Seeds of Development
Ben VanDyke knows that growing and harvesting grass seed takes a specific combination of climate and equipment. That's why he's glad MacDon takes the time to develop products to help his operation.
A few years ago, Ben VanDyke, along with a handful of other farmers from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, made the trek to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to visit the MacDon factory. In addition to the factory tour (and, of course, some MacDon hospitality), VanDyke and the other members of the group were there to provide some feedback and suggestions for a new header in development.
“MacDon took 10 or 12 of us here from the valley and brought us over and just asked us a million questions about what it would look like to develop this header. So we were excited when it finally came out,” says VanDyke, 42. “I think it'll be a great resource in the valley here.”
It was all the more special when VanDyke and his team were able to use the new R216 Grass Seed Special (GSS) header for the first time, knowing their thoughts and feedback helped guide the design of the machine. VanDyke feels the MacDon team really listened to what the customers wanted with the header, which was especially impactful given the small size of his market.
“We spent over a half a day where you had the engineers, product support staff, and other guys just sitting there, first listening to us and then picking our brains about what we want in that product. And just to have that amount of feedback... I know they were trying to figure out what profit share that would look like and how many machines this would look like. We are a small market, we know that, and a lot of times it's tough to get service out of big manufacturers, because it is such a specialty. But to have them pour that much time into this was great for us, and I hope in the long run it pays out for MacDon.”
Grass seed is a huge component of VanDyke’s business. The family farm – which was founded by his grandfather, Bud VanDyke a few years after the end of World War II – also grows blueberries, hazelnuts, wheat, straw, clover seed; and right now, radish seed and grass seed makes up the majority of the farm’s production.
“(The) Willamette Valley runs pretty much from Portland to Eugene, Oregon, and it's a very diversified cropping region,” explains VanDyke. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the region grows more than 220 different products.
“We have a very mild climate, very mild winters, and our valley has been known as kind of the grass seed capital of the world. In the type of farming we do, we grow a lot of grass seed, turf-type grasses to plant in lawns or sod farms or golf courses, all that stuff. That is the bread and butter of our farm,” he explains.
Considering the Willamette Valley is only about 100 km (62 miles) away from the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the climate is not as wet as one might assume. VanDyke explains his area averages 106-114 cm (42-45 inches) of rain a year, but that is restricted to the winter months. The summers are almost bone dry, and it is this unique pattern that determines what crops will be most successful.
“It's very seasonal, very wet in the winter but a warm, dry summer, no thunderstorms. When the rain shuts off come mid-to-late June, it is off till October. That's why we can grow what we grow. Grass seed takes a climate where it's very low humidity during harvest. And so that's why it works here.”
Grass seed can be a challenging crop to harvest for numerous reasons – not only does it require very specific growing conditions, it also requires equally specific cutting conditions. VanDyke says they are very limited in how and when they can harvest the seed, and that because of the condensed timeline, it can be a very “intense” time.
“Grass seed has to be moved very gently from stock to the ground, because it thrashes off the top of the seed head. We windrow at night when the dew's on in the cool weather; everything's done from about midnight to about seven or eight in the morning, we have a really small window to harvest.”
“We wait until the seed moisture on that head is ripe enough to be a mature seed, but it needs to also not shatter because if we leave it staying on the stock, it'll shatter. And so that window to cut is about 10 to 14 days. Each variety luckily ripens a little bit differently in different fields and different field locations, but it's a pretty intense part of our cropping system, trying to figure out the right night or nights to cut to get that on the ground with as minimal seed loss as we can get and still get the best germination out of the grass. It's an intense process.”
So having new R216 GSS headers on the job last season was a welcome addition. VanDyke runs two R216 GSS headers, which he says replaced three sickle bar machines. (“We actually are way over machined for what most people think you should have,” laughs VanDyke.) The R216 series is known for its even flow and wider operating range of ground speeds and was designed to provide a clean cut no matter what the crop or field condition. VanDyke was very impressed with the header’s performance.
“We can run almost twice as fast with these disc heads as we could with the sickle bar head. And so the experience was, for the most part, good. We like to modify and change things structurally on the header, but there's nothing that we think needs to be changed.
“We had a good experience for the quality of its cut job, and the way it laid its windrow was good. Once it lays down, some of the competitor models tend to teepee the row, so it'll leave the seed heads up in the air and exposed and then they kind of rattle and shatter. The MacDon laid a nice flat row.”
“The other thing that we noticed, we were worried about picking up the windrow. The stalk's about three- and-a-half, four-feet-long (107 cm to 122 cm), and when it comes in on the belt pickup on the combine header, it can whip. You'll get the tips of your seed heads to whip as they come into the header if it doesn't lay really nice, but this one laid a really nice row that came into the machine very smoothly and went through the machine real nice.”
VanDyke Farms is located in the northern part of Willamette Valley, so the terrain is quite hilly and rolling without many flat fields, which, as VanDyke puts it, creates “its own distinct challenge.” But the R216 GSS was up to the task and handled the tricky terrain without issue.
“For the most part, they handled the hills just fine. Moving the material on a side hill, up or down the hill, to make a good row was just fine. You know, a little power on the hills would be nice, we actually spin them out sometimes on our steepest stuff. But they did fine with that, they actually did better than the sickle machines that we ran. So yeah, the hills weren't a problem,” he says, adding they also tried out auto-steer for the first time and were impressed with the results.
“These were our first ones we've ever put auto-steer on, and so this year was our first experience windrowing with auto-steer but that was a really nice feature because of the creature comfort, we can just get more done, we're consistent. It just made our cut job look more professional. It was a great addition.”
The VanDyke’s have been MacDon customers for years and for good reason — not only have they had positive experiences using MacDon machines, VanDyke also has nothing but positive things to say about the sales teams in their region. VanDyke specifically mentions their local salesman, Mike Thompson, from N & S Tractor in Hillsboro, OR, who he says goes above and beyond to make sure every machine is running as it should.
“I can't say enough about Mike Thompson as a salesman for his willingness to be out there and get dirty and make the machine perform like it should. That’s just always been his M.O., and that’s the way he was trained from the guy ahead of him. His phone’s on in the middle of the night, he gets as little sleep as we do during harvest, because he's willing to come make the product work and solve those issues,” he laughs. “We have zero complaints, and it helps being with them for a while because you know everyone within that store and that dealer.”