustments on the fly.
Claas, the German company that garnered that controversial Innovation award, uses a similar system built into its Lexion combines, relying on a “grain quality” camera. The camera is positioned in the clean grain elevator. Just like the Deere system, operators can see real-time images on the in-cab monitor. And the computer sees them too. (Although Deere also has a camera on the returns elevator.)
Once operators set the harvesting parameters, Claas’s CEMOS automated system can make automatic changes to cleaning and separating systems to keep the brand’s hybrid and straw walker combines threshing at peak performance, despite changing field conditions.
Not to be outdone, AGCO too had an early announcement to make about an entirely new combine platform that will be fully unveiled in November at Agritechnica. The “IDEAL” Series combines will be built on a “global platform design,” which means they can easily be equipped to suit the needs of farmers almost anywhere on the planet. (These class 7, 8 and 9 models will wear Challenger, Fendt or Massey Ferguson clothes, depending on which dealer lots they are delivered to.)
According to an early European press release, the company’s new combines will have a “constant speed” function. Operators will set the preferred ground speed and the combine will work to maintain that. And these combines will also have an “automatic crop setting feature,” which offers operators pre-set threshing system parameters for up to 15 different crop types. Then the system automatically places key functions such as the threshing cylinder speed, concave setting, sieve setting and fan speed to default positions. Header reel speed is also automatically co-ordinated to ground speed.
The North American announcement claims the IDEAL platform will also incorporate “an automated combine adjustment system, and Real Time Crop Flow visualization,” which sounds exactly like the Claas and Deere systems. That is why this announcement made just a couple of days before the Agritechnica preview press conference sparked those skeptical questions.
AGCO’s North American press release goes on to suggest, “[The IDEAL] is the most innovative combine we have ever produced and… will change the way harvesting is done today.”
While that may prove to be true once we learn all the specs, with the pace of change in harvesting technology, incorporating automated features might better be described as just keeping up with the way harvesting is done today.