John Deere celebrates 75 years of self-propelled harvesters

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NSW producer Bruce Kirkby has kept a historic John Deere No.55, believed to be one of the first self-propelled harvesters to reach Australian soils.
Camera IconNSW producer Bruce Kirkby has kept a historic John Deere No.55, believed to be one of the first self-propelled harvesters to reach Australian soils. Credit: Danni MacCue/Danni MacCue

The transformation of the cropping industry brought about by self-propelled combine harvesters is being celebrated as John Deere marks 75 years since the first production of self-propelled machines and 10 years on from the iconic S Series reaching Australian farms.

To pay tribute to this special occasion, John Deere went in search of historic harvesters and found Bellata producer Bruce Kirkby, whose family has farmed Koiwon, an hour north of Narrabri in New South Wales, since 1923.

Mr Kirkby, who runs the property alongside wife Nicky and children Georgia and Boston, rolled out a S690 Combine to harvest 2183ha of wheat produced at the 7500ha mixed enterprise operation — a trusted work partner the business has used since 2012.

However, also in the machinery shed is a John Deere No.55 Combine, believed to be among the first batch of self-propelled harvesters to reach Australian shores.

“It came direct from the Philippines in a crate and just missed the harvest. To my knowledge, it arrived here in 1951. It had clearly been a rice harvester as it was fitted with rice tyres, which are still on it to this day,” Mr Kirkby said.

“We have a black and white photo of my dad, Kenneth, driving it. It would have been considered state-of-the art equipment when it arrived.”

Manufactured at John Deere’s Harvest Works Factory in 1946, the No.55 came equipped with a 45-bushel grain tank and made its mark as the first harvester to feature the operator’s station at the top and centre position, which offered improved balance and a quieter ride due to the introduction of the engine’s location at the rear of the machine.

To mark John Deere’s diamond jubilee milestone of self-propelled harvesters, all harvesters manufactured in 2022 will be branded with a special 75-year anniversary badge.

Mr Kirkby estimates his machine has completed 10 years of service, harvesting about 120ha to 150ha of wheat as the property was, at that time, predominately a sheep station.

“In those days people thought you couldn’t grow wheat on black soil, which was believed, until someone did it,” he said.

Over the years the care of the No.55 Combine has been a priority, because the important place it held in farming history was always understood by Bruce. It is a foundation piece of equipment which is waiting to be fully restored, in a collection that has grown to about 50 John Deere machines secured from across the country.

“For our business, John Deere machinery has been fundamental. We couldn’t farm without it,” Mr Kirkby said.

John Deere Australia and New Zealand managing director Luke Chandler said Australian farmers were swift adopters of self-propelled technology during the late 1940s and early 50s, which transitioned labour-intensive wheat reaping away from tractor-pulled harvesters.

“The introduction of this equipment to the Australian farming landscape was a pivotal point in time for the industry and alluded to what was ahead in terms of new-found productivity gains stemming from machinery and technology,” Mr Chandler said.

“Farming businesses and families, like the Kirkbys, have travelled on this remarkable technological journey with John Deere, which has propelled Australian agriculture to maximise on the unparalleled advantages in productivity and helped build stronger industry resilience.

“Self-propelled harvesters empowered farmers to focus on what’s truly important to them, which is growing the best-quality produce as possible and making the most out of every harvest.”

The launch of the S Series in 2011 marked the introduction of another transformational wave of technology to equip Australian farmers to grow efficiently — this time through an advanced capability to capture and analyse farm data.

“The precision agriculture capability of the S Series, and what it can help farming business achieve, has not stopped evolving since that time and it remains to be one of Australia’s most trusted harvesters,” Mr Chandler said.

This year John Deere again revolutionised harvesting with the launch of the X Series, which has been on a tour of rural Australia this harvest and has capacity to harvest 12ha of wheat per hour while reducing fuel consumption by 20 per cent compared to its S Series predecessor.

“We see this machinery as a game-changing harvest solution for growers, especially considering the challenging harvest we’ve just been through where getting the crop off quickly and efficiently was paramount,” Mr Chandler said.

“The X Series brings a new level of capacity to the Australian market and already we have seen an eagerness from farmers to adopt this technology.”

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