Ask a forage expert how to make harvesting equipment more productive and you'll usually get multiple suggestions. Ask several forage experts and you'll get a wish list of machinery features that could streamline harvest and better maintain crop quality.

Based on existing technologies and current harvesting trends, several concepts seem to float to the top of their innovative idea pool.

Move to maceration

They've been talked about for over a decade, and prototypes of this conditioning machine have made appearances at farm shows and field days over the years.

“But it's not as simple as just replacing your mower-conditioner with a macerator,” says Dennis Buckmaster, Purdue University ag engineer. “It requires a whole paradigm shift in how we make forage, which is a big reason why it hasn't been commercialized yet. But I think its time has come.”

He notes there has been a substantial amount of research that shows the concept produces real benefits, and many experts expect intensive conditioning to improve yield and quality of forages. “The shredding action creates more surface area, which allows for faster dry-down, better leaf retention and better digestibility by the animal.”

At least one machine is already on the market, as are conditioners with two sets of conditioning rolls. But none of them macerate to the extent that Buckmaster visualizes.

Reducing field traffic

Anything that could minimize trips across an alfalfa field would really add to productivity, says Dan Putnam, forage specialist at the University of California-Davis.

“Most growers here get between six and eight cuttings per year, with four trips for each harvest. That's 30 or more trips a year across an alfalfa field. And most swathers, rakes and balers all have different wheel configurations, which adds up to a lot of wheel traffic,” Putnam points out.

The estimated yield penalty for making two trips over a field five to six days after cutting can be as much as 30% on the areas that are driven over, he says.

“A GPS-controlled system could limit wheel traffic to the smallest area of the field possible, to reduce the impact on yield. The technology exists to do it. It's just a matter of putting all the right components together.”

GPS-assisted steering

The improved accuracies that existing assisted-steering systems provide tractor operators easily translate to forage harvest and handling, says Glenn Shewmaker, University of Idaho extension forage specialist. (See “Autosteer Advice,” page 13.)

More custom harvesters and growers are using autosteer. “The system helps even less-experienced operators mow in a straight line so no crop is missed, and it should keep tires off windrows. Plus these systems help reduce fatigue and allow the operator to be watching more than just the edge of the cut,” says Shewmaker.

Tracking bale yield, quality

A baler-mounted system that could use near-infrared spectroscopy to scan each bale, take quality readings, then grade and label every bale is a tool Shewmaker thinks is not that far off.

“This type of system could even be connected to GPS to record the grade of each individual bale across the whole field. That could speed sorting.

“One of the biggest challenges would probably be keeping the scanner clean enough to get good readings, but the solution might be as simple as blowing a puff of compressed air across the scanner just before it scans a bale,” he says.

Yields can also be monitored, says Putnam. “Several growers in our region have tried yield monitors, which assist in making management decisions.”

Accurate, on-the-go moisture monitor

Making sure that hay is dry enough before baling is a constant challenge for growers in more humid climates. An accurate moisture monitor that could check readings on the baler would allow the operator to see when hay moistures increase and know to stop baling, says University of Tennessee extension forage specialist Gary Bates.

“We have problems with barn fires in our part of the country caused by spontaneous combustion. That's usually due to putting up hay that's too wet,” he notes. “There are moisture monitors available, but there's nothing yet that can consistently measure moisture on the go. That would be a great convenience and could also help eliminate a lot of hay fires.”