Nostalgia: Where did John Deere self-propelled foragers come from?

Here in Ireland, the self-propelled forage harvester has been something of a phenomenon going right back to the 1970s. What role has John Deere played in this fascinating story?

For John Deere fanatics (or fans of the ‘mother-ship’, as some fondly describe it), the forage harvesting story began in earnest (in the US) with the ‘34‘ pull-type (trailed) harvester – way back in the hazy days of 1966.

It had a six-knife cutter-head (drum); it even had a built-in sharpener (albeit requiring manual operation). As well as a grass pick-up, it could also be kitted out with a 6-foot direct-cut (mower-bar) header – or a single or double-row maize (corn) header.

It employed an archaic ‘cut and throw‘ system. That machine, as you might have guessed, didn’t figure too prominently here in Ireland.

It was followed by ‘cut and blow‘ pull-type harvesters – with beefed up components for more variable European conditions. The later ‘25‘ side-mounted model (also built in the US) was launched in 1971.

Pictured below, for example, is a 3800 trailed harvester; relics of these – some in working order – are still dotted about the US.

Image source:

The first self-propelled foragers – from John Deere – were launched onto the market in 1972. Two models formed the original line-up – namely the 5200 and 5400. These machines were rare in the UK and Ireland – certainly in the early 1970s.

First self-propelled models

Pictured below is a 5200 – sporting a three-row maize header (a grass pick-up unit was also available). This shot was taken in 1973.

John Deere forage harvester
Image source: John Deere

These machines were also offered without a cab – probably a safer proposition in the US than in western or northern Europe.

Pictured below is an example of such a machine; this time it’s an ‘open station’ 5200. This shot apparently dates from 1971, suggesting that the harvester in question is possibly a pre-production unit.

Image source: John Deere

The 5440 and 5460 – updated self-propelled units – were launched in 1977; these were built in Ottumwa, Iowa (US). They were notable for having an electric clutch to engage the feed-rollers and ‘front-end’ attachments.

Interestingly, production of these machines kicked off in Senonches (France) a year later – along with a less powerful 5420.

A range-topping 5460 is pictured below (with a four-row Claas maize/corn header attached).

Image source:

1981 saw the dawn of the famous SoundGard cab; it would see use on many John Deere machines over the years. The first of Deere’s foragers to sport this new driver’s perch – with its modern, curved windscreen – were the 5720 and 5820.

Not only did they have a new cab; they had a new ‘Dura Drum’ cutter-head (chopper/drum) too. They also had more horsepower than previous offerings – enough, in fact, to power a six-row maize/corn header.

Familiar in Ireland

The updated 5730 and 5830 arrived in the mid-1980s – they were especially notable for having Deere’s first kernel processor (corn cracker).

These machines looked broadly similar to the 5720 and 5820, but were recognisable by their green (rather than yellow/cream) roofs and redesigned steering columns. Pictured below is a ‘fashionable’ 5730.

Image source: John Deere

The 5830, and the 5730 too perhaps, will evoke memories for many Irish contractors – and perhaps their farmer customers as well.

These machines looked quite fetching; they arrived on these shores at a time when John Deere’s tractors were also starting to get traction in the Irish market. Believe it or not; before the mid-to-late 1980s John Deere machines were something of a rarity in Ireland.

Infamous ‘Coffin box’

John Deere self-propelled forage harvesters of that era did have their critics, of course. The feature that attracted most negative attention was the under-cab auger system, which moved the crop (i.e. grass or maize) from the chopper (drum) to the blower (accelerator).

It was often referred to as the ‘coffin box‘. I once asked a contractor why it was given this name; he replied:

Once you go into a coffin, you don’t come out – that’s why!

Popular wisdom at the time suggested that the ‘coffin box’ was all too easy to block – and all too hard to unblock if the worst had happened. Despite this, many contractors (including a significant number here in Ireland) had very positive experiences with these machines.

For some, a shiny 5830 was the first foray into the world of self-propelled foragers.

I can personally remember seeing one at a Ploughing Championships circa 1990; parked alongside a 4055 and a 3050 it made for an impressive sight. This was around the time that John Deere (as a brand) really started to make inroads into the Irish market.

The next big leap forward was in 1992; that year heralded the arrival of the much-enlarged 6010 Series harvesters. This coincided with a shift in production – to Zweibrucken (Germany). The ‘coffin box’ was gone – making way for a “straight crop-flow concept”; there was also a new ‘quick-change’ kernel processor, an improved metal detector and a new TechCentre cab.

410hp 6910 flagship

The new flagship model – the 6910 – had a whopping 410hp on tap (later upped to 445hp). It, along with the 360hp 6810, had a Cummins engine. The 250hp 6610 and 310hp 6710 were both powered by John Deere’s own engines.

Pictured below is a ‘tidy’ 6810 – lifting grass during a recent silage campaign in Co. Cork.

Image source: Shane Casey
In fact, these machines were new from the ground up. They were radically different from what had gone before – and physically much bigger.

I remember seeing a ‘demonstrator’ 6910 being put through its paces in Co. Offaly in the early 1990s; it was practically fit to chew up and spit out the older machines working close by – machines that included a 5830 and an omnipresent New Holland 1900.

The upgraded 6050 Series arrived on the market in 1998 (a year after John Deere had acquired Kemper – best known here for its maize headers). The four-model line-up consisted of the 280hp 6650 (a rare sight in Ireland), 365hp 6750, 440hp 6850 and 505hp flagship 6950.

All, except the Cummins-powered 6950, had John Deere PowerTech engines.

These, like the earlier 6010 Series models, proved popular with Irish contractors – up and down the country.

Image source: Shane Casey

These survived (with a minor, mid-term upgrade for the 2001 season) until 2003, at which point the brand new 7000 Series was ushered in. Again, there were four machines to choose from – from the 7200 up to the 7500 (pictured below).

Image source: Shane Casey

There was plenty for John Deere to shout about – most notably the IVLOC (Infinitely Variable Length-of-cut) system.

Two ‘wide-body‘ versions – the 7700 (pictured below) and 7800 – joined the line-up the following season. These, as John Deere put it, “matched the size of the crop channel to the increased horsepower”.

Image source: Shane Casey

2008 saw the advent of the 7050 and 7050i Series models; the six-machine range stretched from the 7250 up to the 7850. The buzz-words at that time were ‘ProDrive’ (a new transmission), ‘HarvestLab’ and ‘AutoLOC’ (Automatic Length-of-cut).

The drive for ever-increasing power saw Deere launch the 7950 and 7950i in 2010; it had 812hp on tap.

A further update, a few years later, brought about the seven-model 7080 Series, with power spanning the 380-812hp bracket.

Most recently – about four years ago – John Deere phased in the first batch of its mammoth-sized 8000 Series foragers; the line-up ran from the 380hp 8100 to the 625hp 8600 (pictured below).

Image source: Shane Casey

Alongside, the long-serving 630C grass pick-up was replaced by the 639.

In 2015, three further 8000 Series foragers joined the range – the 8300 (slotting in between existing models), the 8700 and the flagship (845hp) 8800. The two larger machines were home to 19L (Cummins) engines.

The rest, as they say, is history…

John Deere forage harvester milestones (1966-2010). Image source: John Deere