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Were it not for the American-made semis rumbling to and from field perimeters, visitors to Helena Valley Farms during the sugarbeet harvest season could be excused for wondering if they weren’t actually somewhere in Europe rather than the Thumb region of eastern Michigan. Two huge Ropa “Tiger” self-propelled harvesters move up and down the field, each dumping its topped and lifted beets into a 34-ton-capacity “Big Bear” track cart. The cart in turn unloads its contents on field headlands, where the beets sit for at least a couple days before being run through a self-propelled “Maus” — another Ropa-built unit that cleans and loads the piled beets into trucks for the trip to the factory.
Together, those four machines represent a very big investment for their owners — around $900,000. But for the Roggenbucks of Helena Valley Farms, the Ropa implements also represent big savings — savings in labor, savings in use of other harvest-related equipment, and savings in field traffic.
Father Mike and brothers Doug and Jim Roggenbuck were the first U.S. sugarbeet producers to purchase a German-built “Tiger” harvester. They bought it new in 2003 through southwestern Ontario growers John Noorloos and Eugen Burgin, who operate the Ropa franchise for North America. After expanding their beet acreage, the Roggenbucks bought a used second Tiger in 2005. Two years later they purchased a used Maus for their Huron and Sanilac County-based operation. The most recent addition to their harvest package, the Big Bear cart, was purchased new for the 2010 harvest.
Before traveling the Ropa route, “we had two toppers, two harvesters and four carts,” in a given field, Jim recounts. That meant eight drivers — compared to a total of three to operate the two Ropa harvesters and Big Bear cart. The Roggenbucks simultaneously transitioned from 30-inch rows down to 20s when first switching over to the Tiger; so they top and dig six 20-inch rows with each harvester.
Helena Valley Farms currently includes 1,500 acres of sugarbeets within its cropping rotation.
Truck traffic on their heavy clay soils can produce both traction challenges and compaction problems during a wet harvest season. Even before they bought the Big Bear, the Roggenbucks kept trucks out of the fields, instead carting everything to field edges to eventually be loaded by the Maus into waiting semi trailers. The Roggenbucks actually bought the Big Bear because they had a nice problem: “Our yields had increased, and we weren’t able to make a full round with the harvester,” Jim explains.
Soil compaction also is reduced by the wide flotation tires on the Tiger harvester, the Roggenbucks point out. The offset positioning of the unit’s three axles likewise lessens compaction by spreading tire contact and machine weight over a broader soil zone.
Jim notes that since the Maus cleans while loading, Helena Valley Farms’ beets are hauled direct to the factory, not to a company piling site. “The beets are a lot easier to clean up after sitting on the headlands for two days,” he affirms.
The Roggenbucks have been very pleased with the topping and digging performance of both Tiger self-propelled harvesters. Though there are a lot of components — the electrical and hydraulic systems are complex — “in eight years, we’ve made no modifications,” Jim reports.
They also like the digging shoe (compared to pinch wheels on standard lifters) and depth control offered by the Tiger. “We can control the depth as we move across the field,” Doug notes. “The header floats independently of the main unit, following the contours of the ground. It works on the same principle as the flex head on a grain combine.” The system allows “on the go” adjustment from the cab of both topping and lifting mechanisms.
Beet cleaning starts with the grab rolls located on the header unit. The beets are then conveyed on to three cleaning turbines (baskets), whose spinning speed can be adjusted from the cab. They’re then transported into the Tiger’s beet tank, which holds about 25 tons. — Don Lilleboe
Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower