The equipment used to harvest corn and soybeans has changed a lot since my childhood days of riding along in the combine with my Dad for hours on end. And I’m not only talking about the low-tech, 150-bushel, six-row combine compared to the eight-row, 320-bushel combine with mapping technology, a real-time yield monitor, and surround-sound stereo system that my brother runs today. How farmers haul grain in and from the the field has changed just as much and played a significant role in improving harvest speed.
Thirty years ago, three pieces of equipment were commonplace in fields during harvest. A combine, a gravity flow wagon or two, and a tractor to pull the wagons. When the combine hopper was full, the farmer would drive the combine to the end of the field, wait for the corn to unload, and then drive back across the field to continue picking corn. While this worked well, the combine operator could spend just as much time driving to and from the wagon and unloading as they did picking corn. If ground was dry, the wagons could be parked at the end field, relatively close to where the combine was working in the field at the time. But if the field was wet, they would have to be parked in a dry spot close to the field driveway or even on the road. Pulling a stuck wagon full of corn out of the mud never ends well, so it is best to play it safe.
While some grain farmers still use gravity flow wagons today, most do not usually unload the combine directly into wagons. Instead they use a grain cart, also called an augur cart, to bring the corn from the combine to the wagon or truck at the end of the field. Grain carts have large, flotation tires or tracks, which enable them to be easily pulled nearly anywhere in the field – even in muddy conditions. A grain cart can increase harvest efficiency by more than 25 percent because they enable the combine to keep picking corn almost non-stop.
The big benefit of using a grain cart is the ability to unload the corn from the combine’s hopper into the grain cart while the combine continues to pick corn. The person driving the tractor pulling the grain cart carefully pulls up next to the combine and drives the same speed as the combine. Once their speed is matched, the combine driver pushes a button to begin unloading corn. They both continue to drive and in about two minutes the combine hopper is empty. The grain cart operator pulls away from the combine and the combine continues to harvest corn solo until the hopper almost full again. After a few loads the grain cart operator drives to the end of the field and unloads it into a semi-truck or wagons.
Efficiently running the tractor and grain cart takes skill and is a fast-paced job. The cart operator is always doing something – getting grain, driving to and from the truck, or unloading grain. The operator needs to be able to think ahead and anticipate when and where they need to be. When heading across the field, they should drive to where the combine will be, not where it is now. Their goal is to keep the combine running non-stop.
A 450-bushel grain cart was the first big purchase my brother when he began farming with my dad in 1994. Today he owns a 1,000-bushel grain cart that will fill my dad’s semi-truck trailer in one load. My brother runs the combine, his wife operates the tractor and grain cart, and my dad drives the truck to haul the grain from the field to where they are storing or selling the grain. While my brother technically harvests all of the family’s corn, it takes the whole team to keep the operation running.