Unique Agriculture Commodities: Plot Harvester

Last week I was driving in Ames near Iowa State University. As I drove by the outskirts of the campus, there were pieces of land broken into small sections. Each section had a crop growing, some were covered with nets, others had small signs in front of them, while some had been roped off from the other sections. These sections of land are known as “test plots.” As a scientist myself, these plots are always fascinating as they give you a glimpse into the future technology of agriculture.  

Every year scientists, agriculturalists, and researchers are working to develop new technology to improve yields. These improvements are necessary to reduce agricultural impacts on the environment, and to keep up with the world’s growing needs of food, fiber, and fuel. But, before new seed, fungicide, pesticide, and herbicide varieties become commercial products farmers can purchase (check out our blog A Day in the Life of a Seed Dealer), they must be tested and verified. Test plots can be found all around the world as researchers investigate the effectiveness of a new product (e.g., seed variety, fungicide, pesticide, herbicide, etc.), or if a product can work in a new location. Each research question is specific, but every researcher has a goal of collecting data. The type of data collected is based on the research question. For example, if a research team is investigating a new seed variety, they might collect data on drought tolerance, wind resistance, pest and fungal resistance, and yield. While a research team that investigates a fungicide might gather data on yield, moisture, infection rate, and seed weight. Gathering this data is critical to the success of future technology that can be available to growers, because if the product doesn’t do well, it will not be approved for distribution. 

Collecting Data

Some of the data researchers gather can be done using simple tools like a ruler, scale, or image chart. Other data may need to be collected using complex tools that can measure fat (lipid) amounts or moisture levels within a single sample. Though data can be collected at any time during the growing season, many researchers collect at harvest, and test plot harvest requires specialized machines. Research scientists want to eliminate as much human error as possible. One way they can do this is by using customized equipment that is tailored to their specific research needs. Engineers, mechanics, and technicians work with a team to develop machinery to be used in these plots to gather data and to maneuver in a smaller area. 

Harvesting a Test Plot

In the fall, crops are harvested using a combine. This machine helps to remove the seed (e.g., corn, soybean, etc.) from the plant material to then be sold to make other products like corn syrup or feed for livestock. The combine is a menagerie of simple tools. For example, when harvesting corn the combine will cut the stalk, remove the ear, husk the ear, and shell the corn off the cob. Depending on what is being harvested the head (or front) of the combine can be changed to fit the crop harvest needs. Commercial, or large scale, combines today can harvest up to 32 rows (~42 feet) at a time.  

Commercial combine

Just like a commercial combine, plot harvesters include the same basic parts. When harvesting corn they will cut the stalk, remove the ear, husk the ear, and shell the corn off the cob. Their heads can be interchanged to fit the crop that is being harvested. Unlike a conventional combine, plot harvesters are much smaller. Test plots are broken into small pieces of land rather than large acres in one field. This requires a smaller combine that harvests on average four rows at a time. When harvesting a test plot, they are gathering samples and data along the way. To do this, plot harvesters have more tools than a commercial combine. The tools increase efficiency while also reducing human error (a big positive for research!). Many of them will have built-in moisture readers, seed scales, seed samplers, external seats for a sample bagger, and automatic bagging systems to collect and package seed samples. Once harvested, the test plot seeds are sent back to the lab for detailed analysis to help the research team with their investigation. 

Plot Machines in Iowa

A thresher, a harvest machine, that separates seed from the plant.

There are several companies that engineer and design agricultural machinery to be used in test plots, and you don’t have to travel too far in Iowa to find one. ALMACO is in the heart of the Midwest, and the current town I live in, Nevada, Iowa. The first time I drove by ALMACO I was perplexed not only by how to say their name (it’s “al-may-co” if you’re wondering) but by the machines I saw.  

As you peak through the large garage door that faces 2nd Street, you’ll see an iconic blue, and in the summer, what looks like a miniature combine. The combine structure is narrow, and the heads are small and vary based on the crop to be harvested. ALMACO’s harvesting equipment has been engineered to be used in fields of wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and more. One of their most recent harvesters, the R2 Twin-Plot Rotary Harvester, has a dual head and chamber allowing it to harvest two plots at the same time. From within the cab researchers (sometimes a graduate student or intern) can monitor yield, moisture, and the equipment can even be engineered to take samples of the seed automatically. These technological advancements can reduce harvest time and increase time researchers spend in the lab gathering more data and analyzing that data. 

ALMACO planter

In the spring you might catch a glimpse of an ALMACO planter with large magazine cartridges filled with seed. The planter utilizes some basic technology that would be in a commercial planter, but also includes specific technology based on the research team’s needs. For example, if the team is investigating seed varieties, the equipment might have variable rate planting depth and specific chambers for each seed type (like the magazine cartridges). Or, if the research team wants to test fertilizer it might have separate tanks that contain each variety. Researchers and technicians can then program the planter to know what seed or fertilizer should be planted at any given spot in the test field. These technological changes increase efficiency and safety for researchers, reduce the risk of contamination, and reduce human error (again, a big plus for research!).  

Each of these machines have been designed, engineered, and manufactured to aid in the advancement of agriculture technology. With the equipment being custom built, researchers and manufacturers (like ALMACO) have the flexibility to tailor equipment to researcher questions and needs. Together they work to reduce agricultural impacts on the environment, and to keep up with the world’s growing needs of food, fiber, and fuel. 

My Takeaways

  • Seeds, fungicide, pesticide, and herbicides all need to be tested before entering the commercial market. 
  • Research teams are always innovating new technology to improve food, fuel, and fiber, while also being sustainable. 
  • Test plots require specific harvest and planting machines. 
  • ALMACO designs, engineers, and manufactures custom equipment based on the needs of the research group. 
  • There are many career opportunities within the development side of agriculture.  

~Cathryn

Want to Learn More

Education Resources

**I wanted to take a moment to thank ALMACO for providing images and videos for this blog.  

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