Riding a Combine

Combining at sunset
Combining at sunset

One day early in August, I opened my email to see an invitation from blog reader and commentor Sheldon Hildebrandt. They were starting to harvest wheat and he was wondering if I’d like to ride along in the combine. He knew my interest in grain elevators, and this is where the grain comes from!

I gladly accepted, and within a few days I was on my way. He was harvesting on a field west of Winnipeg, not far from the CP Carberry subdivision.

As I drove around Winnipeg on the Perimeter Highway, I saw a westbound CP train leaving the city. “Great,” thought I, “I can chase the train on the way.”

Well, chase is the right word!

It was a short intermodal train, with a pair of locomotives on the head end and another in the middle of the train. The crew took full advantage of this excess of power to make excellent time!

Ready for harvesting
Ready for harvesting

The speed limit on the highway was 100 kilometres per hour, and driving cough “pretty much” that limit led me to sloooowly catch up. Then there was the town of Rosser (50 kph limit), then back on the highway, then Meadows (70 kph) then a long stretch of 100 kph to Marquette. Not once did I ever catch up to it. They were flying!

Anyway, I reached my turnoff and headed to the field. There were a few combines rolling around the field, kicking up a lot of dust and doing their thing. Sheldon pulled up in his combine and I climbed aboard.

For those who are interested, it was a John Deere S680 combine. These babies apparently sell (used) for around a half million dollars. For the record, it was super comfortable in the cab – spacious, air conditioned, quiet.

Sheldon drove the combine up and down the field while we talked. I had never met Sheldon before, so it was good to get to know him and chat about farming, trains, and life in general.

I couldn’t help but admire the electronics in the cab. These things are very sophisticated. The combine measures the yield as it harvests, and “remembers” it using a GPS for later upload using JDLink (TM). This data is sent to the air seeder so it knows how much seed to put down in each part of the field. This kind of stuff is right up my alley. I admit it, I geeked out.

Data display
Data display

I should stop and define what a “combine” is. It’s short for a “combine harvester”, combining three harvesting operations – reaping, threshing and winnowing – into one machine. The intake of the machine does the reaping, with a toothed chain that rapidly saws back and forth to cut the crop. This is drawn into the machine, where the wheat is separated from the chaff. The wheat is stored in a hopper onboard the combine, while the chaff is discharged from the rear of the machine.

Unloading grain into the cart "on the fly"
Unloading grain into the cart “on the fly”

I didn’t realize that the hopper was emptied while the combine was still moving. A grain cart is pulled by a tractor up beside the combine, and matches speed with it. Then a chute pivots out from the combine and discharges the grain into the cart. When that’s done, the tractor and cart break off and head to a waiting truck to transfer the grain. They repeat that over and over again. This keeps the (very expensive) combine working to maximize its usage. Sheldon told me that a few farmers are using automated carts to save on labour. Farming has become very industrial.

The view from the passenger seat
The view from the passenger seat

We drove back and forth across the field, harvesting away. It was quite nice inside the cab. There’s a fridge and a stereo. No bathroom, though… or at least I didn’t see one!

After an hour, I noticed that the sun was almost down. If I wanted to fly my drone, I’d better get flying! Sheldon stopped the combine and I hopped out and found a clear spot to deploy my drone.

Combine and grain cart, in the flatlands of Manitoba
Combine and grain cart, in the flatlands of Manitoba

It was a great evening for flying, and a great location – wide open! I followed the combine for a while, taking both photos and video, until the battery ran down enough that it was time to land. I think I got 16 minutes of flight before it started to warn me about the low battery.

Aerial view of the John Deere combine
Aerial view of the John Deere combine

I recovered my drone and flagged Sheldon down to give him my thanks. I got him to pose beside the mean green machine.

Sheldon and the combine
Sheldon and the combine

Thanks for taking this city boy out for a spin! I learned a lot.

I combined the bits of video I took with the drone into this 3m 47s video.

Drone view of the John Deere combine

Just One More Thing

I hit the road for home. As I crossed the tracks at Marquette, I saw the west-facing signal was green. I didn’t really want to sit and wait for a train, as it was already past 9 PM and I had almost an hour of driving before I would get home. I drove east toward Winnipeg.

As I approached the siding at Meadows, I saw there was a train in the siding. It was a drastically overpowered train, with six locomotives on the head end. I think the middle four were “along for the ride”, as they were shiny rebuilt CP 8100 series locomotives. The consist was CP 8918 / CP 8151 / CP 8148 / CP 8145 / CP 8152 / CP 8848. The 8100s are rebuilt CP 8500 series, now classed as AC4400CWM with new diesel engines, positive train control (PTC) equipment and new paint.

Six locomotives a-waiting
Six locomotives a-waiting

By the time I finished photographing them in the near-dark, the other train was approaching, so I decided I might as well photograph it too. This was at 9:41 PM, so it was pretty dark! I used shutter speeds between 0.3 and 0.4 second, hand held. I probably should have used my tripod, but I do have pretty steady hands.

CP 8918 met this train, it's all a blur
CP 8918 met this train, it’s all a blur

It was definitely “blue hour”.

Blue hour at Meadows siding
Blue hour at Meadows siding

I packed up and headed for Winnipeg. I hoped I would be able to get ahead of the eastbound train to at least ID the locomotives on the train. Fortunately, they weren’t going nearly as fast as the westbound I saw earlier in the evening!

I panned the heck out of the train to try to capture it. 1/40s shutter speed, f/2.8, ISO 1600… it was quite dark, almost 10 PM. The lead loco was CP 9734, followed by CSX 3089, with a mid-train unit, UP 2705. Quite a collection of class 1 railways!

I think this photo of UP 2705 was my favourite of the set.

UP 2705 doing its mid train duty
UP 2705 doing its mid train duty

Thanks again, Sheldon!

Sunset on the farm
Sunset on the farm

9 thoughts on “Riding a Combine”

  1. Love the drone photos of the combine in action. This is a part of the Canadian west that we don’t see too often. We have watched the harvesting in our area (Southern Ontario – Bruce County), and while they use the same machines, the fields are not as big. I noticed how the combine spreads the chaff behind the machine. In most of the fields our way, they bale the straw for winter use with the cattle.
    Enjoy your blogs!

    • Hi Jim, thanks for your comment. I’ve seen baled straw as well as combines spreading the chaff – I wonder what the decision process is!

  2. Hi Steve. This is a nice set of pictures capturing harvest operations on the prairies. I also like the drone video of the combine. The only thing I miss is the smell of the dust in the air. The paint on the combine is the right colour too. 🙂

    • Hi Brian, thanks for your comment! The dust did have a certain smell – and it got on EVERYTHING. 🙂

      You’re a John Deere fan, I take it? 🙂

Leave a Comment