Dr. Dan Talks Agronomy

Flail Before Bale

Looking for ways to make baling cornstalks more efficient turns into a on-farm experiment for our consulting agronomist. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

I've tried various ways to get away from raking corn stubble, but alternatives proved inefficient. I tried using the combine to create a windrow, but that left a bare 5-foot wide swath in the field where the combine header traveled. I prefer to keep some cover on the soil and the bare spots tend to hasten corn seedling emergence in the spring compared to adjacent areas with cover.

With that system, I also used a V-rake to make a windrow. Raking is relatively quick and low cost per acre. With 200-bushel corn, I was harvesting four to five large round bales per acre. The downside was the V-rake wheels are ground driven and put too much dirt in the windrow. That's hard on the baler and doesn't leave enough residue on the surface.

Last fall I had a conversation with Harrison Pettit with Pacific Ag, a company that commercially harvests crop residue, including cornstalks -- some of it for the cellulosic ethanol industry. They use Hiniker flail windrowers to windrow cornstalks and bale the material with large square balers. They do not want to remove all the material. The cellulosic ethanol process won't tolerate dirt.

The concept intrigued me enough that I rented a used Hiniker 5620 HLI flail windrower this fall. The 20-foot wide flail shredder blows residue upward into a chamber and a cross-auger delivers it to the right side of the machine. A 20-foot-up and 20-foot-back pass creates a single windrow with 40 feet of material. The lower you set the height of the shredder, the more material harvested. The slower the ground speed, the more material is harvested because the 'suction' of the flails pulls more material into the cross conveyor chute.

With trial and error, I set the height at 4 to 5 inches and the ground speed at 7 to 8 mph. The flail windrowing was fast and smooth and although there was some dust from the disintegrating residue, there was no dirt in the windrow. The soil was covered with a layer of residue.

Round it up. Baling was frustrating. Our John Deere 568 baler MegaWide has always done a good job baling raked cornstalks. Raked material is stringy with a combination of stalks, husks, leaves, tassels and cobs. Raked windrows contained material for 15 to 20 feet (6 to 8 rows) of cornstalks. It flows into the bale chamber much like hay that is intertwined and tangled.

However, the windrow from the double pass with the flail shredder contained smaller pieces and the windrow was quite large and didn't flow smoothly into the bale chamber. Slowing down to 2 to 3 mph and constantly watching the pickup head resolved the issue, but it was tedious and inefficient.

I need to note here that the material was also processed through a chopping cornhead. A test using more lightly shredded cornstalks run through a regular cornhead flowed more evenly into the baler, although I still had to reduce baling ground speed.

Getting suggestions. Hiniker customer service advised turning off the chopping cornhead knifes. That will save wear and tear on the cornhead, save fuel and increase material size. To reduce the size of the windrow, it was suggested that U.S. I raise the shredding height and increase operation speed. I probably won't go beyond 7 to 8 mph, but I'll raise the height to 5 to 6 inches. The flatter the windrow, the better it will flow into the baler.

Loren Skala, Territory Customer Support Manager with John Deere, offered these baling suggestions:

Back the adjustable relief valve pressure 1.5-2 turns from maximum. The pressure gauge should be running in the 12:30-1:00 position.

-- Add addition compressor rods to the center of the roller baffle assembly. Don't use the outside holes as compressor rods will damage the converging auger on the Mega Wide Plus pickup.

-- In light fluffy dry stalks, removing the adjustment bolt for roller baffle float springs can improve feeding by putting more down force on the windrow.

-- Set draw bar height on tractor between 17 and 20 inches off of the ground to increase the pickup and baffle capacity.

Skala explained that the roller baffle compresses the material so it flows better into the baler. However when the windrow is tall (such as when two 20-foot rows are thrown together), the baffle reaches the top of its stroke and can start pushing the windrow in front of the roller and create a plug -- a lesson I learned the hard way.

He advised I pay more attention to windrow formation. John Deere recommends cutting stalks so that the majority of stalks are 6-12 inches in length. The company suggests a windrow no wider than the width of the bale chamber and flat enough that the roller baffle will not reach its upper stop. Adjust ground speed to keep the roller baffle from hitting its stop.

I still have some things to work out, but I'm now flailing about with a lot more success.

Dan Davidson can be reached at AskDrDan@dtn.com

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