Can farm equipment truly be sustainable?

A Manitoba farmer asks, “how sustainable is my five-year old German combine that’s maybe still functional for another decade, but now it’s junk because I can’t find a replacement electronic panel?”

And sure enough, the panel he needed was nowhere to be found.

Every scrapped Claas had already long ago been stripped of this particular part. So he and a buddy “fixed” the faulty part, and it worked — sort of — with the exception of some safety issues.

“The manufacturers are building twice as many combines as the market can absorb,” says Larry Hertz, vice-president of the Western Equipment Dealers Association.

“North American farmers might buy 6,500 combines next year. The companies are building double that number. Where’s the sustainability in that?

“Obviously as the machines become dated and the electronics systems become dated, I’m not sure that a lot of those components will remain in production. Those parts become more expensive with time and that makes the machine obsolete.

“Some people may try to repair circuit panels or build new ones, but that becomes a safety factor. If you’re building your own panels and they’re off-spec or OEM spec, you could have a hidden glitch that can create a big problem in the field or on the road.”

Hertz said the used combine market poses a real problem in terms of sustainability. A lot of combines are traded in by the first generation owner with 200 to 400 hours. Traditionally, they were bought by medium-size farmers.

However, the proliferation of big farms has come at the expense of medium-size farms. Those second generation buyers are disappearing from the landscape, thus disrupting the entire combine market. And, as Hertz said, the manufacturers are building twice as many new combines as the market can absorb.

Gene Breker is one of the founders of Amitytech, and before that worked with the development of the venerable Concord air drill. He deals with farmers on a regular basis and said the topic of obsolete technology and sustainability comes up all the time.

However, Amity is doing something about it.

“Farmers don’t like scrapping a piece of equipment if there’s still life in it, or if it’s just the electronics that have gone bad,” Breker said.

“Farmers really appreciate the fact that our single disc drill has gone through four electronic cycles over 13 years. Four different electronic systems so the drill can keep on working because the mechanical components don’t wear out. Electronics improve all the time, so we’ve put together four complete electronic packages for the drill.

“A complete electronic change is $5,000 to $8,000. That includes new sensors, new wiring harness and everything else,” he said.

“The entire industry now is ISO and nearly everything made now plugs into the tractor ISO monitor head, so you seldom need to buy a new monitor head.”

Breker said there’s virtually no market for used seeding and tillage machinery in the 60- to 80-foot and bigger range. A farmer looking for used equipment isn’t in the market for big implements.

He said he’s looking for 40-foot machines and smaller because he doesn’t have the power to pull that big machine and he doesn’t want to make that additional investment. In terms of sustainability, that leaves a lot of expensive orphaned iron.

“This is a serious issue,” Breker said.

“Over the years I’ve suggested to the company we should make a 60-foot machine designed to remove the ten-foot wing tips and turn it into a 40-foot machine.

“When it comes to seeding and tillage, I don’t think there’s very much scrap. Remember Concord? We sold more than 5,000 Concords in North America. Just about every one is still working. Farmers have figured out different ways to use them. You very rarely see a Concord scrapped in the trees. I think that meets the criteria for sustainability.”

Dave Kanicki, editor and publisher of Ag Equipment Intelligence, regularly deals with these kinds of issues.

He said the normal replacement cycle for big machinery had been stable at three to five years. Then in 2012 and 2013 that big boom in agriculture messed up the whole cycle.

“Farmers are currently stretching the life cycle of their equipment due to lower commodity prices and rising cost of new equipment,” Kinicki said.

“Typically in the past, farmers would trade their equipment every three to five years. Lately they’re stretching this out quite a bit longer.

“Dealers have told me that there has been some buying based on farmers wanting the latest technology. There remains a strong market for good used equipment, with or without the most advanced technology.

“But if a combine or sprayer or planter is eight years old and has electronic problems, then that’s a different story. If the dealer does take it in on a trade, he would typically only give the farmer salvage value for the piece. We see a fair amount of equipment like this parked along country roads for sale by a private party.”

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