Going wider to increase work rates

The potato industry has been locked into a two-row system for years but now there are moves afoot to head into wider territory – three rows and more. Andy Collings discovers one grower who believes the advantages outweigh the costs.

Reduced wheelings and soil compaction, higher work rates and reduced crop damage. For potato growers these would appear to be desirable features, and the way to achieve them is to move onto a wider bed system.

But life is not as easy as that. A wider bed or three-row system requires a suitable planter, ridger, de-stoner and not least a suitable harvester – no small investment for any potato grower looking to change from a two-row system.

Be that as it may, for Jason Ambrose, who manages the 2,000 acre of Piper main crop potatoes grown each year by Ely-based Laneguard, the advantages three-row working would give him are not to be ignored.

“I really believe a three-row system has so much to offer,” he said. “Apart from speeding up jobs such as ridging, de-stoning and harvesting, machinery inflicted damage to the tubers would also be reduced.”

Last year, Mr Ambrose tried out Standen Engineering’s new Standen-Pearson T3 trailed harvester which, as its designation would suggest, can harvest three rows. The tractor wheels straddle two rows at 72 inches and the third row is taken from the left or right bed by offsetting the harvester.

For those who work in beds, the T3 would allow 108in beds to be worked – most tractor wheels can be set to this width.

“It worked very well,” he said. “We put a Fendt 716 on the front of it and it travelled at the same speed as our two-row harvesters while doing a third more work. I think if we put the topper on the front of the tractor we shall need extra horsepower – probably over 200hp.”

He said the extra soil lifted by the three-row harvester also assisted with the prevention of damage to the tubers – an important detail when the emphasis is on providing potatoes for the pre-pack market.

For planting, Mr Ambrose believes that a three-row machine is the best option to work with the harvester – a six or even a nine-row planter is too bulky on the headlands and, if conditions are difficult, it can be a struggle to pull it.

One of the more difficult areas to handle at wider widths is the de-stoning operation, which needs to be able to place stones and clods out of the lifting area.

“On this land, we tend to de-stone about a quarter of it so we can use our two-row harvesters in these areas, but I understand Standen is bringing out a three-row de-stoner next year, which we shall be pretty interested in trying out,” he said.

For the topping, Standen has a machine which can be shifted to the left or to the right to work in unison with the T3 harvester, which is also moved to an offset position for the third row.

“We have ordered a T3 harvester for this year and it will work alongside our other two-row machines,” he said.

“It’s a bit of a transition year for us – from two to three-row operations – but I am convinced we are on the right route. We have just six weeks to lift over 2,000 acres, and we tend to work around the clock doing it.

“If all goes well, I would like to run the T3 behind a tractor on 108in wheel spacing to prevent having that wheel mark between the second and third rows we are lifting. This will also avoid having to use the offset system.”

Grimme says it is also keeping a watching eye on developments and possible demands for wider bed working.

According to sales manager Barry Baker, he has not noticed any undue demand from customers looking to change over to wider beds.

“If they should wish to, I feel we already have the equipment available to allow them to do so,” he said. “We have a three-row bed former and these beds can be de-stoned conventionally before using our four-row planter – the stones are dropped left and right.”

Grimme also has a four-row self-propelled harvester Mr Baker said that by using multiples of existing row systems, the flexibility of the system is retained in that it was always possible to revert to a two-row harvesting system should conditions dictate as such.

Even so, the advantages of shifting to a wider bed system are not lost on him.

“If it is possible to reduce tuber damage, increase work rates and limit soil compaction, then it has to be the way forward,” he said.

“Whether or not the industry is prepared to pay for these advantages remains to be seen.”

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