Latest Case IH kit showcased in Slovakia

By: Martin Rickatson, Photography by: Martin Rickatson

Case IH launched a new continuously variable transmission for its flagship Quadtrac tractor and other range upgrades

With a total of 9326ha (23,045ac) under its control, the Slovakian business of Danish farm management firm FirstFarms is a sizeable operation.

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Yet it’s the fact this involves more than 10,000 landlords that’s even more remarkable and provides some indication of the challenges brought to the business by Slovakia’s communist history and the legacy of pre-WWII small-scale mass land ownership.

The Slovakian business is part of an operation that spans a total of 16,400ha (40,500ac) across Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia – formerly part of Czechoslovakia until the two countries’ separation.

FirstFarms was founded in 2005, when eight Danish investors joined forces to invest in, operate, and develop agricultural enterprises in Eastern Europe.

The company’s investment in Slovakia encompasses three farming operations located 20 to 30km north of the capital, Bratislava.

Of the total 9326ha, though, only 600ha is owned, the rest being leased from around 10,000 landowners who, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, were traced as the original
pre-Communist era deed holders.

The rationale behind the business’ location is that Eastern European countries continue to offer favourable cost, production, and market factors when compared to those in the west.

Combinable cropping for the 2017–18 season will include 2443ha of winter wheat, 912ha of grain maize, 888ha of oilseed rape, 815ha of rye, 251ha of winter barley, and 217ha of triticale.

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In addition, there are 1270ha of forage crops, 530ha of sugar beet, 366ha of pumpkin for oil, and 1296ha of permanent and ley grass, fallow, and woodland.

Despite the operation’s scale, though, and a 14-strong 160–400hp conventional tractor fleet, primary tillage is carried out with just two main tractors.

Timeliness of operations is dictated not only by the business’ scale but also by the challenges posed by the silty clay black Loess soils, which have high yield potential but a high selenium content and can be difficult to manage, explains Soren Nielsen, FirstFarms’ chief operating officer for field operations – essentially the business’s day-to-day farm manager.

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"We need to work the ground when moisture levels are just right, and if that means we have to move machines 20 to 30km between blocks because conditions are better at one site than another, that’s what we do. It’s that important we hit these soils at the correct time for the best possible seedbeds," Soren says.

Working the land

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The majority of the land is worked twice – the second time to destroy the weed flush immediately ahead of drilling – using a six-metre Köckerling Vector tine/press cultivator at 15 to 20cm, or a little deeper for deep-rooting crops such as oilseed rape.

A Simba SLD is also used every four years for deeper loosening ahead of oilseed rape. Both implements are operated behind Case IH Quadtracs.

"Since taking on these farms, we’ve gradually replaced a fleet of old eastern European tractors with more productive western machines," Soren says.

"We chose to replace our old wheeled articulated tractors with Quadtracs, as they offered greater traction, easier road transport, and smoother headland turning without scuffing when compared to a twin-track alternative, and that’s helped improve yields from headlands. A sub-three-metre travel width also means we don’t need to escort them on the road."

Machine talk

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FirstFarms currently runs two Quadtrac 620 tractors, run on two-year operating leases, with one tractor replaced each year. Each has two drivers who operate in 12-hour shifts at peak times, supported by service trucks and fuel bowsers.

The tractors tend to complete 1500 hours in their first year and, when alternately relegated to the secondary role in their second year, add 1000 hours to their clocks before being replaced.

"Auto-steering has further helped boost tractor productivity, having used AFS AccuGuide since purchasing our second Quadtrac in 2012. As a package, power and accuracy are the key reasons we’re able to farm 9300ha with the same number of employees that we had in 2006 on 3800ha, reducing production costs and, at the same time, improve yields through more timely operation.

"Milling wheat yields now average seven-tonne per hectare for winter wheat, while we’ve increased winter oilseed rape yield averages to 3.4-tonne per hectare and sugar beet yields to 65-tonne per hectare.

"Wheat yields have benefitted from a switch from locally-bred varieties to German-bred milling types capable of producing two-tonne per hectare more than the typical Slovakian varieties. Over the past five years, our milling average has been 6.5-tonne per hectare, although this spring’s drought cut 2017 yields back to 5.2 tonnes per hectare.

"That may not sound high, but we’re not in a high rainfall region and prefer to contain our growing costs and use a relatively low-input approach. Yields have also benefitted from the organic matter boost given over time to the silty clay soil by rotational applications of manure from our 2500 milkers and youngstock."

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The amount of land to cover and the need to turn it around quickly before the silty clay dries and caps, means the two Quadtracs are responsible for cultivations alone – a smaller 400hp tractor doing the drilling with a 9m Köckerling Ultima tine coulter machine.

The majority of spraying is overseen by a pair of Lendl 36m trailed machines supported by a contractor in peak season, while a Bredal trailed spreader applies 2500 tonnes
per year of material, covering most fertiliser requirements.

Most machinery maintenance is done in-house by a team of seven mechanics, while the company also operates its own agronomy and financial management teams.

Co-ordinating the farm’s arable staff has been made easier by the relatively recent adoption of a telemetry system, Soren says.

"Originally it was an investment made as much for security as for management, as misuse of farm fuel was proving a problem.

"As the system is connected to our diesel tanks as well as the key machines, we’ve been able to address this, and now use telemetry primarily for management reasons. Across an operation of this size, it’s a useful tool in locating machines, tracking their progress, and identifying their requirements."

