Grain carts increase harvest efficiency.

Combines have become the most complex and expensive machines grain growers own, so maximizing their efficiency is critical. That’s one reason more western growers use grain dryers. But in the past few years, they’ve increasingly turned to another strategy to extend the harvest season: grain carts.

“Three combines and a grain cart are like four combines,” says Raymore, SK, producer Dave Horvath. With a skilled driver, a grain cart can keep combines gobbling up crop non-stop instead of wasting time driving across fields to empty into a truck.

Most grain growers agree that trying to bring heavy trucks, like B-trains, into fields is just asking for trouble. Soft field conditions put added stress on driveline components, and the risk of getting stuck is high. So without a cart, combine operators have little choice to but to run to the edge of the field to unload.

Grain carts are ideal for running across stubble. “You have a lot more flotation with a grain cart and you reduce compaction with flotation tires,” says Jason Liechty, director of marketing for Balzer Inc., a grain cart manufacturer.

The cart’s wide body makes combine unloading on the go much easier. “It’s a wide-bodied container,” says Paul Degelman of Degelman Industries, another grain cart manufacturer. “It’s a big target to hit.” And it is easier for a tractor pulling a cart to closely match a combine’s speed than it is for a truck. While unloading on the go, both combine operator and tractor driver can see how grain is piling up in the cart.

As grain carts gain popularity, prairie dealers are seeing increasing demand. “In the past five years, (sales) have really taken off,” says David Sundlie, ag sales manager at Flaman Sales in Nisku, AB. Kevin Kirk, a salesman at Murray’s Farm Supplies in Shoal Lake, MB, has also seen growing interest in carts. “Most are still buying their first (cart),” he says.

And for those first-time buyers, carts in the 750- to 800-bushel range are still popular, according to Kirk. Producers shopping for their second or third generation cart almost always opt for more capacity.

“Three years ago a large cart was 875 (bushels). Now, the vast majority of guys are buying 1,325 (bushels),” adds Sundlie. Manufacturers, too, are noticing the growing demand for larger carts in western Canada. “We’re seeing trends in Canada that mimic trends in the U.S. a couple of years ago,” says Shannon Grieshop, of J & M Manufacturing Co., another grain cart builder. “Producers want carts to hold more, unload faster and keep the combines going.”

And to meet demand for ultra-high capacity, Balzer Inc. is now offering a range-topping 2,000-bushel model that retails for about US$119,000 and features a high-strength undercarriage riding on tridem axles. According to Liechty, Balzer has made the high-capacity segment its niche market.

Capacity isn’t the only feature grain cart customers are looking for. Some want hydraulic drive systems that allow a tractor, without a PTO, to pull a cart. But although that makes it possible to use any high-horsepower tractor to tow a cart, there’s a price to pay in reduced unloading speed, which can hamstring a cart’s efficiency. Horvath went to a PTO when upgrading to his latest grain cart. “It’s about a third faster than hydraulic drive.”

Faster unloading can be a significant advantage. With PTO drive with larger-diameter unloading augers, some models can empty at speeds above 1,000 bushels per minute.

Many growers are choosing to include an electronic weigh scale when upgrading their carts. “I don’t think I’d operate without it,” says Horvath after including an optional scale on his current cart. Some manufacturers are offering software packages that store scale weights and allow them to be downloaded onto an office computer at the end of the day.

Grain carts continue to win over western producers, who increasingly see them as a cost-efficient alternative to adding another combine to their fleet. “If you talk to guys who use grain carts, there’s no way in the world they go without them now,” says Degelman.