EDITOR’S NOTE: Organizers of the first Chopper Challenge competition worked hard to set up a contest that accurately compared operating efficiency among the four self-propelled forage harvester brands. Due to difficulties in securing comparable machines, variations in length of cut and other factors, the results may not accurately reflect the machines’ performance rankings. That’s why they’re not included with the story. A full report on the event, including results, can be found at tinyurl.com/6zgkgbl.

A report on a similar event, held in New York State last summer, is at tinyurl.com/4nmcfwx.

A forage harvester’s operating efficiency is largely determined by its length of cut, says Brian Marsh, University of California farm advisor in Kern County.

That’s the main thing he learned from a self-propelled chopper competition held near Bakersfield, CA, last July. The four self-propelled harvester brands – Claas, John Deere, Krone and New Holland – competed in a Chopper Challenge, the first of what is expected to be an ongoing series of similar events held throughout the country.

In an 80-acre cornfield, four choppers ranging from 800 to 860 engine horsepower squared off for top honors in tons chopped per hour, per horsepower and per gallon of fuel, then silage samples were sent to a lab for quality analysis.

The idea came from custom harvesters Jon Orr, Apple Creek, OH, and Dan Lamb, Bakersfield, who first discussed it while traveling together in 2007. Orr says forage harvester competitions can benefit chopper manufacturers as well as custom harvesters and their clients.

“There is no Nebraska Tractor Test for forage harvesters, so maybe this is the onset of that,” he says. “The ultimate goal is to get better forage harvesters.”

Lamb organized last year’s event. He lined up the choppers and the drivers, each with at least 1,000 hours of the experience with the model he would be operating, and provided the fuel and trucks. The four manufacturers also made contributions and U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc., paid for the forage tests. Marsh agreed to run the contest, collect forage samples and analyze the data.

“I designed it as an experiment; everything was replicated,” Marsh says. “We tried to make everything as uniform as we possibly could with the things we could adjust.”

“We did everything we could to try to make it as accurate as possible and as fair as possible for each machine,” Lamb adds.

But running a fair contest involving big forage harvesters is very difficult. Originally, Lamb wanted to avoid manufacturer involvement, because they can tune their machines to make them overperform for short periods, he says. But, unable to line up comparable models from area owners, he ended up getting two machines from dealers. Those choppers were new while the other two were fully broken-in models, one of which had an engine fuel-line problem.

Lamb and Marsh carefully adjusted each machine for a 17-mm cut length.

“We actually cut feed with the machines and made sure all the machines visually were cutting the same length instead of what the computers were telling us,” Lamb reports.

But lengths varied among choppers during the contest, and one operator adjusted the cut length during the day. That chopper ended up with the shortest silage and the least amount chopped, while the one that chopped the most silage per hour and per gallon of fuel had the longest cut length. It also had the highest corn silage processing score, but its processor wasn’t the one that came with it.

“We didn’t explain to the drivers well enough exactly what we wanted in cut length or identify changes in cut length during the day,” Marsh says. “Because there were differences in cut length between the machines, we didn’t have an accurate comparison.”

If the event is repeated in 2011, Marsh will be willing to participate again, but he’ll have more people on hand to make sure chop lengths and other parameters remain constant.

“I didn’t have enough help doing all the sampling during the day that in hindsight I would have liked to have done,” he says.

It’s definitely going to happen again this year, says Lamb.

“I have talked to all the manufacturers, and they’re willing to bring machines in this year and do a repeat with total apples-to-apples consideration,” he says. “We’re planning on using all brand-new machines, and we’re planning on having them in the field a day ahead so if they do have engine problems … they can get those worked out and have those machines up to full horsepower.”

Newer, higher-horsepower choppers will be included, he adds.

Orr hopes several such contests will eventually be held at different locations and that a protocol will be developed and used at each event.

“We might have five or 10 of them done a year throughout the U.S.,” he says. “Then we can get data that can maybe direct our manufacturers to things that will help them achieve a better final product. Tonnage and fuel efficiency are important to me; quality of the cut is what’s important to the dairyman, and that needs to be the No. 1 priority in manufacturing these machines.

“Right now the manufacturers are kind of leading us in the direction they feel we need to go,” he adds. “It would be nice to see the customer lead the manufacturer more than the other way around.”

He says future contests likely will always be done in cornfields because of the need for consistent windrows in haylage crops.

“There are inherent design differences in the machines that are going to let one machine do better in grass than another, but the lumps and clumps can get any one of them,” he says.

While the first challenge wasn’t as fair a comparison as Marsh would have liked, he used the data he gathered to develop a set of graphs that custom harvesters can use to compare cut length and chopping efficiency.

“If a grower wants a 16-mm cut, you could calculate approximately how much longer it’s going to take or how much more fuel will be needed to do that,” says Marsh. “And you may be able to adjust rates.”
The graphs are part of his report, posted at http://tinyurl.com/6zgkgbl.