14 August 1999

Sizing up a mighty muncher

With harvest under way, Andrew Pearce quizzes Claas Lexion combine owners in East Anglia.

ONLY farmers who think big should contemplate a Lexion 480. Not just because of the £193,250 basic price, but for header width (up to 9m), engine power (400hp) and grain tank capacity (10,500 litres). Top of the eight-strong Lexion range, this is one mighty muncher.

Claas makes no specific claims but says the 480 outperforms its Commandor 228, previously reckoned the highest output combine on the planet. Is owning and using such a tool an unworldly experience? Crops went to two farms for some answers.

Garlands Farm Ltd owns or contract-farms 935ha (2,310 acres) in six blocks centred on Steeple Bumpstead, Haverhill, Suffolk. Soils are mainly heavy with a sprinkling of medium-light loams, the ground sometimes undulating. Wheat, peas/beans and rape all fall to the 7.5m header of a 1997 Lexion 480 which, with Tim Chadney in the driving seat, covers around 890ha (2,200 acres) each year – and travels up to 42 miles between sites. Farmer John Harrison explains why he bought a 480: "Weve used Claas for the last 10 years or more. Growing mainly wheat we need high output, and at the time this was the highest output machine on the market."

Up towards Ely, David Rayner Farms has 1,012ha (2,500 acres) of flat or gently undulating land around Burgh Hall, Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambs. This year partner Adam Rayner will be driving a brand new 480 – though it wont be an entirely novel experience as a 1996 model made way for the incomer. Cropping – wheat, barleys, rape, beans, peas and sugar beet – is spread over soils from chalks to heavy boulder clay, giving the 7.5m-cut Lexion around 850ha (2,100 acres) to play with annually. Like Mr Harrison, the Rayners have a history of Claas machinery. Why the 480? "We liked the rotary separation," says Adam Rayner. "The local dealers are good and its the only machine on the market that we feel can handle our acreage."

These are complex machines. Of necessity this Hands-On Test concentrates on main points, starting with the place operators spend all those hours – the Vista cab. "Not much you can do to improve it," says Mr Rayner, with Mr Chadneys "Better than anything Ive driven; its a pleasure to be in there" backing him up. Operators scored the cab very highly on space, liked the seating (including the passengers chair), appreciated the control layout for its simplicity and got on well with the main control joystick. Neither man has trouble getting a good view of a 25ft header; Mr Chadney has to lean forward a little to see the ends, but likes the way the glass wraps round to allow this.

Ventilation is fine for Mr Rayner ("You can always set it right for the conditions") but only adequate for Mr Chadney, who finds airflow less than on the firms previous 228. In autumn work both drivers appreciate the heater. Over 12-hour days Mr Chadney finds cab noise very low, while his opposite number sets it in context: "Plenty quiet enough, though not as good as some of our Deere tractors."

What dont drivers like? An awkward manual gearshift; the sticky plastic edging around the main seat; work lights that are "good enough but not as good as the 228s" (Mr Chadney), and dust from the header in work. This last point bugs both men.

"Its is a big problem, especially in peas – sometimes you cant see where youre going and have to slow down," complains Mr Chadney, who reckons the 480 generates more dust than other combines hes driven. Mr Rayner agrees "levels are noticeably worse than with others" but rates the outcome as no more than a substantial irritation, adding – "We havent had to slow down yet." Drivers agree that most of the stuff comes from the elevator trunking, is naturally at its worst when theres no crosswind, and wonder if Claass pre-separator system is the source.

Electronic control

Technological star of the cab is Claass CEBIS control system. Apart from recording and printing harvest data (taken from built-in moisture and yield meters), its the source for pre-programmed or user-stored machine settings and the interface through which these adjustments are made. What do operators make of it?

"It tells you everything and really does help," says Mr Chadney. "If youre not computer literate it can be frightening to start with, but is pretty simple really." Much the same notion came from Mr Rayner.

"CEBIS is a bit daunting initially but makes sense once youre used to it. The biggest strength is the ability to adjust almost everything on the move, then immediately see the results on the screen and in the tank. Id never want to go back to a manual system now."

