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Vermeer unveils first-of-its-kind self-propelled baler prototype

Slideshow: ZR5 is built with zero-turn steering for easy maneuverability and a hydrostatic transmission to adjust to various field conditions.

NOTE: In addition to the gallery, we have a video at the end showing new Vermeer ZR5 prototype in action.

Back in the early 1970s, Gary Vermeer designed his first round baler — then called the "One Man Hay System" — to help meet the needs of farmers struggling to find adequate labor. That challenge isn't going away anytime soon.

At Husker Harvest Days, Vermeer unveiled a first-of-its-kind, self-propelled round baler prototype. The prototype, called the ZR5, was borne from discussions surrounding a lack of available labor in the ag world, and the demand for a baling setup that could maneuver in tight corners and adapt to varying crop conditions, notes Mark Core, executive vice president and CMO at Vermeer.

"Several years ago we put together a team of engineers entirely focused on bringing innovations to the market that don't exist today," says Core. "As we think about identifying a problem, these things came up and we said, 'Let's do something about it.'"

Built for comfort, flexibility

Since this prototype is the first of its kind, one question producers may be asking is: What does a self-propelled baler look like? In August, hay producers from different parts of the U.S. got an early look at the machine. The current prototype is the third since Vermeer first began designing the ZR5 a couple years ago, and some features may change moving forward.

Designed for unimpeded visibility, the cab is mounted toward the front of the machine in front of the baling unit. The cab is also mounted on top of the suspension for a smoother ride to help reduce operator fatigue.

To further minimize fatigue, a camera is mounted on the undercarriage to watch hay as it enters the pickup. A second camera mounted on the back of the cab monitors the bale leaving the tailgate. This way, operators can comfortably watch hay as it enters and leaves the baler on a display in front of them.

"By doing that, the operator spends his time looking ahead, no longer turning his body around and no longer getting the fatigue he would in a baler-tractor setup," says Josh Vrieze, product manager of forage solutions at Vermeer.

What if you want to replace the baling unit? Because the machine itself will likely outlive the baling unit, the ZR5 is designed so that operator can detach the baler by unhooking a series of quick connect hoses and an electric wiring harness — similar to detaching a corn header or draper header — and push a button in the cab. The process typically takes a few minutes.

If the caster-style front wheels on this machine look familiar, it's because they were inspired by zero-turn lawn mowers. Although it's controlled using a steering wheel, rather than two joysticks, one of the key features that went into the ZR5's design is its zero-degree turn capabilities.

"The front wheels are casters and rear wheels are hydraulically driven independently, and that's actually what does the steering," explains Kent Thompson, research and development manager of forage solutions at Vermeer. "It allows you to do a lot of things maneuverability-wise, much like a zero-turn lawnmower."

The ZR5 makes full use of its zero-degree handling with its quarter-turn function. Using this feature, the baler stops automatically once the chamber is full and rotates to a pre-set angle to drop the bale. The operator can adjust settings on the cab's monitor to change the angle so it lines up with other bales in the field, or adjust the angle based on the slope of the hill so the bale doesn't roll away. The angle can also be adjusted on the fly. Once the tailgate closes, the baler turns parallel to the windrow once again. All operators have to do is hit the green "go" button on cab's joystick control, and they're off and running again.

"You can rotate the baler 90 degrees so your bales are in-line, so when you go to pick up those bales on the next pass, it's a significant savings — up to 30% to 35% savings in time," says Thompson.

A challenge with casters is they can be difficult to maneuver at higher speeds. The ZR5 can be switched between "transport mode" and "field steer" with the flick of a switch in the cab. In field steer mode, the operator can maneuver with ease in zero-turn, using the steering wheel to control the rear wheels. In transportation mode, the front casters lock in place with a tie rod; the operator now controls the front wheels and can confidently drive down the road at speeds up to 30 mph.

The prototype is powered by a 173-hp Cummins engine, and both the base unit and baling unit use a hydrostatic transmission, allowing continuously variable shifting. This makes it easier to adjust rpm, pickup speed and ground speed independently, and adapt to varying field conditions on the fly.

Next stages of development

Of course, the current prototype may change between now and its official launch.

Vermeer plans to work with customers on finalizing the ZR5 over the course of 2018, and hopes to have the baler commercially available sometime in 2019.

While the machine is suited to anyone looking to reduce operating time, Jessica Reis, brand marketing manager at Vermeer, says it will be particularly useful for forage producers in the Great Plains and Midwest, who produce 5,000 or more bales a year. "If you're putting up 5,000-plus bales a year, you're likely running at least two balers," says Reis. "We feel the Midwest and the Great Plains specifically have a lot of opportunities for this type of machine."

"We think not only can we bring a self-propelled baler that's zero-turn to the marketplace, but we can put some magic inside of that machine to take a big step forward for all the hay harvesters out there that are doing all they can to be productive and profitable and to be able to help feed the world," says Core.

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