It’s a short video from 1989 that belongs in a museum. Custom cutter Jim Deibert is sitting in the middle of a wheatfield, halfway out of the cab of his truck, listing off to MacDon’s Tom Fox improvements that he would like made to the company’s prototype header.
“Make them so that we don’t have daily maintenance that takes longer than it does to combine. Fix that chaincase so that we can move it when we load. Fix the reel so it will slide back further. Give me some bolt-on sections, and give me my zero transition at the back of the sickle, but fix it so that I am not eating them guards on the end.”
The video documents one of those transitional moments in the history of agriculture: the point between the waning of an old technology and the birth of something better. In this case, the something better is MacDon’s new draper header, a radical concept in 1989 given that drapers had already been exposed as impractical for combining back in the 1940s. But MacDon’s prototype was light years ahead of those older canvas drapers, and Deibert could easily see their promise.
Deibert’s work with MacDon had started the year before in 1988, when MacDon had asked John Deere if they knew of a custom cutter who could trial a header they were working on.
“John Deere sent them to Bill Gerard and Bill said, ‘I know the perfect guy because he’s had trouble getting his augers to feed in certain conditions.’ We had trouble with our 30’ auger heads warping from the sun if we were shut off for a few minutes, so that when you started back up the auger would start scraping. I also remember cutting 20-bushel wheat in Colorado and going only two mph because we couldn’t get the wheat to feed smoothly. I was at the point where I wanted a better feeding header, so when MacDon called to ask me to trial their draper, I knew it was something I wanted to try.”
Deibert would prove to be the perfect choice for the assignment, not just because his operation cut a lot of wheat every year following the harvest from Texas to North Dakota, but also because he was patient enough to push through the many hiccups that working with experimental equipment usually entails.
“The first MacDon employee I met was Karl Klotzbach, who brought the header down behind this old ‘74 Chevy. That Chevy was just a clunker of a vehicle, and it was working its guts out to pull this monstrous 36 foot header, at a time when 30 footers were the biggest around. When that thing sat alongside other headers, it looked like a man among boys. It just stood out.”
Compared to the R&D standards MacDon currently employs, working with the prototype header that first year had a certain seat-of-your-pants feel about it.
“We had a really hot summer in ‘88, and we could not keep the oil in the header cool when it got above 100o. When it got like that, we would have to take the header off and put my John Deere header back on. But then Karl went to town and bought a transmission cooler for a pick-up and mounted it on the back of that header. Instantly our heating issues were over.”
“I also remember Karl spending a lot of time working on the gearbox. It was full of grimy black grease, and poor Karl would just come out completely black head to toe at the end of the day. We fought it and fought it, but it wasn’t stopping us from running even though we had one problem after another. Everything with that header was a work in progress.”
Despite the many challenges, Deibert says that he saw enough that first year to convince him that drapers were the way forward.
“At that time, MacDon didn’t think that header was for custom harvesters like me. They wanted it for the Canadian farmer with both a swather and a combine, and their plan with me was just to get hours on the unit. But when I saw the way that thing cut and the way it fed so smoothly and evenly into the combine, I knew right then that it was something that I wanted for my operation.”
Convinced, Deibert asked MacDon to build him three 30’ headers for the ‘89 season.
“I guess the biggest mistake I made that first year was not going to 36’s right away, but I was scared that I couldn’t spread the straw and do a good job for my farmers taking in that much material. Transport was also an issue because we had to load the header endways in the back of a 22’ truck.”
Deibert solved the transport issue by building a trailer to support the back end of the header. Other issues were solved thanks to the constant presence of Karl Klotzbach and Roger Patterson, two MacDon engineers who had been assigned to work with Deibert to iron out the kinks on a header concept that was still largely unproven. It was the start of a close working relationship between the company and Deibert.
“Now today you would never do this, but I remember Roger Patterson laying on the top of my combine, his toes hooked back in the bin so that he could look down and watch the feed from above. The feed auger was really a challenge at that time; they didn’t have fingers on the early ones, and I imagine we had ten or more auger designs trying to find the right one that would work.”
“When I saw the way that thing cut, and the way it fed so smoothly and evenly into the combine, I knew right then that it was something that I wanted for my operation.”
In addition to Klotzbach and Patterson, many other MacDon employees would spend time with Deibert over the next several years on his harvest runs.
“We had people like Gary and Scott MacDonald, Gene Fraser, Karl Brooks, and Tom Fox spend time with us, plus so many others I can’t remember. Many of them were young and pretty fresh on the job at the time, but they helped us a lot. In fact, a lot of these guys who are now senior people at MacDon were introduced to the harvest business back then with that header.”
One person Deibert would form a lasting friendship with would be Gary MacDonald, the company's former vice-president.
“Gary has always been very special to me. We used to call each other up and have conversations through the winter. We would just talk and talk.
I remember telling him, among others at MacDon, that the guy who could figure out a header that could cut both grains and beans is going to have the market.”
Today, as an inductee in the US Custom Harvesters Hall of Fame who now has 50 harvests behind him, Deibert says that one thing that he takes particular satisfaction in from his long career is the part he played in the development of draper header technology.
“I don’t like to beat my own drum, but we did help contribute to how we cut wheat. We went from using auger platforms to drapers, and that just transformed harvesting. Now when you see the major manufacturers also building drapers, it just shows the confidence they have in the draper concept. It’s been fun to watch the product evolve and work with MacDon through the years. They have always been good to work with, and they always send quality people; the kind of people you like to have around.”