GCH Burley Harvester makes imprerssive debut
Kentucky Field Day puts burley harvester on display for area farmers
By David Williams
Automated burley harvesting may be finally coming off the drafting boards and into the fields, if the recent Field Day demonstrations in Pleasureville, Ky., are any indication.
Dozens of growers came to the Roberts farm in Pleasureville in September to see four different types of harvesters go through their paces. The Field Day was part of an effort of the University of Kentucky’s Agricultural Research division. The harvesting equipment displayed ran the gamut of need, from small farmers to large.
Easily the best in show was the GCH automated harvester, which was being used extensively on Mark Roberts’ farm. Dozens of loaded racks were sitting in the surrounding fields.
The system holds five large metal racks. The harvester cuts and notches the stalks and places them upside-down on the racks. When the racks fill up, the harvester gently sits the full rack to the side of the harvester and loads another rack, ready to continue.
The harvester was the brainchild of a UK research project begun nearly 20 years earlier. GCH took that early work and used it to create three harvesters, two of which are in use in Kentucky and the other in southern Illinois.
Jeff Androla of GCH said the cost savings in labor for his harvester was astronomical – up to 85 percent.
“Labor is about 85 to 90 percent, and whether you have got 100 acres or 1,000 acres, it’s (the GCH harvester takes) two men,” he said. “That’s the key here. The cost of the machine you have to look at in a five- to seven-year projection, but after you get through basically five years and your frames are paid off, your money increases to the point that now you grow more acres and make a very comfortable living, versus worrying about the labor pool.”
Androla said the harvester can not only cut an acre in just over an hour, but it also puts the tobacco in a rack in which it can cure. Growers need only wrap the rack with a tarp and can leave it in the field, or move it with a loader to a preferable location, where it can stay until ready to strip.
“Financially, that would be looking at being really conservative on a high interest rate, no money down,” he said. “We would look at enough frames and the harvester to do about 140 acres, and we feel very comfortable that in year one, looking at a 10-year model, that we can put money in their pocket.”
The overall cost of the unit will go down as GCH takes more orders for the harvester. Built in Louisville, Ky., the harvester was the only one of the units demonstrated that was U.S.-built and thus had parts that were not based on the metric system. Androla said several smaller growers could arrange a co-op system for purchasing a unit and share it for harvesting.
“At 300 acres, the model looks really good,” he said. “You are going to put that much more money in your pocket. If you are splitting that up with four or five guys, it only makes sense to get the concept going. As long as we can continue to produce equipment, it should drive the price down—but again, we have got to sell machines. People have to buy into the system.”
The key to GCH’s business model was an average yield of 2,400 to 2,500 pounds an acre—something Androla said was achievable based on the growers he has spoken with.
The costs of the racks—about 15 are needed for each acre of harvested tobacco—are part of the package, but Androla said as a grower plants more acreage and needs more racks, they will be available—and at a lower cost as the system gains more acceptance.
“If I can build 10,000 a year versus 3,000, obviously the cost of doing that will be a lot less,” he said.
The GCH machine was vastly quicker than the two other comparable models, tractor-attached units made by Kirpy and Marco. Both units cut and notch the stalks and use a conveyor chain to move them behind the tractor and onto a wagon pulled alongside the tractor.
The difference in the units was cost-effectiveness based on the type of application. The GCH unit would be best used for big-scale operations, while the Marco or Kirpy units can prove beneficial to smaller operations.
During the field day trials, the Marco unit harvested at a reasonable pace but tended to collect stalks at the end of the chain before it dropped them onto the wagon. It also collected ground grasses and weeds, which gathered on the end of the chain. The Kirpy unit delivered the stalks cleaner and more uniformly but was considerably slower than the Marco unit.
The fourth model demonstrated was a walk-behind unit, made by a French company. The unit was essentially large cutting blades on the front of a long snout that laid the stalks of tobacco over out of the path of the unit, which resembled a large garden tiller. The stalks were cut and notched, ready for gathering and hanging. The unit would provide cost-effective use for a very small operation.