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Twenty-first-century combines

If It has been awhile since you've upgraded to a more efficient combine, this may be the year you decide to buy. Farm equipment manufacturers have ushered in a new era of combine technologies in the last few years that have really pushed the limits of efficiency.

For proof just check Guinness World Records. The record for harvesting was broken three times in 2008 and now stands at 20,000 bu. in 8 hrs. The previous record of 13,000 bu. had stood for nearly two decades.

So what is happening in the world of combines that is making these machines so productive?

For answers we looked to AE50, an awards program sponsored by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). The program recognizes the top 50 innovations introduced to the farm machinery market each year. Jim Dooley, ASABE president and design engineer with Forest Concepts, follows the activities of the society's 9,000-plus members.

“Practically every OEM is being represented this year in the combine arena for some innovation,” Dooley says. “Even though we're in tough economic times, folks are still investing in innovation.”

Dooley says three areas of innovation stood out for him in the AE50 award winners for 2009. “The big one for me was the increased use of sensors and automation to improve grain quality, yield and guidance,” Dooley says. “The precision farming concepts that have been used for years for planting and tending are now being applied to harvesting.”

Another area, he says, was the energy, environmental and performance improvements being made. “Third for me this year is that we are starting to see bioenergy feedstock collection get integrated into combines,” Dooley says.

Here's a look at just a few of the innovations that are changing combines. Some are available as add-ons, so if you can't afford to buy a new combine, you can at least update your old one to take advantage of the technologies.

  1. Guidance

    Vehicle guidance systems are going beyond the use of satellite signals to guide steering. Data from mechanical sensors or “row feelers” placed on combine heads are being used as either a lower-cost alternative or backup to GPS to guide the machine. One of the newest examples is John Deere's AutoTrac RowSense Automatic Guidance. GPS data from satellite receivers are combined with data from a pair of mechanical row sensors located on the corn head to provide continuous guidance accuracy regardless of field or atmospheric conditions.

    For more information about new John Deere products, contact the company at 866/993-3373 or

    The first row-sensing system, called Auto-Pilot from Claas, is used on Lexion corn heads. Like Deere's RowSense, it uses existing cornstalks to guide the combine through the field. However, the steering sensors do not require the combine to be equipped with a GPS receiver, which keeps the overall cost of the system and its complexity low, the company claims.

    For more information about Claas products, contact Claas of America at 402/861-1000 or

    Although not used on row-crop combines yet, laser guidance is another technology that can be used to guide machines. A laser beam from the left side of the cab roof scans the crop to distinguish between cut and uncut crop based on crop height. The information is fed to an electronic controller to steer the combine. Examples of this include the CAM Pilot Guidance System available on Claas Jaguar forage harvesters and SmartSteer Edge Guidance available on New Holland's CX combines in Europe. “This is a more economical version of auto guidance, so there is future opportunity here for wheat and soybean growers,” says New Holland combine specialist Ed Barry.

    For more information about all New Holland products, visit

  2. Monitors

    Remember when combine yield monitors revolutionized grain harvest in the '90s? Now advances in electronics are enabling combines to monitor far more than just yield and moisture content. The new monitors let you track the quality of the grain, too, while enabling you to monitor machinery status and adjust on the fly how your combine is set.

    The Claas Electronic on-Board Information System (CEBIS) is an example of a multifunction monitor. “The system sits next to the operator and basically functions as the main control center for fine-tuning the combine and tracking its performance,” explains Claas product specialist Jeff Gray. The monitor also displays crop information from the Quantimeter Optical sensing system, which uses two photo sensors to measure the volume and quality of the crop.

    “The hunger for more information about how the machine is performing and what gains operators can see continues to play a large role in developing the electronics of the combine,” Gray says. “As producers get larger and more conscious of costs, it is going to become even more important to know their efficiency gains.”

    New Holland's Ed Barry agrees: “This is the future of an automatic combine. We all have the sensors today that can tell us about rotor loss, tailings loss and shoe loss, for example. Now it is important to know what is happening with the kernels.”

    New Holland's Grain Cam, a system currently available in Europe, has a sensor that records broken grain and material other than grain continuously, online, during threshing in the machine. Operators can adjust the combine settings based on what they see to reduce grain loss and boost grain quality. “It actually takes a photograph of the crop as it goes through the clean grain elevator,” Barry says. “The operator can look on his monitor to see if any cracked kernels are going into the elevator and then make adjustments on the fly to either the rotor speed or concave setting.”

