By Brian Henderson

Do you ever notice that just when we in Scotland are mired in a long-drawn out harvest, machinery manufacturers seem to decide to launch their latest range of combine harvesters?

When even a mention of the harvest during the sort of frustrating stop/start season we’ve had over the past few weeks is a risky business, the annual parading of all the latest glitzy upgrades by the big manufacturers when there’s still plenty of crop to be cut is just rubbing salt into the wound.

So, I was glad to hear that this paper has the good grace to wait until October before it publishes its ‘combine special’.

And while the manufacturers are keen to key into the early post-harvest season when the shortfalls of our current machines are still fresh in our minds, if the recent rates of progress are maintained, we could still be at the job then.

But from what I’ve seen elsewhere of the new releases, there’s certainly been no let up in the endless march towards bigger combines aimed at getting the job done in faster – with the designers vying with each other to claim the ‘biggest in class’ accolade for at least some aspect of their latest line of harvesters.

And, needless to say, the other big thing at the moment is the push for ever greater levels of automation on these machines, with the first fully autonomous combine no doubt just set to appear over the brow of the hill, chasing hard on the heels of the driverless tractor.

Back at the ranch, however – and at the opposite end of the spectrum – our own machine has been chomping its way through the harvest whenever the weather has been graceful enough to give us the opportunity.

And while it’s been difficult not to give in to the temptation to believe that the rain shower gods have a particular attachment to our own fields, I think the heavy localised showers which have characterised this year’s cutting season have actually been pretty widespread.

But, having already touched on the subject of automation, the sensors which automatically set the header height and tilt on our own combine gave up the ghost during the brief spell when we had a few dry days together a week or two back.

Having coped without such frivolities in the past, I wasn’t too perturbed about doing some good old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants cutting for a day or two.

However, given that the newer combines lack the old spring-loaded sliding gauge in the footwell which gave you at least some indication of height, a deal of peering behind the header had to be done to check stubble height.

And given we had to shave the ground pretty close to avoid leaving too thick a shag-pile carpet of heads in the brackled Concerto, and to catch the areas of laid wheat and some bits of flat oats, when linked with the damp soil conditions this meant there were several occasions when combining and cultivation became a simultaneous operation.

But while this old-school approach kept us going, I’d have to admit that there was a deal of additional stress brought into the job.

And after persevering for several days, I was accused of being like Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle when she steadfastly refused to have anything to do with a new wonder machine designed to remove the misery of tea-making with the comment: ‘Maybe I like the misery’.

Anyhoo, we did eventually have time to get the issue sorted out during some of the wetter days – and I had to admit that letting the combine take the strain on this one made the job a heck of a lot easier.

But, combines have come a heck of a long way. While most of us would view this piece of machinery as a child of the American prairies, the first mewling infant cries of these machines were actually heard in the rolling fields of Angus.

And it was Scotsman, Patrick Bell, who in 1828 produced what’s regarded to be the first ever reaping machine on his father’s farm near Auchterhouse, in Angus.

A man of the cloth, he selflessly didn’t patent the machine – believing that his invention should benefit all mankind.

However, our American cousins were less shy about laying claim to the financial benefits of patenting an invention and by the middle of the 19th century, many of the elements which we still recognise as an integral part of a straw walker machine had been put on the patent books.

But, despite one or two exceptions – such as the Canadian McLeod harvester which got some publicity as a viable, tractor powered alternative to the traditional combine, bringing in the crop heads to be thrashed in a static mill on the farm – the development of the combine has been a pretty linear one.

While the machines are doing much more of the job, with satellite autosteer and laser guidance along with automatic crop monitoring, reducing the role of combine driver to turning at the end and moving between fields, the driverless combine can’t actually be all that far away (provided the sensors don’t break down!).

But, I guess, you would imagine that American and European scientists and engineers are leading the way on this front – especially with the news that the Harper Adams’ hands-free hectare has successfully harvested its grain without human intervention.

However, I read recently that we shouldn’t write off the Russians.

Remember how they pipped the Americans into space with the first Sputnik satellite?

Well, according to the one Russian newspaper, they are set to do the same with robot combines – and to do it much cheaper than we in the profligate west are likely to do.

Boasting that they will have such machines up and running in two years time, the Russian company developing the idea claimed that these combines will cost only 15-20% more to manufacture than more traditional models.

But while we in the west might promote these machines for their ability to improve productivity and reduce costs, the Russians have taken a different tack – claiming that a robot combine harvester does not need to sleep; it does not get ill, or need to go on holiday.

Maybe it, too, simply enjoys the misery.