Faster, wider and more productive. That's the name of the game in forage equipment today and in the future, according to Kevin Shinners, University of Wisconsin ag engineer.

Shinners, who spoke at the recent Four-State Forage Conference in Baraboo, WI, examined forage equipment trends with an eye on what growers and custom harvesters can expect in the future.

“The self-propelled forage harvester is the most powerful machine in agriculture,” says Shinners. Introduced in the 1960s with two- to three-row heads with up to 150 hp, self-propelled harvesters now boast 8- to 10-row heads at 70 hp/row that will soon break the 700-hp barrier.

“Ten years from now, we'll see 10- and 12-row machines; they'll have 75-hp/row and may bump over 900 hp,” he predicts. Those powerful machines will use length-of-cut adjustments and moisture-sensing capabilities from the cab to improve forage quality.

“If we can measure moisture accurately on the go on the forage harvester, we'll know if we should apply inoculant, what rate to apply and what kind of silo this material should go into,” he notes.

No doubt about it, Shinners says, the machines will also have higher transport speeds. And they'll need suspension systems, air brakes — anything that will allow for higher road speeds.

With the faster harvesters comes the problem of developing cutting machines that match their productivity.

“Our cutting equipment is not keeping pace with the forage harvester and the large square baler,” Shinners stresses. “We have to have high-capacity mowers that can keep up with our other high-capacity machines.”

The sicklebar mower-conditioners of the '60s and '70s have slowly given way to disc cutterbar machines that offer faster ground speeds and higher productivity. By the 1990s, the disc mower-conditioner was capable of operating at 18' wide and 20 acres/hour. In the late 1990s, the high-capacity disc mower was introduced.

“These machines have multiple cutting platforms on one machine cutting up to 30' and capable of up to 35 acres/hour. We will soon see cutting platforms up to 45' wide, approaching 45 or maybe 50 acres/hour.

“I think a multiple platform configuration is the way it's going to be. You can't shove 45' of material into a single windrow. If that ever got rained on, it would never dry out. We have to spread this material out into multiple swaths to get it dry.”

He predicts faster operating speeds on self-propelled cutting equipment, plus suspension and braking systems handed down from the high-speed tractors.

“Then I think you will see a point in the future where we have autosteer with parallel tracking.”

As far as baling trends, large square balers may be self-propelled. “And we'll certainly want accurate moisture sensing on balers, too,” he says.