27 July 2001

Harvester takes thatching straw into 21st century

WITH thatching straw fetching as much as £450/t it is perhaps strange there is not more interest in its production.

Even more so when it is realised that demand for thatching straw in the UK exceeds supply and there is a need to make up the shortfall with imports.

A niche market waiting to be exploited, reasoned Robin Godfrey. But he also realised that the future for such a business lay in mechanising the harvesting process.

"The traditional method of thatching straw production is time consuming, weather dependent and labour intensive," he says. "There is little future in running an ancient binder, picking up sheaves of corn, which may have been soaked and sprouted, and then employing a threshing drum and umpteen men to produce the straw."

Based at aptly named Thatcham, Berks, Mr Godfrey and his business partner, Ted Pope, set about building a machine which could cut straw, thresh it and bundle it in one pass with just one man in control.

The result is the Reed Master, which fits on to the front of a combine as a form of replacement header. Straw is cut by a 1.2m (4ft) cutter bar with the crop encouraged to fall on to a conveyor by rotating sails. From the conveyor the straw is captured between two flat belts which carry it, with the heads pointing towards the combine, up into the machine. On its way, a spiked roller teases out any weed leaves from the tail ends of the straw, after which the straw is passed to a second set of flat belts.

Still moving across the machine the straw is then dealt with by two larger rotating spiked drums one of which takes out the grain from the head and the other removing any further foreign non-straw growth.

Removed grain and chaff then enters the combine harvester and is threshed conventionally.

"There is no problem with throughput for the combine which has very little work to do other than clean and store the grain," says Mr Godfrey.

With the grain removed – but not the head – and the straw cleaned, the belts deliver the straw to a binder unit which bundles and ties before depositing them on the ground.

"We are working on developing an automatic collection system," he says. "We should have one up and running shortly."

"Building the Reed Master has not been without its challenges," says Mr Godfrey. He says the vast majority of its parts were gleaned from old machines or pieces of farm scrap.

"Working out the required speed for each of the components was particularly taxing as was getting the drive to them and ensuring it turned in the right direction. We have had to make several adjustments, but, overall, we are quite pleased with ourselves."

Output by modern harvesting standards is not high with 5-6 acres/day considered to be good. But according to Mr Godfrey, the point to note is that the priority is in the straw, not the grain.

And on this note, he believes that wheat varieties could be developed to further exploit the straw potential.

"Some of the older varieties such as Maris Huntsman or Maris Widgeon produce good thatching straw as does Triticale, but I feel sure there are others that could be better," he says.

In terms of yield, he normally expects about a 1t/acre of straw to be produced for which there is a ready market waiting.

"The fact that we can produce thatching straw directly from the field means it is available weeks and possibly months ahead of those who reap, bind, stack and then thresh," he says. "This is certainly a plus point in the cash flow department."

For the machine itself, Mr Godfrey and his business partner have taken out a series of patents. The future could see them building to order and reaping their success. &#42