From stubble to seedbed in a single pass is optimal situation
by Eric McMullin
November 3rd, 2004
It took Kevin McDonald 25 years to design and build the Optimizer, a gargantuan all-in-one tillage tool that can take a field from stubble to seedbed in a single pass.
McDonald has sold four Optimizers since he introduced the machine at the 2004 World Ag Expo in Tulare. The machine carries a price tag of $185,000, but don’t let the price be a deterrent, cautioned Cannon Michael, manager of business operations at Bowles Farming Co. in Los Banos. The Optimizer can pay back quickly in the right situation.
“We documented actual savings of $47 an acre,” said Michael. “That was over 1,336 acres last year. From those numbers, we knew we could justify the purchase of an Optimizer. We plan to run the Optimizer over 3,000 acres this year. That’s an out-of-pocket savings of $141,000 just from fuel and labor.”
And it’s not just the dollar savings, said Michael.
“There are also the time savings, which we think are just as important,” he said. “In the past, if we got caught by some early rains in November, we might not get back to that field until the spring. And you’re busy enough in the spring as it is. Plus, the soil is wet so you get clods and compaction—you can end up fighting those clods and compaction for the next three or four years. To me, the time savings are worth as much as the $47.”
Michael’s crew was able to cover 5 acres an hour last year, and he expects to improve on that this year.
“Last year,” he explained, “we were using an older machine that Kevin rented to us. This year, we have a new machine and it works a lot quicker. We’re covering 8 to 10 acres an hour this year.”
Also, he said, “We had a problem with the tractors last year. We had a 400-horsepower John Deere and it was a little underpowered, so we rented a 500-hp Caterpillar. This year, we rented a new 500-hp John Deere with GPS-guidance, so that $47-an-acre in savings will be even greater.”
The new tractor rents for $50 an hour and will be used only for the Optimizer.
At the same time, said Michael, Bowles Farming will receive $120,000 over six years to help with the purchase of the Optimizer. The money comes through an Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) grant, which was given because of the Optimizer’s environmental benefits.
“There is less dust going into the air,” explained Michael, “and a lot less diesel being burned, so EQIP is looking at this seriously.”
That’s interesting, because at one time the Optimizer was seen as a rival to conservation tillage (CT), which preaches smaller tractors and an end to table-top seedbeds.
McDonald, for his part, had always said his machine was compatible with CT.
“In fact, I think the Optimizer is the perfect CT tool,” he said. “It reduces the trips over the field significantly, yet it gives growers the smooth seedbed that they’re used to working with.”
The proof, he noted, is that he was invited to display the Optimizer at the recent Western States Conservation Tillage Conference in Five Points.
Gene Terry, manager of Lawrence Tractor in Tipton, purchased an Optimizer this year.
“I believe there’s a real need for this environmentally,” he said, “with the PM-10 regulations and less fuel costs and passes over the field. This is a tool that’s going to answer a lot of questions for growers, but it needs to be out in the field a lot this fall to see just how it will fit into an individual operation.”
Terry said he’ll be conducting field trials this fall over a wide range of conditions. And Michael said he’s shared his information with other cotton growers. In addition, McDonald again this fall is making an Optimizer available to cotton growers on a trial basis.
“Kevin has it out with the right people,” said Michael. “There’s a lot of interest in this.”
As for mass production, McDonald needs financing to set up production and distribution facilities. He’s currently negotiating with three separate investors who have proposals on the table.