Reaping the benefits

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With its location in mid-Europe meaning Slovakia enjoys a short ‘true’ winter from late December to the end of January, autumn-drilled crops grow on through the winter, making harvest early – most wheat is usually cut by late July and most barley and oilseed rape by early that month.

"From that point, though, we must get a lot of ground prepared in a short time before it loses moisture, while the spread of crops we grow also means we have staff busy on all types of other harvest and associated jobs." Soren says.

"That’s why we run two of the biggest tractors available to achieve the best possible work rates with the minimum of staff, allowing the rest of the team to focus on the remainder of harvest. There are alternatives now available, but we know these machines have a long track record behind them, which is reassuring."

Farm Facts

FirstFarms Slovakia

  • Farmed area: 9326ha
  • Soils: Black loess silty clay
  • Cropping: 2443ha winter wheat, 912ha grain maize, 888ha OSR, 815ha rye, 251ha winter barley, 217ha triticale, 1270ha forage crops, 530ha sugar beet, 366ha pumpkins, 1296ha permanent and ley grass, fallow, and woodland.
  • Staff: 54 including agronomists, machinery technicians, financial management
  • Tractors: 2x Case IH 620 Quadtrac plus 14 others from 160-400hp
  • Combines: 2x 13.5m Claas
  • Lexion 780

Maxxum, Puma, and Quadtrac updated

Case IH hosted press and dealers from around the world at First Farms’ Slovakian operation, where it gave attendees the chance to learn about tractor range updates for 2018.

First up is a new eight-step, three-range semi-powershift transmission, ActiveDrive 8, for the Maxxum range, joining the existing four-speed semi-powershift and continuously variable transmission options.

Available on the mid-spec Maxxum Multicontroller models, ActiveDrive 8 provides 24 speeds in both forward and reverse.

Covering speeds up to 10.2km/h, range one is specifically designed for heavier draft work, while range two covers the 1.6–18.1km/h band.

For road travel, the transmission is designed to start in range three, and a skip-shift function allows quick progress through the powershift speeds.

An auto shift feature means the tractor can be set to progress automatically through any set of eight speeds in the field and through all 16 gears in the top two ranges on the road.

A pedal kick-down function can be used to override the transmission automation and cause it to downshift.

The revision of the Maxxum range also sees a new 175hp (max) six-cylinder Maxxum 150 launched at the top of the line, with availability from Q3 2018.

This is claimed to be the lightest, smallest tractor in the industry using a six-cylinder engine
of this power output.

Meanwhile, Puma 185 Multicontroller to Puma 240 CVT models now benefit from front axle suspension improvements, incorporating a double accumulator for an enhanced ride, particularly as front and rear axle loads change.

Gross vehicle weight allowances have been increased from 13,000kg to 13,650kg on Puma Multicontroller models and 14,000kg on Puma CVT tractors.

Puma 185 Multicontroller to Puma 240 CVT models can also now be equipped with Adaptive Steering Control (ASC). This variable-rate steering system allows the ratio between the number of steering wheel turns made and the steering angle of the front wheels to be altered according to the requirements of the work in hand.

Through the tractor’s AFS terminal, the operator can select a desired steering ratio via three preset options or a custom setting.

Also new, and for all Puma models, is Reactive Steering, which enhances response and self-centres the steering.

Lastly, Puma Multicontroller and Puma CVT tractors can now come with ISOBUS Class III, making possible two-way data transfer between the tractor and any compatible implement.

This not only allows implement features to be controlled via the AFS 700 terminal screen but also allows the implement to feedback information that can then control tractor settings, such as forward speed, said to be especially useful in operations such as baling, allowing the baler to direct the tractor’s steering along the swath to ensure an even intake, and a well-formed bale.

Meanwhile, it’s now possible, via the AFS 700 terminal screen, to configure all Multicontroller buttons – apart from those that operate the transmission – plus the remote valve paddle switches and the remote valve joystick to operate ISOBUS implements as desired.

Case IH also showed off the industry’s first tracked tractor with a continuously variable transmission, with the introduction of a CVT option for the Quadtrac 470, 500 and 540 tractors.

CVT will also be available on the wheeled Steiger equivalents, while the default transmission on all models remains the 18-speed powershift.

The new transmission offers step-less travel from standstill up to 43km/h and can be operated to work at a desired forward speed or engine speed, with Automatic Productivity Management software then able to adjust engine and transmission management accordingly.

At 617 peak horsepower, the Quadtrac 540 is reckoned to offer the highest available power of any CVT tractor on the market, claims Case IH. Comparable figures for the Quadtrac 500 CVT and Quadtrac 470 CVT are 558hp and 525hp.

Claimed benefits include ease of use – particularly for inexperienced operators – faster acceleration to field or road speed, reduced operator fatigue, full power availability at low ground speeds for special applications/implements, and full hydraulic flow availability at low ground speeds.

The transmission allows the storing of three adjustable target speeds from 0km/h to 43km/h, adjustable via the thumb-wheel and buttons on the tractor’s armrest-mounted Multicontroller joystick.

A kick-down feature allows maximum acceleration and 40km/h is achieved at 1,440rpm. In place of the foot throttle found on models with powershift, Quadtrac CVT models are fitted with a drive pedal.

In automatic mode, this acts as a true drive pedal, controlling the tractor’s ground speed, and maximum ground speed can be controlled with the thumbwheel and speed range buttons on the Multicontroller joystick.

In manual mode, the foot pedal acts as a conventional foot throttle. Also new is a powershuttle switch on the Multicontroller joystick, which works in parallel with the column shuttle, and a dual hand throttle for the setting of minimum and maximum engine speeds.

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