Autonomous farming has taken a step from the grain crop to the hayfield.
Vermeer’s ZR5 self-propelled baler has made waves in the U.S. and now in Canada after the machine made its Canadian debut in Manitoba earlier this summer. It was a major draw at equipment demos in both Glenboro and the Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives site north of Brandon in late June and early July before making its way to Ag in Motion, Western Canada’s largest farm show, outside Saskatoon last month.
Why it matters: Vermeer’s self-propelled baler might come with too rich a price tag for some producers, but machinery experts say it might be a step towards driverless technology.
Vermeer cites the baler’s increased capacity, speed and manoeuvrability, along with sensors that track the moisture, weight and size of a bale in the chamber and an automatic wrap-and-drop cycle with a click of a button. It says an optional quarter-turn cycle might save time picking bales on headlands, while the 200-horsepower engine allows a normal baling speed up to 12 miles an hour and transport mode up to 30 miles an hour on the road. Producers can expect to see a third more baling capacity per hour than with a standard baler, according to Vermeer representatives.
“You really don’t do anything on this machine but steer it,” local Vermeer territory manager Corey Dalman said.
The increased suspension allows for the faster speed and is a critical factor in its extra capacity, along with tighter turns at the end of the windrow thanks to its zero-turn handling, he said.
It’s a first for the market and “a dramatic step forward in that regard,” said Lorne Grieger, vice-president of Manitoba operations at the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI). Novel as the technology is, however, the implications for future developments may be equally important.
An automatic baling, wrapping and drop process may be a critical step towards adopting driverless technology for the hayfield, Grieger said. Driverless tractors are complex enough, but having the attachment portion already automated will streamline the process when it comes time to automate a tractor and baler combination rather than just a tractor alone.
“If you’re trying to automate the baling process and remove the driver from that, that would be the first step actually,” Greiger said. Automating both driving and baling capacity at once would otherwise be extremely complex.
There has been more and more speculation on the future of autonomous farm machinery since the advent of DOT, an autonomous “power platform” that has been undergoing rigorous field trials, made its first, limited, appearance in the commercial market this spring. In June, DOT Technology Corp. said it had platforms to fit with sprayers or seeders available. The company is still working on a grain cart and expected to release another limited number of DOT units for sale this summer.
Custom operators only?
The Vermeer baler is likely a more natural fit for custom operators, whose entire business is baling and for whom a more expensive, higher-capacity and highly specific piece of baling equipment might make sense, Dalman said.
At the same time, he noted there are “a lot of producers who are running higher-end tractors on new balers that do a large quantity of bales a year — 3,000 to 5,000 to 8,000 bales a year.”
Dalman said some farms in the U.S. have traded their four tractor and baler units for two of the self-propelled balers on the same land base, as the unit’s speed would also save on labour and employee wages.
The company has also taken measures to limit quality loss at those high speeds.
“The pickup is independently controlled, r.p.m.-wise, separate from the baler, whereas every other baler on the market, the pickup and the bale chamber run at a fixed speed, non-adjustable by the operator,” Dalman said.
That independent control could allow the operator to slow pickup r.p.m. for fragile hay, he said.
Dalman was reluctant to put a price on the unit, although previous press coverage has put it at upwards of $300,000. Dalman estimates that dealers would sell the machine for about equal to a 200-horsepower tractor and new baler.
The price is “a little steep,” for one baler, he admitted, but added that “you have to take into consideration the economics of what you can do with this thing versus a tractor/baler unit.”
A handful of the balers had been sold in Canada as of mid-July, company representatives said at the Ag in Motion farm show last month, although most ZR5 owners are still in the U.S.
Grieger expects that the farmer uptake will depend on cost and individual farm economics.