But there is a snag. On earlier models the yield meter requires a calibration factor taken from weighbridge results, but theres no weighing facility near the Steeple Bumpstead operation and no spare time to drive to one. So Mr Chadney uses an average value which, he says, gives figures 10%-15% adrift of reality. "Not good enough for an accurate idea of whats in the barn, but adequate for field-to-field comparisons," he says. Rayner Farms put every load over a weighbridge so arent bothered about on-combine yield metering. The CEBIS unit in current 480s need no calibration factor, says Claas.

Given an electronic genie in the cab, how easy is a 480 to set up for different crops? "Just sit in the cab and press a button," smiles Mr Chadney, adding: "You may need to get out and change the rotary separator speed once or twice a season, or the wind deflector settings for different seeds." Operators found Claass pre-programmed settings a good jumping-off point, then modified these and stored the result for later recall.

Up behind the grain tank sits a 400hp Mercedes V6. This relatively small capacity, turbocharged unit is a bone of contention at both farms. Not for its ability to keep the outfit rolling at a good clip in favourable conditions, but for its shortcomings in green-bottomed early wheats or damp, heavy crops. Mr Chadney fires the first salvo: "Most of the time were cutting wheat and using the straw chopper. Ours has the original 375hp engine uprated to the 400hp of current ones; it goes well on lighter sandy soils where straw is thinner, or anywhere that the crop is dry and you can keep the stubble long -there it really humps along. But get a slightly damp evening and you have to slow right down when youre unloading, and the same goes for travelling up a hill during the day. The motor is like a highly-strung racehorse; once it loses some revs its gutless. A much bigger capacity, de-rated and non-turbo engine would give deep-down staying power." And his boss, John Harrison, goes further: "Whats needed is a big-capacity, 750hp non-turbo engine derated to 450hp, not a 350hp engine squeezed up to that output. That would give much more grunt."

Adam Rayner finds the same. "Normally, engine power is fine. But in a heavy wheat crop with some green straw in it you must slow down to unload – usually for the first few days of harvest. You can soon tell when the motor is starting to pull up, and act before the engine overload warning goes off: this sounds before the shaft speed indicators tell you to slow down."

How about fuel tank capacity? Again both men agreed that more than the Lexions 650 litres is needed, finding 10-12 hour endurance – when working and chopping in heavy crops – not enough. Current models carry an extra 180-litre tank, say Claas.

Last autumns wet going highlighted both traction and flotation. Weighing in at 16,950kg with an empty grain tank the 480 is no lightweight, but neither farm had worries. "Trailers create more of a problem on our heavy land," points out Mr Rayner, "though you could certainly see where the combine had been."

Moving to header attachment, operators appreciate Claass one-piece oil/electric connector, single-lever pin locking and the way header response is slowed automatically for gentle coupling. Neither farm had used Claass adjustable-depth Vario table option, though Mr Rayner was looking forward to it on his new machine. Both liked the intake systems hydraulic reverser and praised the headers Auto-Contour facility: "Invaluable with any wide header and essential for peas or laid wheat," confirmed Mr Chadney. But hed like his reel to bring laid crop to the cutterbar rather than relying on the lifters – something that Claas suggest the latest setup can do.

Now to threshing. The German factory has long used its APS setup, which adds an 450mm (18in) accelerator and concave before the main drum. "We havent yet found a crop we cant combine successfully with it," says Adam Rayner. "APS adds separation area and evens out crop flow." Mr Chadney agrees: "It deals equally well with all crops, including linseed, and smooths the flow of wads – which has to be good for threshing. If there is a drawback, its that you cant get so easily to the main drum."

Behind the drum and stripper lies another of the 480s departures from convention, this time in the shape of an impeller and two long rotors. The first divides the straw stream in two; the second, by using a pair of toothed rotors inside gridded drums, teases grain from it. Rotoplus is the Claas tag.

Separation

"Thats a very efficient separator," says Mr Chadney. Mr Rayner reckons "Were pleased with it – these rotors work better than walkers." He bales no straw, unlike Garlands Farm. "The rotary units kink the stalks more than walkers would," reports Mr Chadney, "and on hot dry days will smash mature stems. Small lengths then overload the sieves, especially on side hills. But overall the system adds to output."

Talking of hills moves us on to 3D separation, standard on all 480s. Although neither machine sees steep ground, users have still found the arrangements limits. "It works until you get beyond a gentle slope, then its not enough," says Mr Rayner. His counterpart backs this up, saying: "Id like to try a machine without it, just to see how much the 3D system does. As it is, I start to notice overload immediately on leaving flat land."

