10 August 2001

Combine meets a rival

Combine harvesters now

have a competitor which is

claimed to be cheaper, more

efficient and offers

interesting agronomy

advantages for successive

crops. Laura Rance reports

from Winnipeg, Canada, on the

revolutionary McLeod system

AN economist turned inventor has come up with what some experts believe is a revolutionary approach to harvesting grain.

Bob McLeod has worked with a team of engineers for six years to develop the McLeod Harvest System (MHS), which blends the weed control advantages of old-time threshing methods with the labour-saving economy of a combine.

"It is the first serious alternative to harvest grain since the combine was invented in 1836," insists Mr McLeod.

Analysts – and, more importantly, farmers – seem to agree.

The modern combine, which became the dominant form of harvesting on the Canadian Prairies after World War Two, cuts the crop, threshes it and cleans it so that only the grain is collected.

"The combines failure is that as it proceeds down the field, valuable chaff, small grain kernels and weed seeds are spewed out behind it," says Mr McLeod. "Once you have captured a weed in a machine, it does not make sense to put it back on the field."

With the McLeod system, a pull-type harvester, which requires a tractor with a minimum capacity of 125hp, cuts the grain and threshes it, but only returns the straw to the field. A loose mixture of chaff, grain kernels and weed seeds called "graff" is collected and trucked off the field.

Back at the yard, the graff is milled through the automated McLeod mill, where the grain is separated and cleaned. The mill uses a newly developed high horsepower motor which operates from conventional electrical services.

The remaining millings, which have been found to contain a high nutritional value, are crushed and blown into a pile to be used for animal feed.

"It is as if the farmer is taking off two crops at once," says Mr McLeod.

Gary Martens, a University of Manitoba agronomy researcher, tested the equipments performance while it was harvesting oilseed rape last autumn. He found a tenfold reduction in wild oat seeds left behind by the MHS versus the conventional combine.

And there would appear to be even better news. The entire system costs 20% less to operate than the conventional combine, and at C$185,000 (£84,700), it is at least C$50,000 (£22,900) cheaper to buy.

An analysis of the systems potential for reducing herbicide costs, the livestock feed component plus the cost of purchase and operation conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Manitoba found the system could save farmers as much as C$87/ha (C$35/acre).

On a typical 400ha-800ha (1000 acre to 2000-acre) prairie farm, this saving is worth as much, or more, to the bottom line than an off-farm job.

Mr McLeod says the system is tailor-made for small to medium-sized grain and oilseed rape farmers who have livestock or are organic farmers.

Farmers the world over, he points out, are facing economic and ecological pressures to reduce pesticide use. Even straight grain farmers are showing interest.

Mr McLeod has maintained communication with more than 2000 Canadian farmers who have now joined a consultation group. He reports that he has had no difficulty lining up farmers willing to buy and try the equipment.

"The more I looked at it, the more I investigated, the more impressed I was," says Murray Mullin, a Manitoba grain farmer who is among the first three to buy one this year.

Mr Mullin does not have livestock, but his neighbours do. The massive livestock expansion that has taken place on the Canadian Prairies since the government eliminated transportation subsidies for export grains has left the region chronically short of feed. As a result, he anticipates no difficulty selling the millings, which will have cost him almost nothing to obtain.

"It all boils down to trying to make a living farming nowadays," he says.

Despite the products potential, Mr McLeod does not expect it to take the market-place by storm. He is hoping to sell 10 to 20 units in 2002 and scale up production to 1000 a year within five years.

And because the concept is so new, he is offering to buy the equipment back within the first two years of purchase if his customers are not satisfied. &#42