Wee combine whacks research wheat

Terence L. Day/For the Capital Press AgriPro scientists John Moffat and Jim Helmerick harvest soft white spring wheat research plots on the DNM Farms near Colfax, Wash.

Small harvester records and reports data on every line


For the Capital Press

COLFAX, Wash. -- A research plot combine is an unusual combination of the latest technology and operator discomforts few farmers today have experienced.

On Aug. 19, AgriTech's John Moffat and Jim Helmerick harvested only 2.5 acres with a diminutive Wintersteiger Nurserymaster Elite combine on a field at DNM Farms near here.

It looked like a toy compared to the big commercial hillside combines that gallop across nearby Palouse hillsides gulping down wheat at the rate of about 100 acres a day; but its business was every bit as serious as that of the bigger combines.

Although their combine is thoroughly modern, collecting complex data in a computer, Moffat and Helmerick don't enjoy a comfortable air-conditioned cab and no bank-out wagon pulls along side to transport wheat to semis parked at field's edge. But just like commercial producers, Moffat and Helmerick experience equipment breakdowns and deal with the vagaries of weather.

Like farmers 70 years ago, Moffat sits out in the sun and the wind, and wears a mask -- his only defense against the chaff and the dust -- while Helmerick walks along beside, catching wheat in paper sacks. They empty their combine's grain bin into a small trailer towed by a pickup and give it away.

"We don't haul anything home," Helmerick told the Capital Press. "Quality samples. That's it."

Moffat is a wheat breeder and Helmerick is an assistant wheat breeder.

The rest of their harvest at DNM Farms was hauled to a nearby hog farmer and given to him as pig feed. Small samples are tested for milling and baking quality, but pigs don't give a squeal about quality.

Moffat and Helmerick harvested five blocks, each containing 132 plots with three replications, a total of 660 plots that grew 156 lines of soft white winter wheat being evaluated to become private wheat varieties.

Data on every line in every plot was carefully recorded. The data are downloaded to a laptop computer for transmission to the company's lab in Berthoud, Colo.

Moffat and Helmerick have data back the next morning on grain weight (total for the blocks), moisture content and test weight. Small grain samples are sent to AgriPro's quality lab in Berthoud where they are evaluated for milling and baking quality.

The team has plots throughout the grain-growing regions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana. In Idaho they go as far east as Burley. AgriPro markets seven wheat varieties to Northwest farmers and is trying to expand its offerings, Helmerick said.

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