Agricultural engineering and farming – the Horsch family manages two farms in the Czech Republic – a total of 6,000 hectare – in a future-oriented way. And due to their constant striving for increasing efficiency they do not hesitate to break completely new ground. terraHORSCH talked to Michael Horsch.
“Bombastic“, “awesome“, “gigantic“ – when Michael Horsch talks about the harvest 2013 on the farm AgroVation in the Czech Republic, he gets enthusiastic - although the conditions were anything but good. After weeks of extreme heat on one day at the end of July it rained 80 millimeters in only 10 minutes. In addition, there was a strong wind with gusts of hurricane and 80 per cent of the rape, wheat and partially the maize population was down. Two reasons prevented the harvest from becoming a mudbath: Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) and the consistent use of caterpillar systems. One could not wish for better conditions for CTF!
terraHORSCH: Mister Horsch, how is the progress of the conversion to CTF?
Michael Horsch: Conversion is the wrong word. AgroVation is set to CTF. Unfortunately, we have not yet managed to implement 100 per cent of the system as the fields were in an extremely bad condition when we took them over one year ago and these extremely uneven, very compacted fields first had to be sorted: trees and hedges had not been cut out, drains were clogged and there are a lot of waterholes.
terraHORSCH: And still in your opinion CTF was the essential factor for a successful harvest 2013?
Michael Horsch: Definitely. But there also were other factors: First of all our general manager Christoph Foth had a knack with regard to population management, second we consistently rely on caterpillar systems and third we exclusively work with a track width of 3m with a cutting width of 12m.
terraHORSCH: Please tell us about the harvest.
Michael Horsch: For three weeks I myself have been on site most of the time. To begin with rape harvest was very difficult because of the extremely wet soil. We worked with two own Claas Lexion 780 combines. On one of those combines Claas extended the unloading auger to 12m as a test. Thus, the auger waggon could drive exactly on a 12m track. We knew right from the start that the pipe would stick out quite considerably at the rear and that the cutting unit would have to be transported separately. Moreover, the drivers had to be very careful when turning. But it worked very well. We ourselves mounted an extension on the second combine that folds in and out each time. During the wheat harvest, however, a coupling broke down. This extension has already been redesigned. Apart from that with regard to wheat beside lodged wheat we had to struggle with the fact that because of the wet soil the plant together with the root was drawn into the cutting unit. It was a nerve-racking stop and start as we constantly had to get off to remove earth from the cutting unit. For the maize harvest Geringhoff put a 16-row picker Horizon Star II at our disposal. By using auto-contour we wanted to chop a stubble length of max. 10cm and everything to a length of max. 10cm in one pass. To avoid fusarium problems for wheat after maize to the greatest possible extent, one must not compromise with regard to crushing straw and stubble. Re-chopping is of no use at all because of the combine and auger waggon tyre tracks a large part of the stubbles and stems has already been pressed into the soil in an unattainable way. It only works with an operational speed of 5 km/h and with caterpillar system on the combine and with 16 row resp. 12 m one can still harvest 120 to 140 tons per hour of maize. It really is a pleasure to observe this rig at work. For good maize the picker requires about 250 hp and considering the working quality it really is worth it. Depth control has to be optimised a little bit. If with 12m you want to go down to 10 cm there is still some potential for improvement with regard to soil scanning and regulation. Geringhoff already has found solutions.
terraHORSCH: How did the caterpillar systems prove their worth?
Michael Horsch: Fantastically. It is absolutely awesome to see how everything runs in one track. I would not want to miss the experience. We were able to make a direct comparison when a contractor with combine and auger waggon worked on our fields: these fields looked like after a war. We are very consistent: At AgroVation we exclusively use caterpillar systems – we bought a third big one in 2013 – the combines are equipped with caterpillar systems and all-wheel drive and next year I want to spread liquid and solid manure with CTF and caterpillar system. We will also have a new CTF fertiliser spreader with caterpillar system and Rauch components. Of course, with a 3-meter track especially driving on roads is a disadvantage, but this problem could be solved by using telescopic caterpillar systems. All in all the “caterpillar effect” was quite obvious: few tracks which only are compacted from above and which as of a depth of 15 cm leave an intact good structure. Despite the increased horsepower requirement the advantages of the caterpillar system simply are gigantic.
terraHORSCH: Apart from the caterpillar tractors, are there machines for CTF on the market?