Grain tank size and unloading auger performance were both judged excellent. Likewise the 480s Unispreader, a chopper and chaff dispenser whose angle-from-the-cab nozzles, users find, place material where they want it irrespective of wind direction and strength.

To draw everything together, users were asked about achievable sample quality and typical outputs. "We have a lot to do, so I tend to set the machine for quantity," says Tim Chadney. "Though if I want, it will produce an absolutely clean sample for only a small loss in forward speed. In seed crops theres no significant damage." Confirmation came from Mr Rayner: "I can always get the sample we want, usually at the forward speed wed like."

Output for Mr Chadney is often limited by field size. "We have cleared 130-140 acres in an 11-hour day, but more normally its at least 100 acres," he says. For hourly rate Mr Rayner cites last years wheat: "Over a timed period and putting all the crop across a weighbridge, we were averaging 30-40t/hour."

Asked if they could pin down any factor(s) that limit combine output, both men pointed to engine power. Quizzed as to the 480s best area, one singled out the way all the combines systems work together, while the other chose the cab, and machine performance in conditions that suit it.

An area dear to any operators heart is daily maintenance. Depending on scheduling this takes 30-90min, say users, who find Claass one-piece side covers and detachable ladder a big boost to access. But neither man was impressed by the need to blow the radiator core clean every day: "Dont do it and youll have to stop in the field," warned Mr Chadney. Claas predict this seasons new aspirated screen and scraper blade should help.

Between them, the Garlands Farms 480 and Mr Rayners old version have covered 2,643ha (10,700 acres) over the last three seasons.

Failures logged at Garlands Farm include a straw chopper bearing ("An exciting moment with the resulting fire"), break-up of one drum bearing support plate (fixed on warranty), one steering ram, the unloading augers drive chain, a weak door catch bracket and an computer upset when alternator wires broke loose. At Rayner Farms the tally is similar – chewed straw chopper drive belts (fixed by factory mod), a bearing on the fan drive tensioner, a duff Auto Contour system ram, broken alternator brackets and a few cracked guards and belt guides.

So how do owners and operators sum up Claass biggest baby? This is the view from Garlands Farm owner John Harrison. "We bought the combine for high output, and most of the time we get just that. If I was buying today, Id make the same choice. It doesnt throw much out the back, copes well with most crops, has an excellent chopper and spreader, and good service backup. All it really needs is more power – definitely no turbo on a much bigger capacity engine." And Adam Rayners thoughts are these. "A good machine, well built and with superb backup. Were pleased we bought it and have no thoughts about changing to anything else."

Claas Lexion 480

Strengths

&#8226 Very high output in right conditions

&#8226 Fast header attachment

&#8226 Roomy, quiet cab

&#8226 Effective rotary separators

&#8226 CEBIS electronics

&#8226 Auto Contour header control

&#8226 Easy setup for different crops

&#8226 APS separator smooths crop flow

&#8226 Good straw chopper/chaff spreader

Weaknesses

&#8226 Engine power limiting in some conditions

&#8226 High dust level around header in some crops

&#8226 Fuel capacity limited on early models

&#8226 Can smash mature straw on hot days

&#8226 3D sieves effectiveness limited

&#8226 Need to clean radiator core daily

User suggested changes

&#8226 More power so can reach full potential in all crops

&#8226 Bigger-capacity engine to achieve the above

&#8226 Better radiator protection against dust

&#8226 Less straw damage on hot day

&#8226 Shorter cab steps

Lexion 480 Basics

Powered by a 400hp Mercedes OM 441 LA, the 480 weighs around 14t without a header. Cutting widths are 6.6m-9m, (7.5m standard) with hydraulic header reversal. A Vario table (with power adjustment of cutterbar-to-auger distance) is a £7,865 option, while Auto-Contour lateral float ground following is standard. Separation is based on Claass APS system, which uses an accelerator in front of the 600mm diameter main drum. Rather than conventional walkers, Rotoplus separation is used. An impeller splits straw into two streams which pass to twin-toothed rotors. Each turns inside a perforated drum, separating grains from straw. Six fans supply air to electrically-adjusted, 5.82sq m sieves which feature 3D levelling as standard.

Overseeing much of the machines setting, control and monitoring is CEBIS, which among its many electronic tricks records data on crop moisture and yield for later, possible precision farming use.