After a period of rapid consolidation, the potato industry appears to have settled down. But how are harvester manufacturers adapting their machinery line-up for fewer, more specialist growers - and is there significant movement towards self-propelled and four-row machines?
Two-row harvesters continue to represent the bulk of harvester sales, according to Lincolnshire-based Grimme UK marketing manager Ralph Powell.
"Ninety-nine per cent of current sales are two-row harvesters, with one or two single-row models sold each year," he says - noting that Jersey is now moving to two-row machines. He adds that the split between self-propelled and trailed machines is difficult to quantify, but annual sales of Grimme's self-propelled machines, such as the Varitron, are now into double figures.
Although Grimme also produces the four-row Tectron machine, Powell says: "The move to larger (four-row) harvesters is limited because it needs more of a change of operation than just a different harvester." He thinks that some growers will "move to two-row self-propelled machines to retain the existing workforce in an improved working environment".
However, the Grimme range continues to develop. "Grimme's research and development programme is always ongoing and is a major annual re-investment for the factory," Powell says.
He cites the development of the Grimme GT harvester for the UK market as an example of this: "The trailed version developed from the Variant and the GZ experience has now enabled the GT innovations to be developed into the self-propelled Varitron, taking the self-propelled models for the UK market to another level."
Powell predicts: "There will be a move to try to increase output from existing models by using bunker systems and unmanned units, as well as a move to self-propelled harvesters. A move to four-row, self-propelled machines like the Tectron will be gradual and will need a complete growing system regime - something that has to be developed over a few growing seasons to suit the individual and a cost that has to be accepted to maintain returns."
With increasing acreage and escalating fuel costs at the forefront of everyone's mind, growers are looking to save field passes and tractor movements wherever possible, explains Kevin Butler, Spalding-based sales manager for the Pecks group.
The group has been selling Belgian AVR machines since February and "has already sold more harvesters than expected" in the first half of the year.
"The fuel cost per hectare of both harvesting and cultivation is driving some growers from running two two-row machines to one four-row," says Butler. "We're seeing it in the pre-pack sector, where growers want the extra capacity."
With this in mind, Pecks will take delivery of an AVR four-row, self-propelled Puma demonstrator in September and will be running a series of working demonstrations throughout Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
With good operators being a key part of maximising marketable yield at harvest, the changing workforce on farms is also causing growers to re-evaluate harvesting systems. Butler says: "Increasingly, we're seeing a reduction in the skills available and this reduces the labour force. When growers are putting all their eggs in one basket they're looking for maximum reliability, as any problem in the field can have a knock-on effect for the processor.
"We feel AVR has strength in the self-propelled market, both with two-row and four-row machines. They've been around for a long time and have been sold globally. They're very well engineered and have proved to be very reliable."
He adds that the factory produces between 40 and 50 self-propelled harvesters a year at its base in Roselare.
On the subject of bunkers, Butler says many growers "remain unconvinced" - although more are expressing an interest in tanker-type machines and AVR produces both trailed and self-propelled bunker models.
Butler feels the five-tonne bunker on the two-row Mistral and the eight-tonne bunker on the four-row Puma offer growers an advantage over models with larger-capacity tanks. He says: "They're not designed to eliminate trailers, but they eliminate the need to have a trailer alongside when opening out."
He adds that for further flexibility the bunker can be bypassed with crop delivered directly to a trailer, and the bunkers can be unloaded on the move.
For growers looking for a larger hopper, the Belgian Dewulf 3060 self-propelled two-row machine features a seven-tonne hopper with automatic filling, which can be unloaded on the move and has a "gooseneck"-shaped conveyor to reduce drop height into the trailer. Supplied by Suffolk-based Niagri Engineering, Dewulf machines are available in four variants with options including axial cleaning rollers and diviner webs.
If that doesn't provide sufficient capacity, the Dutch Ploeger AR-4B four-row self-propelled machine comes with a 12.5-tonne bunker. With hydrostatic four-wheel drive and optional tracks, the large machines are currently distributed in the UK by Standen-Pearson.
Self-propelled harvesters may attract the attention of larger growers, but there is still plenty of choice in the two-row trailed market. Grimme offers the GT while the Esprit is AVR's non-bunker, two-row trailed machine. Dewulf also offers both bunker and elevator trailed two-row machines.
Perhaps the main player in the trailed harvester market is the UK's Standen-Pearson Potato Systems. Its compact QM two-row harvester has been a favourite with early growers for many years and continues to use the Galaxy Star cleaning system. The all-hydraulic Enterprise is also well-established and the distinctive tubular chassis has proved popular with drivers due to the excellent view of the web that it affords.
A more unusual introduction from the firm is the T3 three-row trailed harvester. Standen-Pearson claims it offers up to 60 per cent more output than a two-row machine - more than compensating for a price tag that is up to 30 per cent higher. The T3 can be offset or trailed directly behind the tractor in order to accommodate a range of row widths and bed sizes. Finally, while Jersey may be moving away from single-row harvesters, there is still a market for small units and Standen-Pearson sells the Supermidi, Maxi RD and Mini models from Juko.
Norfolk-based CTM Harpley Engineering supplies the two-row Norwegian-made Underhaug UN2600, and while there are rumours of a replacement model in development, nothing definite has been announced. One of the Underhaug's optional features is the unique flight conveyor mounted over the first web of the machine. When run slower than the main web, this provides additional cleaning, while the flights clean the web and prevent crop roll-back.
While new machines attract attention, many developments in cleaning can be fitted to existing machines. Powell says: "Grimme offers three haulm extraction systems and seven separator systems for the GT harvester, so the choice is there. The incorporation of hydraulic web drive and the proven double Multi-Sep separator have been two of the major contributors to the GT's success."
Another innovative cleaning system is Evolution from Scotts Potato Machinery, available as an option on Standen-Pearson's Enterprise and as standard on the T3. Scotts has also been working with Lincolnshire-based Reekie Potato Equipment to produce an Evolution Separator unit, which can be fitted to existing Dominant harvesters. The price of the unit is still to be confirmed, but Reekie representative Steve Thorley expects it to be around £15,000.
The Evolution features soft-fluted sectional polyurethane rollers mounted between solid rubber rollers. The first Reekie unit is currently in operation in north Lincolnshire and the second unit is being installed. "As the rollers are made up of segments, they're cheaper to replace than a whole roller and I think they're more durable," says Thorley. The unit features a very simple chain drive mechanism with power supplied from the harvester's front-mounted pump to an oil motor on the unit.
This drives the segmented roller shafts while a second motor drives the clod rollers, which can be set to work with or against the crop. With the ability to adjust both the height and spacing of the rollers, Thorley adds that the system is also good at haulm removal, although it should not be seen as an alternative to a second haulm roller.
He explains: "If axial cleaning rollers are causing too much scuffing, the Evolution gives the opportunity to insert a new unit and use the existing harvester services to power it."
On the wider subject of the lack of a completely new Reekie harvester since the Reekie brand was acquired by Steve Thorley Potato Equipment in 2005, Thorley says: "It's a shame it's taken four years to get a harvester back into the market, but we needed to evolve it into something suitable." With the first Evolution unit sold to the Czech Republic, that process is on well on track.