It is always satisfying when you can offer people a new solution to an old problem, and that is what Oxfordshire-based farmer and contractor Kevin Smith is hoping to do when he rolls out an innovative weed harvester for customers this summer.
Kevin’s contracting company Pasture Care has acquired a Zürn Top Cut Collect mechanical weed harvester, one of only three in the country at the time of writing.
The machine was developed in Germany and France, where it has been successfully used for controlling blackgrass and other high-growing grass weeds in cereal crops.
It works by cutting the seed heads of weeds that protrude above the crop canopy and collecting the seed heads in a hopper, thereby preventing the weeds from shedding and spreading further.
With the high cost of glyphosate and the widespread resistance of weeds to chemical solutions, mechanical harvesting offers a new alternative. It also provides an option for farmers who are reluctant to disturb soil through ploughing.
“It is proving quite attractive for organic farmers who are used to finding solutions without chemicals,” said Kevin. “And people aren’t just talking to me about blackgrass in wheat, although that’s obviously a big area where we think this machine could help. I’m also talking to customers about tackling weeds in spring oats, kale and even grass. This could bridge the gap between organic and mainstream farming.”
The weight of the machine is 3,500 kg and Kevin has fitted lightweight row-crop tyres with 72-inch centres to his tractor to minimise crop and soil disturbance. Crop dividers can also be fitted. Rear mounted, the Top Cut Collect has a working width of 12 metres. “That does mean we will pass through some of the crop, but we have calculated a yield loss of only around 3%,” Kevin said. The double-section cutter bar can be set to cut as low as 30 cm and as high as 1.8 metres. The collection hopper has a capacity of seven cubic metres and a 1.90 metre tipping height.
The machine’s French designer figured that using a harvester to remove 90% of the seed heads in a crop would substantially help to control weeds. A trial of Top Cut Collect in the UK was able to clear volunteer rye from barley and leave the crop largely clear. Kevin notes that timing is important: “We will get best results when the majority of the weed has grown to stand proud above the crop so that it can be skimmed off, but before it starts to shed seed,” he explained. The machine is fitted with brushes to clean the knives of seed heads and sweep the material along a conveyor belt to the hopper.
In future there is even potential for using the harvester to collect a more benevolent harvest – wildflower seeds – but for the moment, Kevin is focusing on helping farmers rid their fields of a more unwelcome guest. While Oxfordshire-based, Pasture Care is offering the service throughout the South East and beyond, wherever there is need.
Kevin has had success before in bringing innovative machines to the market. “I think this machine has real potential to ease some very large headaches in the farming community,” he concluded.