Harvest brings combines to fields, roads

Lansing farmer Ray Sill and one of his four combines. A new machine costs as much as $300,000, and the harvesting head costs another $60,000 to $80,000.
Lansing farmer Ray Sill and one of his four combines. A new machine costs as much as $300,000, and the harvesting head costs another $60,000 to $80,000.
Photo by Matt Montague

When fall comes to Lansing, so do the combines.

The nine-ton behemoths lumber across the land, taking in whole plants in the front, scattering stalks out the back and magically spitting out cleaned grain into their bins.

And they swivel out onto the roads, where their 15-foot-wide heads and top speed of 10 miles per hour can tie up traffic for drivers in a hurry.

“They can honk, but honking doesn’t do them any good,” local farmer and combine driver Ray Sill said. “There’s only so much I can do. They have as much right to be on the highway as I do. Show some common courtesy.”

A collision with the ominous-looking combine might dent a car, but it will also cost Sill and his colleagues as much as $15,000 in repairs and a month lost from harvesting.

A new combine costs about $300,000 and the specialized heads for grains and corn cost another $60,000 to $80,000, depending on width, according to Sill.

“My accountant won’t let me buy a new combine,” Sill said.

Still, his farm boasts four of the machines, including his father’s old combine that he’ll “never part with.”

It’s hard to find parts for the older machines, but Ray prefers their conventional operation over the newer rotary style because the conventional process leaves wheat stalks whole to make better straw for animal bedding.

“I can make almost as much from the straw as in the grain,” he said.

So, here’s how the magic happens.

The head is the large part that sticks out in front of the combine – there are two types of heads.

A grain head has a row of small teeth along its front. Cutter blades move side to side between the teeth to cut the plants off at the stem. That’s called a sickle bar. The large horizontal reel both presses the plant stems against the sickle bar and moves the cut-off material to the auger.

A corn head has a set of five or six large points. Between the points, there are small arms that draw the stalks back into cutter blades. Conveyors move the material to the auger.

The auger centers the cut off plants and feeds them onto a conveyor that carries the material up into the main body of the combine to the cylinder.
The cylinder rotates inside a drum set horizontally across the machine. It has 12 blades running along its length that break up the plants. A blower-style fan blows the lighter stalks and chaff up and back into the straw walkers. The grain falls into a sieve and is moved into a bin below.

The straw walkers move the stalks backwards and out of the combine for distribution on the field; they also shake any remaining grains off the stalks and down into the sieve and bin below. An elevator moves all of the grain collected in the bottom bin up to the storage bin at the top.

When the storage bin is full, the driver takes the combine over to a grain wagon and slews the unloader pipe out from the side of the combine’s body to over the wagon. An auger moves the grain from the bottom of the storage bin up through the unloader pipe and into the wagon.

The Reverend Patrick Bell invented a reaper machine in 1826 in Scotland. Hiram Moore built and patented a similar machine in the United States in 1835. The first self-propelled combine was built by the Holt Manufacturing Company of California in 1911.

These days, Sill can make his adjustments in the cab on an array of dials and knobs and has a device that measures moisture in the grain. Newer machines run on GPS signals and automatically measure the harvest as the machine moves.

“There are 500 bushels of grain in the bin,” Sill said. “I don’t need GPS to know how much I’m getting.”

Sill has been running his machines for 55 years. He knows how to fine-tune the cylinder’s revolutions and sieves by the quarter-inch for wheat, soybeans or corn.

“You got to know what you got to do to get clean material,” he said.
Driving the combine requires constant attention – Sill has no radio in his cab.
“You are cutting two inches from the ground,” he said. “You have to constantly watch what you are doing. I am watching for stones.”

That’s because one stone in the machine can cost $15,000, just like that.

“That’s why I don’t like doing custom work, in someone else’s field,” he said. “They might not pick stones and roll the fields right. I have a rule: if I hit one stone, I raise the head to three or four inches. If I hit another one, we go two inches higher.”

Sill remembered that his father drove horses to cut grain and stood the stalks by hand in tent-shaped stacks called “stooks” to dry in the fields.

“Sixty years ago, you used a two or three bottom plow,” Sill said. “Today, we’re using a seven-, eight-, 10-bottom plow. What used to take a week, we can do in a day. A good farm those days was 60 acres. Now, you need 300 acres minimum. Used to be 50 or 60 farmers in the area. Now, all the small farmers are gone.”

So, now you know and now maybe you’ll be a little more patient when you run into Ray Sill and his mammoth machine coming down your road, bringing in the harvest for your dinner.

In Brief:

German Festival at All Saints

All Saints Church will host their annual German Festival on Nov. 10 in the parish hall from noon to 3 p.m. Sauerbraten, a traditional marinated beef dish, and spaetzle will highlight the menu while authentic German entertainment will highlight the event from 1 to 2 p.m. Bakers are encouraged to compete in a contest for the best apple dessert. Tickets are at the door and are $15 for adults, $45 for a family and $5 for a children’s meal.

Beauty and The Beast

The Lansing Middle School Musical Theater Club will present “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” on Nov. 6, 7, 8 and 9 at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and 2 p.m. on Saturday. All tickets are $5.

Beginning Monday, Oct. 28, tickets may be purchased at the middle school office from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tickets will also be available at the door.

Veterans food pantry

The Lansing Food Pantry is doing a special distribution for Veterans on Nov. 11.
Veterans are invited to participate from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The normal mobile pantry is 10 to 11 a.m. and is expanding till 2 p.m. for veterans only.

Veterans will be allowed to come to the front of the line from 10 to 11 a.m. or receive a distribution from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Thank you for your continued support!


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