WATCH: What is it like to drive a hi-tech £400,000 combine harvester?
PUBLISHED: 06:15 02 August 2019 | UPDATED: 06:15 02 August 2019
These monster machines are a common sight across Norfolk fields in the summer time - but what is it like behind the wheel of the latest satellite-guided high-tech combine harvester? CHRIS HILL reports.
Guided by lasers and satellites, a state-of-the-art combine harvester prototype is devouring Norfolk crops after a farm's £400,000 efficiency investment to replace two older machines.
The powerful Lexion machine is a "pre-series" 8700 model put to work by agricultural contractors LF Papworth, which is helping manufacturer Claas iron out any problems or make improvements before it goes into full production.
Its 15.6-litre engine, 12m header and ravenous appetite for wheat, barley and oilseed rape means farmer Kit Papworth is confident it can do the work of his two previous 10m combines - streamlining his harvest operation at a critical time for the industry as Brexit approaches.
He expects it to gather 2,000 acres of cereal crops this year - with the capacity to extend that to 2,500 acres in future - helped by the latest top-end technology.
The on-board automation system means the machine can virtually drive itself, using either top-mounted lasers to keep it within existing tramlines, or GPS signals to follow a pre-set path through the field.
In the climate-controlled cab, insulated from the violent cutting and threshing processes, touch-screen technology is used to optimise the performance of the machine and to analyse the yield, with cameras taking pictures every second inside the tank to identify substandard grain or foreign contaminants.
All the telematics data is beamed back for analysis at the farm office.
Mr Papworth said: "We have taken a huge step with the application of technology now and this combine in particular can utilise GPS and laser guidance, and it is also able to monitor itself and tell what it can speed up to give us better capacity, and that is certainly the big leap we have taken this season.
"It is taking photographs all the time of the crop we have harvested and noticing what we can do to improve the sample. We have certainly seen that in the shed - the grain that is coming back is of better quality, and we have got less contaminants like straw and weed seeds, as it is changing itself all the time to improve the quality of what we are doing and how much we can cut in a day.
"We previously had two 10m machines, so in theory one 12m machine couldn't possibly do the job - but actually with the increased technology and the bigger capacity of this one we have been able to do all that.
"I actually had no doubt that the combine could do it, it was a question of whether we could logistically do it. So we are still using the same number of staff and the same number of trailers to support that machine and keep it going, and letting the technology take hold and grow with it."
The machine is currently labelled as a Lexion 770, but will be re-badged as an 8700 at the end of its first trial season.
Mr Papworth said there was "not much change out of £400,000" after securing the pre-series model from Claas - and such a large investment needed very careful consideration amid all the economic and political uncertainties of Brexit.
"We had some fairly big discussion internally back in January about how we were going to do it," he said. "But contract farming commodity crops is all about finding niches where we can get a premium for stuff and it is absolutely certain we are going to be growing wheat and oilseed rape going forward on the sort of areas we are talking about, so all I can do as a contract farmer is to do that as efficiently as I can, and this is the way to do it efficiently."
Mr Papworth said his business is halfway through its oilseed rape harvest, with "pretty good" yields ranging from 3.5 to 4.5t/ha (tonnes per hectare). Winter barley is all cut and back in the shed at 8-9t/ha after the dry period around Easter knocked back the yield potential on the farm's light land. Wheat is probably a week away and the spring barleys are almost ready.
"Harvest is the most exciting part of the year," he added. "You are working long hours with a team and it is the culmination of a whole year's work and investment. To sit on the machine and watch it come in and see how it yields is the emotional part for a farmer. Despite all the threats and pressures, honestly, farming is the best job in the world."
Farm technician and combine driver Patrick Gwilliam, 64, said the new machine is a world away from the basic and bone-shaking harvesters at work when he joined the farm in 1970.
"I think there was more skill in setting the combines up back then," he said. "Now everything is touch screen, and you push buttons and it is all done for you.
"The working conditions are much better now. The cab is very comfortable and you've got the climate control.
"The automatics is new to me on this one. The combine more or less sets itself. As it finds a crop in a harder piece of ground, it will open things up and drive it for you really. It is a good bit of kit."