It’s the summer of 2012, and Kandahar, Saskatchewan farmer Dustin Burns is in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He, along with a handful of other producers, is a dinner guest of former MacDon owner Gary MacDonald, who has turned the evening’s conversation to one of his favorite topics.
“Gary went around the table and wanted to hear from everybody in the group, not just those willing to speak up,” recalls Burns of the evening. “It was really important to him to understand how we used MacDon’s equipment, how it affected our lives, our businesses, and our families.”
Dustin’s invitation to Winnipeg had come following a story in Performance Magazine (Resurrection, Spring 2011) telling of how MacDon FlexDrapers had saved the family’s oat harvest from an early snow the previous autumn. Now he, and the rest of Gary’s dinner guests, have found themselves part of an informal focus group whose purpose was to provide input on MacDon’s next generation of products.
“The visit included a plant tour and a group session where they were looking for feedback on all of their products, but mostly their swather. They wanted to know if we would continue to be OK with paying for a product that warranted a premium price, a product that is a step above the competition.”
Dustin – who owns Windy Poplars Farm, a 20,000 acre mixed crop operation along with his brother Tyler, father John, and good friend Doug Reeve – says that MacDon most wanted to hear about their farm’s needs harvesting canola.
“One of our biggest challenges at the time was the recent increase in canola yields, which had resulted in a bulkier mass of material for the swather to deal with. I told them that we needed more capacity, both on the deck and through the throat of the swather. I’m sure that we weren’t the only ones with that feedback because I think that became a major focus on their development of the new swather.”
MacDon clearly appreciated the input, because the year after the visit Dustin was approached about testing a prototype windrower at Windy Poplars. It was the start of another important MacDon R&D / Farmer relationship, one that would provide Dustin and his partners with a cab seat view, so to speak, of MacDon’s product development process.
“All four of us enjoy testing equipment, but Doug and I share a special enthusiasm because we both have ag engineering backgrounds and have been involved in the manufacturing process directly. We do it largely because we feel it is valuable to have partnerships in the industry, but also because it gives us the opportunity to provide feedback that can affect the final product and benefit other farmers. We do like to affect the outcome, even if it is a little thing.”
Dustin recalls that the first summer testing MacDon’s prototype windrower, which would eventually become today’s M1 Series, wasn’t without its hiccups.
“The swather they brought out was by no means a finished product, so they didn’t want a potential customer operating it. Instead, they provided two operators, both summer students I think, so not the most experienced. As such, the swather was not set up the way we would do it for our land and conditions, and in all honesty, it didn’t do a very good job.”
“After that first year, we provided feedback on what the unit was missing to manage our conditions. We also communicated how we would like the testing done, that we would prefer to operate the prototype ourselves, just because we know our land and how we like to tackle our fields.”
What most impressed Dustin about MacDon after that first year was not just that MacDon accommodated their concerns, but how much the company had learned.
“They were well prepared for that next season. They clearly wanted to make sure that they learned from that scenario so that the next time was a positive experience for us. In fact, the machine they brought out the next year was really not that far from where they landed with the final product.”
“Overall we ran a prototype for at least three seasons prior to its release, at various stages of development. We were impressed with the support that came with it; that they listened to how we wanted to see it operated instead of pushing on us how they wanted it done.”
Tyler Burns, who spent the most time of the farm’s four owners operating the prototype windrowers, says that he was really struck by the commitment of the technicians that MacDon supplied to provide them with support.
“I remember one season they were really focused on the decibel level in the cab,” recalls Tyler. “We were out cutting in wet conditions with lots of mosquitos and bugs in the field. They had this guy stand out there on the swaths just so they could measure the noise each time the swather passed. We were doing that for at least an hour, so he must have been eaten alive. That’s pretty dedicated. I don’t know if I would do that.”
“That just shows the attention to detail that MacDon has,” adds Tyler. “Sometimes, when you see how the sausage is made, you think twice about buying the product, but after being that involved testing that machine I knew that it was what I wanted to run.”
Today Windy Poplars owns a single M1170 windrower, which they rely on to do most of their swathing, along with an older M155 which they keep in reserve as a backup.
“We have run our M1170 for two harvests now,” says Tyler. “It has been almost flawless for us. There haven’t been any issues or surprises.”
“Some other manufacturers would have considered it market ready two years earlier, but not MacDon; they wanted to make sure that everything was right before they released it.”
And the fact that there haven’t been any issues is not any great revelation to anyone at Windy Poplars, especially Dustin, who points to the extended development time that MacDon invested in the product as the primary reason it has performed so well.
“A lot of shortline manufacturers get caught trying to release into the market before the product is fully ready,” says Dustin. “The last two years that we were testing that machine not much changed on the unit, only a few small details. Some other manufacturers would have considered it market ready two years earlier, but not MacDon; they wanted to make sure that everything was right before they released it. And because of that, it just works.”
In addition to helping with the development of M1 Series windrowers, Windy Poplars has also assisted with the fine-tuning of the FM100 (float module) on MacDon’s new FD1 FlexDraper header. Dustin says that both experiences have added to his appreciation of MacDon as a company.
“MacDon has been excellent to work with,” says Dustin. I have nothing bad to report; even that first year, when things were rocky, they were really good to us. And that comment filters right down to the technicians that were out here day to day with us. Either they pick the right people or instill in them the right ideals; regardless, they have just been excellent to be around.”
Beyond enjoying the working experience with MacDon, Dustin says that he also takes more than a little satisfaction knowing the role Windy Poplars has played in developing products like the M1 Series.
“I hope that our feedback is valuable to them. We would never want to take credit for any specific idea, even though we may see one or two of them reflected in the machine when it is released. As an engineer, I know that they always have lots of different things that they are trying when they are developing something, and they probably have gone through 20 different iterations of something before we see it. That said, it is our feedback, positive or negative, that determines the direction that they go with the end product, so it’s always nice to know that you have had a positive influence.”