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High tech equipment makes life for custom cutter easier

KILDARE, Okla. (AP) -- Custom wheat harvester Don Schieber said he started riding the combines when he was 12 years old in 1958, when the machines didn't have cabs or power steering and could only hold up to 50 bushels of grain at a time.

But today Schieber is riding in comfort in his 5-year-old, $177,000 John Deere combine, which has a GPS tracking system, all-digital controls, an air-conditioned cab, and even a CD player and radio.

The added accessories, plus a more efficient machine that can hold up to 300 bushels before needing to be emptied, have led to Schieber's laid back motto of "you got the dime, I got the time" when it comes to harvesting wheat fields.

Though Schieber, who is from Kildare, recently had to pay $12,000 for repairs to his combine and said higher fuel prices are cutting into his profits, he said the investment in the combine was worth it.

"I just love what I am doing," he said. "I have to pay for repairs and have to pay a lot of interest on the equipment, but you know what, it sure is fun."

Barry Nelson, a spokesman with John Deere & Co., said operator comfort has been one of the company's priorities throughout the years of redevelopment.

"Our main goals have always been to increase capacity by producing more bushels, covering more acres in less time and making the operator more comfortable since they are the ones spending long days out there in it," he said.

And Nelson said the company is working every day to make the combines even better than they are now. Though the newer combines have significantly increased in price over the years, Nelson said farmers get out of them what they pay for.

"Yes, combines are expensive, but they are also doing more than they ever have before. Now, when farmers buy a combine, they can cover two to three older machines," he said. "If you compare the cost per acre, it is still a very good investment. Farm equipment is expensive, but for the large operations, that is all figured into the costs of running their operations and getting more efficiency out of the machines. Otherwise we wouldn't be selling many combines."

Nelson said one of the newest functions of the combines is the GPS tracking system, which essentially steers the combines by satellite to minimize overlap during harvest. He said the satellite can reduce overlap to as little as 4 inches, which saves the harvester time and, in the end, money.

"We are constantly asking, can you produce a machine that is more efficient in the field, cover more acres in less time, move faster, take on more bushels and at the same time make it more user-friendly? There are still things we can do to improve, we are not perfect," he said.

But some farmers have complained that the new machines are harder to clean, meaning invasive grasses can be spread from field to field during the harvesting process.

Apache wheat farmer Paul Jackson said he requires his custom harvesters to come to his 1,800 acres first, so the combines are completely clean and not tracking any invasive grasses up from Texas.

Jackson said one of the first combines he owned in the 1960s cost about $7,000. In 1980, he said he spent about $50,000 purchasing a new one. Now, combines can run upward of $200,000, so Jackson relies on custom harvesters to do all of his cutting so he can save on equipment costs.

Jackson said it costs him about $40,000 to pay custom harvesters to cut and haul the wheat in his field, which typically produces about 90,000 bushels.

"I just can't justify owning one," he said.
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