  3. Headers

    Up until the past five to 10 years, header choice was largely determined by crop. In the Midwest, that meant grain heads, corn heads and bean heads. But headers today are a lot more specialized. Examples include draper headers, chopping corn heads and specialty crop headers. Two that won an AE50 award this year were John Deere's 600D series Draper and New Holland's model 750HD Specialty Disc Header.

    Headers also are getting wider to increase harvesting capacities. “We are not just talking about headers that are 35 and 40 ft. wide anymore, but as wide as 45 ft.,” says Kevin Bien, AGCO combine product manager. “And [this fall] we will also introduce a new residue management system to accommodate a new flex draper header product offering up to 40 ft.”

    For more information about new AGCO products, visit

  4. Header height control

    Although this technology has been available since the mid 1980s, it's becoming an important new topic as manufacturers look at ways to expand it. One suggestion is to use the feature to cut only the upper ear portion of the crop, leaving the stalk standing so it may be harvested for cellulosic ethanol production. The header could be raised as high as 3 to 6 ft. for this purpose.

  5. Engines

    Combines are increasing in horsepower to handle higher crop yields and the corresponding combine capacity requirements. Up until last year, Claas was the only company to offer in North America a Class 9 combine, the largest class size, rated at 462 hp. Now two other companies, Case IH and New Holland, offer a Class 9 combine that's rated even higher, at 483 hp. The world's largest model, New Holland's CR 9090 Elevation Combine, is rated at 591 hp. This is the combine that set the world record in harvesting.

  6. Two-auger unloading

    AGCO's approach to getting more efficiency was to redesign the unloading system of its combines. It borrowed an even bigger bin size and unique two-auger design from its transverse Gleaner combine and put the system on its axial machines. So now all of its brands — Gleaner, Challenger and Massey Ferguson — share a similar concept for 2009.

    The new unloading system incorporates a large, 12-in. cross auger, which carries the grain to the Direct Flow unloading auger, allowing for an average unloading rate of 4 bu./sec., which is the fastest in the industry. “Other unloading systems use three augers to transfer the crop from the grain bin to the wagon,” says AGCO's Bien. He says eliminating the extra auger reduces horsepower requirements and wear. Fewer kernels are cracked in the two-auger system than in a conventional, three-auger, turret-type system, because the grain goes through fewer transition points, Bien adds.

  7. Feed-rate control

    Also being introduced is new header drive technology that automatically adjusts a combine's travel speed based on crop load to allow the operator to maintain the maximum harvesting speed. “This will be like cruise control on a combine,” explains New Holland's Ed Barry. New Holland currently offers such a system, called IntelliCruise, on its CX combines sold in Europe.

    Case IH offers continuously variable transmission (CVT) feeder/header drives on its 20 series combines. The header drive incorporates automatic header speed to ground speed control for use with corn heads. “This system gives the operator more capacity and greater grain savings when ground speed changes as yields and crop conditions vary,” explains Sam Acker, director of harvesting marketing for Case IH.

    For more information about new Case products, visit

    John Deere's header drive, called the ProDrive ground-drive propulsion system, uses an automatic powershift transmission to shift between gears. ProDrive integrates with Deere's HarvestSmart, an automatic feed rate system that allows the combine to automatically adjust its feeding capacity.

  8. Self-leveling cleaning shoes

    The latest self-leveling cleaning shoes are larger, more automated and more responsive to changes in ground slope to save more grain in rolling terrain. Deere won an AE50 award for the self-leveling cleaning shoe on its new 9870 combine. Four individual bays automatically adjust their tilt (compensating for a slope of up to 80°) based on the movement of the combine, according to Steve Sporach, John Deere combine specialist. Each bay is fully automatic and can be monitored on an in-cab display.

  9. Tracks

    Claas's Lexion used to be the only combine with a track option. But for model year '09, Case IH introduced a track option on its 20 series combines. The tracks are borrowed from Case IH QuadTrac tractors but have a different undercarriage designed to fit a combine chassis.

  10. Biomass balers

    Although not available in the states just yet, manufacturers are working on kits that can connect a conventional baler to a conventional combine so growers can bale corn residue at the same time they harvest corn. The residue can be used for the production of cellulosic ethanol. An example of this is Glenvar's Bale Direct System (BDS) made in Australia. Comparisons have shown that an extra 30% of residue is collected compared to baling as a separate operation, according to ASABE's Resource magazine.

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