Mighty machines on perilous slopes

Mighty machines on perilous slopes

Hillside combines crisscross the Palouse to gobble up wheat

Like a scene out of Star Wars, giant machines crawled across the hills of Eastern Washington, eating up wheat along perilously steep 30-degree hillsides. This was the scene at last week's Farm Financial Standards Council meeting held near the Palouse, one of the most scenic and iconic agricultural regions in the world.

These were the final few days of winter wheat harvest. Rapeseed and wheat is grown everywhere, including some steep terrain that will certainly make you flinch if you're not used to it. That's why the movie you see here is so unsteady – I literally felt like these machines were going to topple over on me as I tried to capture the harvest on video.

The McCaw family of Walla Walla, Wash., combine wheat on the Palouse.

We visited with Guy McCaw, part of a five-generation family farm in Walla Walla, Wash., the heart of the Palouse region. Guy farms with his father Jack and son Jesse.

Typically this area can see wheat yields twice as high as those in other regions of the country, often topping 100 bu. per acre on average. But drought and heat cut this year's production by at least 30%, says Guy.

The McCaws have 12,000 acres and, with custom cutting, will harvest 20,000 acres a year.

"The crops we're cutting, the last rain was in Mid-May and we've had super high heat right in the middle of grain fill," he says.

This is soft white wheat and processors want low protein, but crop stress ends up adding more protein to the grain, making the disappointing harvest even more so.

Three generations - Guy, Jack and Jesse McCaw - take a quick break from wheat harvest.

Even so, the rock stars of this visit are the combines. The McCaws usually have five going at once but this day some were down for repair. It cost around $100,000 each to retrofit a combine to handle hillside harvesting, which allows the machines to self-level as they move across steep terrain. All combines are 4-wheel-drive, essential for maneuvering on these hills, says Guy.

Back in the day, the first hillside combines were horse drawn and had a crew of eight. As a kid, Jack recalls using manual levelers - people would have to jack up the machine as it moved along the hillsides. "That made for a long day," he says.

A tough German

With today's hydraulics, these hillside combines automatically use sensors to push one side up and the other down as the machines move along. They rarely slip or topple over, but it wasn't always the case. Several years ago farmers had to be pretty fearless to get on one of those combines.

Paul Neiffer, a CPA who grew up in this region, tells the story of his father, Otto, running a combine that tipped over back in 1975. Otto was 65 years old and the family had just purchased a new International 453 combine which could self-level on hillsides in four directions.

This twisted wreck was all that was left of Otto Neiffer's new combine after it tipped over in 1975.

"Unlike today’s combines, you usually stood up to drive the combine," says Paul. "My dad was going up a hillside with about a 30-35% slope when suddenly the combine started going backwards rapidly.  Since my dad was standing up, the rapid backwards motion caused him to grab the steering wheel and he turned it quickly into the hillside to try to stop the combine from going down the hill. However, he turned it too sharply and since the rear-end of the combine was way up in the air and had very small tires, it caused the combine to flip over (see photo). 

"The bin was about three-fourths full of peas and I actually think this helped save my dad, since the combine was cushioned by the peas in the bin."

Otto survived, but a 5-inch long throttle lever about 3/8th-inch wide ended up piercing his leg and pinning him inside the cab. When the paramedics finally showed up, they spent some time trying to figure out how to get Otto out of the combine. 

"He had the throttle lever sticking through his leg and they discarded the idea of torching the lever off since that would burn his leg," Paul says.  They did not have enough room to get under the combine to use any type of saw, so eventually they handed my dad a hack saw. He had to hack saw his way out of the combine.

"My dad was one tough old German," says Paul.

Phyllis Parks, an Agricultural Broadcaster for WITY 980AM in Danville, Ill., got a chance to interview Jack McCaw while taking a break on our tour bus. She kindly shared her interview with Farm Futures.

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