Strip-tease for Christmas

18 December 2014

There must be a word for it. That little bit of light banter just after a meeting finishes, while people are packing up their stuff and beginning to leave.

This particular meeting contained an agricultural consultant, farm manger, assistant manager and yours truly.

After talking seed drills, the conversation turned to combine harvesters and increasing the capacity – not just a bit, but a substantial amount, a 25% increase over what we’ve got or more. You know: ‘Substantial’.

Amongst the ideas were quickly cutting the whole crop, which would be less dependent on grain moisture, and shovelling the whole lot through a shed-based stationary thrasher at a time less dependent on the weather.

The other, possibly more feasible idea that popped up was a stripper header.  The stripper header was developed in the mid 1970s by the engineering boffins then at Silsoe, Bedfordshire. By the early 1980s it went into production and it was seen as the smart farmer’s’ option of choice. Indeed an early world record of harvest (the most in a day) was won by using the header.

The idea is obvious: remove the ears of the cereal crop from the stem and leave the straw exactly where it is. With roughly as much weight of straw going through the machine as grain, it makes little sense to take in the straw and spit it back on the ground again if you don’t have to. This has the effect of nearly doubling the combine’s capacity overnight. In fact, I’ll bet a good 6 walker combine with a stripper header would make a big rotary or hybrid combine of twice the price sweat.

As with many good ideas, it came too soon. Just think of the round baler patented in 1910 Nebraska by farmer Ummo Luebben. It would be another 60 years before it really took off. Trouble was, in the 1980s no one knew what to do with the standing straw. Crops had a tendency to go flat all too easily, through breeding or over-fertilisation, giving problems to the stripper header. Cultivations equipment could not deal with it and it wasn’t the best job ploughing it in. One enterprising contractor bought a second hand 17 foot combine header, fitted it up to the front linkage and PTO of his tractor and went off cutting, windrowing and baling the stripped straw in one pass. Sounded great. But with so much to watch over, no header auto height control and very limited view of what the cutter bar was doing, it soon became mentally and physically draining to operate and the field still looked, well, scruffy.

Stripper Header

Now, fast forward to 2014 and nearly 2015 and things are different. The straw is more valued for returning plant food and organic matter to the soil. The unending desire to cultivate everything to death is under increased focus – maybe, just maybe there’s no need to cultivate at all? Tie all this in with the advent of the strip till drill that could, even should, pull through and successfully seed a field with, say, a quick cover crop until the spring months and could we be on to a winning team? Stripper header and strip till drill.

Certainly plant breeding is better, as is nutrient management, all leading to a standing crop. Sure, you’ll need a conventional header for some other crops but would our header pay for itself?

Could be that the stripper header and strip till drill were just born into different generations and might become ideal bed fellows. Well, there’s something for you to muse on over the Christmas break.

With that it just leaves me to wish you a very merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year. Check out AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds’ events page for agronomy seminars and more coming your way in 2015.

And lastly, après chat: the act of chatting after a meeting has just finished and before everyone has left. Get the Oxford dictionary on the phone.

Have a good one.



Based at Ashkam Bryan near York, Harry grew up on a beef farm in his native north Wales. Subsequently, Harry developed an interest in farm machinery that took him around the world working in agriculture. Having managed a plant breeding farm near Cambridge for Monsanto, in 2005 Harry joined John Deere as Crop Systems Specialist, from where he was recruited by AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds.