Mike Jenks' self-propelled chopper has been sitting in his shed all summer, waiting for this fall's corn silage harvest.

Jenks, a custom harvester from Aurora, IA, is putting up haylage with equipment that he says lowers labor, fuel and maintenance costs, and produces a higher-quality product for his dairy clients.

He uses self-loading forage wagons that pick up windrowed forage, chop it and quickly unload it at the silage pile or bunker. He has two of them, pulled by 240-hp Fendt tractors with 33 mph road speeds. Each 40'-long wagon holds an average of 20 tons of chopped alfalfa, depending on moisture content. That's nearly three times as much as the trucks he previously chopped into.

Trucks are no longer needed. Filled wagons are taken directly to the storage site for unloading, then back to the field for refilling. When travel distances are around three miles or less, Jenks says he can harvest equally as fast as when he used choppers and trucks.

“If it's five or six miles, we're slightly slower,” he says.

Some hauls are longer — up to 24 miles. But Jenks likes his new harvesting method, even for long hauls. He'll chop about 7,000 acres of alfalfa with the wagons this summer.

They're not a low-cost chopping option, though. He paid $325,000 for each tractor-wagon combination. The wagons are made by ROC, an Italian company, and Jenks bought them from Vanderloop Equipment, Brillion, WI. Carey Vanderloop, one of the owners, says his company is a dealer for ROC America, the importing firm. It also manages ROC America, and is in the process of developing a dealer network.

“We have a dealer in Wisconsin, the Southeast — North Carolina, Georgia and Florida — and are in negotiations with a dealer in California,” Vanderloop reports.

The wagon picks up windrowed forage and delivers it to a rotor, which pushes it through stationary knives. Rear unloading is accomplished with an apron chain. The rotor is run by a pto-powered gearbox, and the apron and tailgate are operated by hydraulics.

Smaller self-loading wagons have been manufactured in Europe for many years, and have been imported to the U.S. sporadically. They haven't gotten much attention here, but the ROC wagon's size will change that, Vanderloop predicts.

“This is the biggest wagon in the world,” he says. “There will be producers/contractors who won't accept it, but others will have to have it.”

He became interested in self-loading wagons in part because dairy producers are asking for longer chop lengths than are possible with conventional chopping.

“The forage harvester generally produces something around 1", and a lot of producers want it longer,” says Vanderloop.

That's one reason Jenks went this route, too.

“We were looking for a higher-quality end product, along with lower labor and maintenance costs — an all-around better alternative,” says Jenks.

He says chopping with self-loading wagons is quieter and less hectic, plus it reduces leaf loss. Wagon-chopped alfalfa's leaves remain attached to the stems, he says.

“We don't have the half-or quarter-inch pieces, or the dust. The particle size is more consistent, even though it's a longer product than what is traditional.”

Achieving a suitable chop length has been a problem. When Jenks went to Italy last fall to see ROC wagons work, owners there were getting consistent 2" chop lengths. But Italian alfalfa is fine-stemmed, and Jenks hasn't been able to do that well here.

The first alfalfa he chopped this spring was too long. He struggled to fix the problem, making adjustments to the wagons' knives and to his mower and rake.

“It wasn't as simple as changing one thing,” he reports. “It's a totally different process than what conventional harvesting is.”

He hasn't reached his 2" chop-length target, but may be close enough. Presently, about 75% of chopped material, by weight, is 2-3" long, and the rest is up to 8" long. Clients are reporting no TMR sorting problems, and like feeding the longer silage.

His labor costs have dropped dramatically, largely because truck drivers have been eliminated.

“Essentially we're doing the whole thing with five people where it took eight or nine before,” he says.

The only place where more labor is needed than before is the storage site. That's because long-chopped forage is more difficult to push and pack.

“It takes maybe 50% more time to achieve the pack that you achieve with a smaller particle size,” says Jenks.

Fuel savings can total several hundred dollars per day. On one job with a 21-mile haul, he compared this year's fuel cost with that of 2004, when he chopped conventionally. This year's cost was $4.50/ton lower.

Earlier this year, Jenks traded his two choppers for one new one, and will use it only for corn silage. That forage will be hauled in silage carts, also pulled by Fendt tractors.

He'll continue to harvest haylage exclusively with self-loading wagons, at least until he gets more feedback from dairy clients.

“This could be something that changes the way forage is put up for dairies in the U.S.,” he says. “One client told me he might be able to take dry hay out of the ration completely. But we need at least six months of feed through the cows to really see what's going to happen.”

To speed harvest when hauls are long, he may buy another self-loading wagon, or a conveyor to transfer forage to trucks. Vanderloop is weighing the possibility of offering such an attachment.

For more information, call ROC America at 920-989-1612, or log on to www.bigmower.com.