The biggest single improvement in harvesters in the past few decades is full hydraulic control, available only over the past handful of years. Should you be considering making a switch?
On a conventional machine, speeding up tractor RPM translates to faster PTO revolution and, consequently, faster movement of every element of the harvester. In ideal conditions, optimal tractor speed matches optimal table shaking and conveyor speeds.
More often than not, however, tractor RPM is too fast or too slow, causing potatoes either to be thrown, bruised and nicked, or to enter the truck still dirty and surrounded by debris. On a fully hydraulic harvester, all moving parts of the machine can be independently controlled on-the-fly and at the touch of a finger. While this level of control may not be necessary in easy, sandy conditions, it shines in heavier and variable soils.
To date, approximately 25 per cent of growers have shifted to full hydraulic: a lower percentage than I would have anticipated when the technology was first unveiled. Admittedly, hydraulic machines are a 10 to 15 per cent higher investment than their PTO-driven counterparts. I don’t think that is the cause for the slow uptake, though, since the extra upfront cost is usually paid back incredibly quickly — often in the first year — through reduced maintenance (because there are no chains and sprockets in a hydraulic machine, the cost of replacement parts is drastically lower than for a conventional machine).
I also don’t think the slow uptake can be attributed to downsides in the technology; farmers who try full hydraulic generally agree harvesting is easier and more efficient, and that they have more control over both tuber cleaning and damage.
From speaking with many potato growers, my feeling is that the top roadblocks to adopting hydraulic technology is the unknown and a reluctance to be dependent on a dealership for servicing and repair. Usually, overcoming much of that fear is as simple as sitting a grower in a fully hydraulic machine and letting him or her give it a try.
Since intensive operator control is not as important in easy harvest conditions, I don’t expect the industry to ever entirely switch to fully hydraulic harvesters. In more difficult harvest conditions, however, producers should at least consider the benefits of the technology. While hydraulic control might seem like an optional luxury today, the results it can easily produce may be a processor-mandated necessity tomorrow.