Rathell’s watched combine evolution boost yield returns

Staff Writer

SKIPTON, Md. (March 24, 2015) — The story of the rotary combine over the last 40 years mirrors, in some ways, the story of the American agricultural community.
“There’s fewer farmers, bigger farms,” said Jeff Rathell, owner of Rathell Farm Equipment, inside his dealership off U.S. Route 50 last week. “Everything’s gone larger.”
He said he doesn’t sell as many as he did when New Holland released the first Twin Rotor combine in 1975.
But the machines he sells now are more complicated, digitized and precise and can set a farm back half a million dollars just to start.
“When it first started, you were in a cab with (just) air conditioning and not too much technology,” Rathell said.
When the Sperry-New Holland company first released the combine, it was praised as a leap forward in grain threshing technology, using a centrifugal system to separate grain while improving the machine’s speed and efficiency.
Soon many farm equipment manufacturers, including John Deere and Case IH, followed with their own rotary combine designs and across the industry the technology has only increases.
Now, smaller farmers — those working fields 750 acres or fewer — can’t likely justify the purchase of a new combine.
The ones who can are more likely to buy eight- to 16-row heads, and yields are sky-high, said David Studley, the store’s sales manager.
“Corn’s gone from 100 bushels to 200 bushels, and now we’re banging on the door of 300 an acre,” he said.
In four decades, the combine’s horsepower has increased, its capacity has increased and it adopted a self-leveling cleaning system.
They feature a floating head system that uses sensors to cut a uniform stubble height and manage the varied contours of an uneven field.
When harvesting corn, combine operators are able to adjust deck plates electronically from inside the cub to account for different stalk and cob sizes.
It even uses acoustic sensors to “listen” for dangerous stones before they break the combine head.
Not to mention cleaner, more efficient engines, rubber track systems that move faster than traditional wheels and cabs that place a premium on quietude.
“It’s almost like you’re stepping into an office when you get in that machine,” Rathell said.
Technological change and improvement like that doesn’t come without a cost, however.
Asked what became of the type of farmer who purchased a leading model rotary combine, Rathell said: “He’s either grown in size or he’s not there anymore.”