The author is a managing partner in Elite Ag LLC, Leesburg, Ga. He also is active in the family farm in Rutledge.

In the fast-paced world of farming, it can be a real challenge to keep up with current technology and all of the new and improved equipment in the marketplace. In matters of new iron, it’s important to ask, “Will this new piece of equipment actually benefit my operation?” or maybe, more importantly, “Can it make me more efficient and save time without sacrificing the quality of the product being produced?”

One relatively “new” product that is just starting to gain a little traction in some areas of the U.S. is the self-loading forage wagon. A few manufacturers have been producing these machines for over 50 years, and they have been commonly used in other countries. In Canada, self-loading forage wagons are routinely seen around most of their predominant dairy areas. It was always curious to me as to why these machines weren’t more popular in the U.S. during previous years.

Fits smaller operations

I think that it may have a little to do with our American mentality dealing with horsepower and larger machines covering more acres in less time. We all love, including myself, raw horsepower, especially when it comes to forage harvesters! In today’s world of tighter margins and higher machinery costs, I truly believe that these wagons may have a place in the equipment shed on many dairies.

There are lots of dairies and custom harvesters who struggle with the later cuttings of grass each year. For the owner, the low tonnage being produced is probably costing a little more than
his/her average cost per ton for that year. Similarly, the custom cutter isn’t producing the tons per hour he needs to turn a profit. Both are stuck, as the dairy needs the field harvested to bolster forage supplies and maintain a cutting schedule; the harvester needs to chop these fields to keep his customer from shopping elsewhere until corn season rolls around when greater profit margins are possible.

In terms of cost per acre or cost per ton with grass, alfalfa, or cereals, the self-loading wagon may offer some advantages, especially for the smaller operations. These self-loading wagons have come a long way, and some manufacturers say they can rival the production of small self-propelled harvesters.

There are only a couple of manufacturers currently stocking and marketing self-loading wagons in the United States. The units vary in terms of price, options, and capacity. Most of the larger wagons offer an onboard knife sharpening system with scales and are ISOBUS compatible with your new model tractors. Prices can range from $50,000 to $200,000, so there is a new unit in just about everyone’s price range with horsepower requirements ranging from 50 to over 300.

Reduced labor requirement

Load capacities range from 800 to nearly 4,000 cubic feet, and most have high-speed road travel undercarriages. The simplicity in their design makes them easy for less experienced operators to maintain and put up high-quality feed. One person, one tractor, and one wagon can do the work of a forage harvester and up to four trucks. Labor can be cut by 50 percent, not to mention the timely harvesting and, therefore, higher quality of the crop.

There are some custom operators who own these wagons to capitalize on their efficiency during certain lower-yielding cuttings each year. The wagons can easily be adapted to the current trend of longer chop length. They have a simple pickup and rotor design and are equipped with a floor chain, which enables the wagon to double as a silage-hauling wagon during corn season. The chop quality and quantity will rival most forage harvesters and the tons per hour will be impressive, but I think more importantly it will put a lot less strain on your wallet.

This winter, while you’re snowed in and surfing the web, take some time to check out these wagons; try to keep an open mind and a sharp pencil. I think that you may be surprised. They are definitely not for everyone, but for some they could provide a reasonable, cost-effective forage-harvesting alternative.

This article appeared in the February 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 32.

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