So Says Michigan's Richmond Brothers
Left: Ken (left) and Mike Richmond (right) discuss the upcoming Michigan harvest with employee Todd Roestel.
The Richmond brothers were featured in two articles in the July/August 2009 issue of The Sugarbeet Grower — "Harvest Questions? Ask the Richmonds!" and "Walking the Walk: Richmonds Produce Quality Crops."
Like sugarbeet growers everywhere, Ken and Mike Richmond know how important proper maintenance and operation of their beet harvester is in each year’s profit-making equation. But that doesn’t mean the Bay Port, Mich., brothers downplay the role of a quality defoliation job — far from it.
“We feel that when it comes to adjustment and operation, the beet defoliator is about as important as the harvester,” Ken affirms. “Because if you’re doing a good job with your topper, those beets will dig much better for you — and, they’ll store so much better in the pile.”
Not a revolutionary statement, perhaps, but it’s one the Richmonds follow through on religiously. And it’s a point they repeatedly emphasize to their fellow Michigan beet growers and customers. Along with running their own Huron County farm, the brothers advise other beet producers — individually and at group meetings — on the modification and adjustment of beet defoliators and harvesters for optimum efficiency. They’ve also developed a flourishing business fabricating and selling upgrade kits for toppers and lifters (with the latest product being a row finder featuring new-style valves).
Asked to highlight a few “topping tips” and common errors to avoid, the Richmonds immediately zero in on flail quality and ground speed. “Number one is flail quality,” Mike states, noting that running worn or damaged flails will guarantee a compromised defoliator performance.
Assuming flail quality is good and the topper has been thoroughly checked over and maintained, “at that point it comes down to field operation,” Ken adds. “Ground speed is important, your rpm-to-PTO speed is important, and your front-to-back height is crucial, too. You want your front up a little and back end down a bit.”
It may seem obvious, but the Richmonds also stress the importance of putting an “educated” driver on the defoliator tractor. “Oftentimes, the topper driver is the retired farmer down the road who can drive straight but may not have grown beets,” Mike muses. “He may set up the topper for a certain field — and then, when done there, simply go to the next one.
“But every beet field is different — from soil type, to the beet variety being grown there, to plant population and stand uniformity. So if those things are not taken into account, the topper can either knock out a lot of beets or leave on parts of the tops.”
“If you get into thinner beets, you need to lift the topper and slow down a little so you don’t knock them out,” his brother adds. “When they’re thin, they have a tendency to ‘grow out’ of the ground. You don’t want to hit them too heavy and too low when they’re thin. Where the beets are thick, they’ll be uniform. If the field is thick from front to back, you can usually just set the flail height and away you go.”
Furrows — whether from sprayer tracks, irrigation unit tracks or going across harvested headlands — can threaten not only topping efficiency, but also the defoliator itself, the Richmonds point out. The rear wheels on most defoliators are in line with each other, “so if you drive across a furrow, they all hit into the furrow at the same time,” Ken notes. “That topper can literally shake when you’re going across dug headlands. It bounces up and down, jams the flails into the ground, forces dirt up underneath.”
The Richmonds’ solution — for both their own defoliator and those of several other Michigan growers — has been to offset one rear wheel on each side by about eight inches from its neighboring wheel. “So the first wheel on each side will come into the furrow — but won’t all in so hard because the back wheel is eight inches behind it,” Ken explains. The result has been reduced machine fatigue and overall improved defoliation quality.
When it comes to the lifting half of the harvest equation, the Richmonds first focus, not surprisingly, on thorough preharvest maintenance. That accomplished, it’s on to field operation.
Every beet grower understands that ground speed and digging depth can dramatically influence harvesting efficiency, and the Richmonds are no exception. Their standard travel speed is 3.6 to 3.7 mph, but they also know digging in heavy clay soils calls for slower speeds as compared to lighter ground.
They prefer to dig deeper to minimize tail breakage and chipped beets. But doesn’t that mean more tare dirt? If the harvester is properly adjusted, the grab rolls are in good shape, and one’s ground speed is appropriate, the machine’s cleaning action should keep the tare within acceptable limits, Mike ventures. “And that’s why you also have to dig slower. If you’re going to dig deep and drive too fast, you’ll have a problem.
“Adjust to the situation,” he reiterates. “If you’re digging in sand and dirt’s not an issue, that’s one thing. If you’re digging in heavy clay — like we are most of the time — it is an issue.”
Having repaired and replaced many grab rolls over the years — both on their own harvesters and on those of grower/customers — Ken Richmond offers these thoughts on the “repair or replace” question:
“It depends on where the roll is in the harvester. If they’re in a transition area, they have to be good. You can get away with a little less wrap in places where you’re trying to move beets in the same direction as your tubes. But when you’re trying to move beets 90 degrees to the tube, that’s where the rolls have to be in real good shape. If not, the beets will sit in those transitions and be damaged.
“As a general rule, I would never let [rolls] get anywhere below 50%; and where the transitions are, they should be 75% and above to work right.” — By Don Lilleboe
Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower