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Color wars! Which equipment is best?

Andy Overbay Published on 06 November 2015
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Ask a dozen farmers, “Who makes the best equipment?” and you might get a dozen different answers (or at least three or four).

It makes one wonder what farmers discussed or argued about prior to agricultural mechanization. I suppose it was which breed of horse was best or which blacksmith was the most skilled. Before becoming a full-time farmer, my father was a mechanic and shop foreman of the local International Harvester dealership, so please forgive me for saying that for many years I was a red-blooded American boy – American Beauty Red, that is.

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In this season of college football, we once again find ourselves in the “hat mode.” Everyone wants to be wearing the colors of winners. Farmers are no different. Having an excellent and well-performing line of equipment gives the impression (and perhaps rightfully so) that one has a successful farm. In any event, one thing is for sure – farm owners and operators want the best for their labors – and rightly so.

While it is easy to find a staunch supporter of one brand or another, the fact is: Brand loyalty isn’t what it used to be, and the result is a growing rainbow effect in our machine sheds and parlors. The key is that, as operations have become more unique and specialized in their approach to profitability, the likelihood of one brand being able to meet every need grows more and more remote. So how does one know how to get the best fit for the farm?

The first test

The first test for any piece of equipment goes to the farm’s own flexibility with and without it. Dr. William Etgen instilled this litmus test in me when I was a dairy science undergraduate at Virginia Tech. A good test during the purchase of mechanization for any task is that the equipment is not in the way if and when it breaks down or is being maintained.

Can you get it out of the way or work around it to get the cows milked and fed? Can you get the cows’ TMR out if the beltline bunk feeder fails or the mixer wagon wrings an auger in two?

As an owner of two Harvestore structures, I can tell you that they can work well, but you cannot fork out haylage or shovel grain out of them if they break down. They performed well for us. We did our own maintenance and repairs, but they are not for everyone. Every piece of equipment, even under the best of circumstances, has a useful life, and they also all have the ability to break. Being too dependent on a single piece of mechanization is asking for heartache. 

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Sales, service and parts

What is the availability of sales, service and parts? As tough as the business of production agriculture is, the agribusinesses that supply our farms have as tough a time or tougher. As we talk about the shrinking base of farmers and farmland in the U.S., we often fail to talk about the need to have a profitable and capable bank of service providers to help our farms continue to be successful.

In my youth, there were three tractor dealerships in my hometown; today, there is one dealership in our county. Our area’s dairy equipment service providers are over 300 miles apart. As the number of providers drops, service time and prices generally increase as well. For years, my wife’s family paid twice as much for a yard of concrete as we did simply because of the freight and inconvenience of delivery to their area. Protecting our agribusinesses are just as important as protecting our farms.

Dealership support

Are the dealerships fully trained and supported? While this is a bit tough to judge, apart from firsthand experience, you need to continually evaluate the support given to your equipment purchases. Are the mechanics factory-trained, and is that training updated regularly?

Does the parts staff experience turnover regularly, or is the parts counter staffed with seasoned people who know you and your equipment? The capital demands of the modern dealership can be taxing, but is the dealership updating the inventories both on the lot and in the parts bins?

Is other like equipment out there?

How many are out there? One thing you want to avoid is being the “only one on the block.” Owning a piece of equipment totally unique in your area almost ensures that you will be waiting for parts or hauling for service.

In 1994, my dad finally gave in to the idea of a round baler. Heck, he had two stout boys, a neighborhood of willing kids to help and plenty of barn space; why not square bale 75,000 bales a year? But as my brother moved on and the supply of neighborhood boys aged out, those 2,000-bale afternoons began to wane. Plus, we were chopping most of our alfalfa, so we were already changing gears.

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As we researched round balers, one idea that we had was to purchase a large square baler. Square bales would be easier and more efficient to stack in barns, was our thought, but it also occurred to us that none of us had any experience with a large square baler, none of our local dealers had staff trained in tuning or repairing them, and absolutely no one within a four-hour radius stocked parts.

We had the same experience with our old forage harvester. It was one super tough old bird; it was easy to pull. It did a great job chopping corn, but as we began to chop haylage and pick up more dirt and debris in the fields, having the only one like it in the area meant that every breakdown was a week or more waiting for parts. Lost opportunity costs led to us finally trading it. The same fear led to the purchase of our first round baler.

It can potentially be even more telling in the parlor as more and more equipment, although very good, is sometimes very exotic in origin.

Keep your junk the same

Although we have been talking about the growing diversity, my neighbor David and I often talk about “keeping our junk the same.” There is something to be said for knowing the little quirks and nuances of your equipment. A retired extension agent once defined a good mechanic as someone who had “torn up enough stuff, they knew how to fix yours.” Familiarity is valuable, and knowing what to do and when to do it gives the added value of peace of mind.

Like equipment can also save you in storage space and inventory. Currently, I have two trucks and a tractor that all have the same motor in them. They all use the same oil and fuel filters, so I can buy them in bulk and always have what I need on hand. Again, as equipment evolves, the oils and fluids required needs to be considered, as keeping these items in inventory can tie up some serious cash.

Above all, suit yourself

A friend wanted me to go tractor shopping with him. As exciting as it is to buy a new tractor, spending someone else’s money sure is more relaxing. One piece of advice I shared with him was to remember who is paying. While buying a piece of equipment to be the envy of the neighborhood is wasteful, it is perhaps more difficult to make payments on a piece of equipment you “settled for” but doesn’t perform as you hoped. Suit yourself first, last and always. After all, it’s your money.  PD

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

Andy Overbay
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PHOTO: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

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