Harvesters keep American farmers in business

For six months every year, the Eberts family and other contract harvesters are on the road, cutting crops for farmers across the American Midwest, from the Texas border in the south to the Canadian border in the north. The job takes dedication, as machinery is expensive and rain can hold up crew, who sometimes work for up to 18 hours straight.

Every April for the past 30 years, Nancy Eberts and her husband Myron leave their farm in North Dakota knowing they won’t return for more than six months. Behind them, in a convoy nearly 0,5km long, they haul everything they’ll need to cut crops for farmers across the American Midwest.The Ebertses run Eberts Harvesting, a contract harvesting business, and each year, with a crew of six men, they help keep American farmers in business.

“We cut the crops that feed America,” says Nancy, standing outside the converted articulated trailer that acts as the crew’s accommodation. “I’ve raised kids on the harvest run and been pregnant while working. Most children would go to camp during their summer break; ours came on the harvest run.”  The Ebertses are two months into this year’s run, and have made it to Kiowa, in southern Kansas, where endless rows of maize and wheat mark the heart of the American Midwest.

Their season began in late April in Frederick, Oklahoma, a 2 000km journey from their home. Their work will only end once the last of the winter wheat has been harvested in mid-December. During this time, the Ebertses, and around 400 other crews working across the US, cut, thrash and deliver crops worth millions of dollars.“The main crops are winter wheat, spring wheat, durum, canola, soyabeans and maize,” explains Nancy.Why use contract harvesters?Contract harvesting in the US is widespread as farmers want to avoid the high initial costs of cutting their own crops. But it’s by no means a service used solely by small operators.

“The main reason farmers hire contractors is to get the grain off as fast and efficiently as possible,” says Nancy. “Mother Nature can turn cold or wet quickly here and sharply reduce the quality and grade of grains – especially durum, for instance – meaning the price obtained is considerably less.“Time in harvesting is money – the sooner the grains are in storage, the higher the quality and the better the price.

In the southern states farmers can go in after harvest and plant another crop if necessary. “In the northern states, when the harvest is completed quickly, they can groom the land for next year’s crop, making the planting season window more attractive,” adds Nancy. “There have been times here when the maize had to wait until spring to get harvested due to snow. This impacts the land preparation and planting time.”

Challenges along the way
Despite using five Kenworth trucks to haul grain carts, hoppers and three 12m harvester heads behind them, the Ebertses are one of the smaller contract crews in operation. Add two accommodation units, a service truck and three CASE IH combine harvesters on customised trailers and it’s easy to see the expense involved. “Our major costs are equipment, insurance and labour,” says Nancy. “Like everyone in the industry, you have to make changes, whether it’s the equipment necessary to haul these machines up and down the road, the machines themselves, or the manpower to do so.”

The Ebertses cut a similar route each year as they follow the ripening crops northwards. But with each location situated several hundred kilometres apart, the entire operation – from combines and grain carts, to accommodation units and heads – must be loaded and hauled by the team, a logistical exercise that often requires several trips. Although the technology inside and outside the combine has greatly improved efficiency, the larger, heavier and more mechanically complex harvesters cost more.

“Years ago we could do most of the repairs on our own; now things are more electrical and downtime is costly,” says Nancy. That explains why the major combine manufacturers offer such impressive after-sales service – a dedicated technician and a truck-load of spare parts and tools follows the harvest crews as they move north, ready to deal with any electronic or mechanical issues.

Advances in technology
The Ebertses work their machines exceptionally hard. Each machine costs over US0 000 (R2,7 million) and is often replaced as often as every other year – most are run to around 1 300 cutting hours before being sold.  “When you use new equipment you don’t have the downtime or delays,” says Nancy. “Even a delay of an hour or two to get service or parts can make a big difference financially, especially with storm clouds moving in.”

Efficiency is key. “We went from CASE IH 2388s to 8120s, which made a difference of 75 units of horsepower,” she says. “And we went from 9m headers to 12m headers. That’s 3m more crop in a swathe in the same amount of time. “We’re also transitioning into global positioning satellite (GPS) and other available technologies. Yield mapping is an extra expense that few farmers are interested in. “Again, getting the harvest off is what’s important – keeping track of the bushels with the truckloads is sufficient.”

Many hands make light work
Of course, you need a good crew too. The Ebertses advertise for new members annually, usually around January, and often have four or five new hands who require training at the family farm before heading south for the real work. “When we work together we’re like a well-oiled machine,” says Nicki Nadis, a crew-member who hails from Michigan. “When the pressure is on, that’s when we really prove ourselves.”

Before arriving at each location, Nancy’s husband Myron lists his clients and their crops. For smaller jobs he’ll split the team up. For larger areas he’ll use all three combines simultaneously. It takes as little as four hours to clear about 65ha, but that will require seven truck loads, ferried from the land to the giant bins. It also means the crew could be working for 12 hours straight. “Sometimes the whole operation can be held up because the trucks have to wait in line for up to eight hours to unload their maize,” says Nicki.

Once the crops are cut at each location, Myron and his team load up the trailers and move onto their next base. Farmers often phone in updates on their crop, urging Myron to arrive quickly. And if the crew have been held up by rain, they can expect to work 18-hour days, week after week to ensure each farmer’s ripening harvest gets cut in time.

By Christmas, the Ebertses will have harvested their way through six states and can finally rest themselves and their machinery. The crew flies back to their homes around the country and the company can work out the profits of their labour.“We’ve been actively involved in a programme through Kansas for several years that tracks our expenses and revenue,” says Nancy.

“According to US Agriculture Department’s commercial horticulture and agricultural marketing programme (CHAMP) and AgAnalysisPlus.com, over the past three years there’s an average of US0 (R2 060) to US0 (R2 400) per rotor hour in expenses, including everything from insurance to labour to equipment. Revenue averages US0 (R2 745) per rotor hour.“But we never did this to make a huge profit,” adds Nancy. “Our love for agriculture and the land is what keeps us going. Our relationships with the farmers, their families, our crew and their families make it all worthwhile.”