BRIDGEPORT - It took about five years for Kevin Hall to take a leap of faith and purchase a Ropa sugar beet harvester. He first became interested in the machine after studying advertisements in sugar beet magazines, and finally was persuaded after talking with two Canadians at the 2006 annual sugar beet growers meeting.
The Canadians have two in operation, so they could speak from experience when answering Hall's questions about the $500,000 piece of equipment. There are two more in Michigan.
"A lot of consideration went into the decision," Hall said. "I thought it made sense, but I knew I would have to have a certainty of acres before it would be feasible. And there was concern for dealer support. At least Canada is closer than overseas."
The 32-ton harvester arrived in Bridgeport the week before harvest began on Sept. 18. It came complete, except for the defoliator head and two tires that were attached at 21st Century John Deere in Bridgeport. A mechanic there had previously received training at the German Ropa factory.
Six flotation tires, about 40 inches wide, carry the machine across the fields. The axels are off set so the tires "dog track," and reduce compaction.
One of the Canadians spent two days training Hall and Mike Swires, one of his employees, on how to operate the harvester. He also spent a day giving "on the job" training to the Nebraskans. Then the two spent another couple of days just learning about it because it is new.
"It was intimidating at first, but is very user friendly," Hall said. It has auto pilot and auto steering so it adjusts its own speed and follows rows. The driver controls the turns at the ends of the field.
The cab is similar to most cabs in today's tractors, swathers and combines. It has a control panel, two "joy stick" controls and two monitors. The monitors are focused on the beet bin, which holds about 26 tons, and also on the turbines beneath the body where tare is discharged as the beets move from the digger to the conveyor to the bin.
A row finder on the defoliator steers the rear axle on the harvester, and the pulling shoes guide the front axle.
Noting some of the benefits, Hall said the shoes move independently so they can follow the row and don't slice the beets. This reduces field loss. It is also possible to watch the scalpers from the cab, so adjustments can be made as needed while moving through the field, rather than having to wait until the end of the row. The defoliator moves independently and adjusts to the contour of the ground it is on.
"So much is in front, it's a lot nicer for the operator," Hall said. "You don't have a stiff neck at the end of the day from looking back."
Financially, Hall said he expects to achieve considerable savings per acre. Compaction won't be an issue on future crops, and there won't be as much down time due to wet field conditions. Field loss is reduced, and because there will be less tare, there will be a savings on freight.
With the harvester, only one cart and tractor are needed in the field. Traditionally, there would be two tractors with the digger and defoliator, and two tractors with carts. He has 10 semi trucks hauling beets to the factory in Scottsbluff.
"I can also raise beets on fields that were not possible before," Hall said. "I now have the option to raise beets on soft ground or on steep hills."
Between 40 and 50 acres can be harvested during a 12-hour day, and Hall expects to increase that to 100 acres per 24-hour day once regular harvest begins.
Right now, the obvious downside is the cost of diesel, Hall said. The harvester is estimated at 18 to 20 gallons an hour.
However, all things considered, Hall said he thinks he made the right move in buying the harvester.
"We're still learning," Hall said. "People keep asking how I like it, and I tell them to ask me after a year. So far I think it's a good investment."
And it's not only an individual business investment. As a member of the Western Sugar Cooperative, Hall admits the move is a sign of his belief in the company.
"I am investing in the future of the Cooperative," said Hall, who is chairman of the co-op's board of directors. "It's a very strong company, and I couldn't be more satisfied with the management and operations.
"Of course there are always the political battles, but we've always gotten through those. I think there are a lot of good things to come."