Michael Horsch: Hardly any. But what we cannot buy, we build ourselves.
terraHORSCH: Do you see marketing opportunities for these own designs?
Michael Horsch: I am not too much interested in that. If we would only think of business when developing a new idea, 80 per cent of the ideas would not be realised at all! We develop our ideas, test on our farms if they prove their worth and it is only later that we decide whether to market them or not.
terraHORSCH: What about the yields?
Michael Horsch: For the first year they were significantly better than expected. We harvested more than 4 tons of rape. Although I estimate that we surely lost half a ton due to the heavy rainfall. We have not yet been able to weigh all of the wheat, but it was about 9 tons. Maize was quite ok and should range between 10 and 11 tons. Harvest has not yet been finished completely as our new silo plant with drying unit has not yet been completed. The authorisation procedure took quite a long time and it was only in August that we were able to start with the construction works. Thus, we had to sell most of the grain maize wet or to have it dried by a contractor – this reduces the profit margin.
terraHORSCH:During our last visit we saw the self-propelled PT 330. How did you use this machine?
Michael Horsch: This basic prototype was the only plant protection sprayer on the farm during the whole season. Despite a lot of modifications the PT 330 did the 3,000 hectare all on its own – with an operational speed of 20 to 30 km/h.
terraHORSCH: What about the other branches of the farm, the apple orchard and the dairy cattle house?
Michael Horsch: Both sectors do not yet run smoothly. With regard to the bio apples because of the high amount of rainfall we suffered considerable losses because of parasites which we could not fight properly because of the bio-status. In the meantime, however, we started working with a fruit specialist from Dresden – a co-operation that works well – but in 2013 we could hardly market any dessert fruits, but almost only fruits for processing. With regard to the dairy cattle house there were a lot of staff and management changes. We invested in four liquid manure containers made of stainless steel with a capacity of 8,000 cubic metre and in a new bunker silo plant.
terraHORSCH: Your summary?
Michael Horsch: In my opinion, CTF with 3m tracks on a caterpillar system is an irreversible way. It was fantastic to see how all that worked in extremely wet soil conditions. We will now implement the CTF system even more ambitiously, although some problems still have not been solved. I am enthusiastic about the fact that especially young farmers all over the world get more and more interested in this topic.
We are satisfied. We were able to put most of our plans into action. We made quite a progress with the redevelopment of the land and the construction measures. We worked out and implemented concepts for our two “problem cases”, the cowshed and the apple plantation, so now everything runs smoothly in these sectors, too. Our farm manager, Christoph Foth, has changed and built a lot during the 15 months. Approx. 500 m of buildings were torn down, a 12,000-ton silo plant with a 10 MW drying plant was built and some property was sold. From previously approx. 80 employees he formed a new team of approx. 30 people (about ten people for farming) – in a socially responsible way. In the cowshed we built a 10,000-ton bunker silo as well as a 8,000-m³ liquid manure storage with separation and quite a few more things. Now the cows give milk properly! But there still are a lot of things to do: e.g. the redevelopment of the land with ditches and drainages.
This year, too, I was in the Czech Republic for one week during the maize harvest. At AgroVation we want to use everything that is possible today from an electronic point of view, e.g. Section Control, Variable Rate, Auto-Track, Implement Steer, Telemetry – in an Isobus network of three worlds: John Deere, Trimble and HORSCH. In theory this should work. In practice, however, we again had several worst case scenarios. And all that at ten p.m. and on week-ends.
Just one example: We just had gone to another field. The machine was folded out and put into working position. The computer booted up, the GPS signal was sent and all system were to log on – standard procedure which normally takes about five minutes. But then the GPS signal could not be found. I talked to the tractor drivers who know the systems very well and we discussed what it could be due to. But we did not come to a conclusion. So we started again from scratch – and got the same error message again. We were really annoyed and started a radical cure: we switched off the tractor, shut down all systems and pulled out all plugs. We waited a short time and rebooted the systems. We, thus, spent half an hour looking for an error – with no result – and trying to remedy the error. And all that in the middle of the night.
Depending on how the drivers handle such situations, productivity varies. To make things worse there were the Easter Holiday when you could hardly get hold of a company representative to help us with our problems. I really ask myself: What do we as manufacturer make our customers put up with?