Sunday, October 19, 2008

Parked In My Yard

Frank W. James, aka "Farmer Frank" wrote a pretty good post about why farmers tend to get more land and equipment called Economies of Scale and Cash Rent. I can't really add much to what he said about the subject other than it's a lot like the average consumer going to Costco or Sam's Club - the more you buy, the cheaper the unit price. If you contract fertilizer before you need it, you may lock in a price that is considerably cheaper than when it comes time to actually use it. If you buy diesel fuel by the truck load rather than just a few fill ups at a time, your fuel price will be less by a bit. If you have a huge tractor and appropriate implements to pull, you can get your ground worked with less labor, fuel, and equipment costs over the long run.

This is a picture of the model of tractor Dad used when he retired. I spent more than a couple hours running it as well. He had a John Deere 4430. It was very similar to this one - he had an auxiliary fuel tank mounted on the front. This one is missing the necessary front weights - Dad's fuel tank took the place of the weights. He also had a front end loader mounted. My neighbor who farms the family ground bought it from Dad, and as far as I know, he still has it. It is too small (109 drawbar horsepower) to work ground in the farm economy today in this area. It's duties were reduced to handling bales, mowing and other such work.

This is the only four wheel drive tractor I've ever run. It is a Case 1470 Traction King. My neighbor Nate had two - one like this with rear steering and one without. At 126 drawbar horsepower, it really wasn't that much stouter than Dad's JD. It would pull 6x5' (30' cut) sweeps while the 4430 liked 5x5' (25' cut) better. Dad actually only pulled 3x6' (18' cut) Noble sweeps - that is what he had before he bought the JD and he wasn't wild about upgrading. The rear steering was supposed to help reduce soil compaction. After a while, pulling the same implement in the same manner in the same field has the tractor running in the same spots every time. Tractors are not light, and the continuous weight pressing into soft ground results in compacted soil. This is really a pretty good picture showing how the rear wheels don't follow exactly in the front wheel tracks. So, the weight is spread around. Most farmers break up the compaction problem by working the ground differently each time - around and around, or back and forth at an angle chosen so the wind blows across the path you choose. Tracked tractors, such as the Challenger series, spread the weight around as well.

This is what has been parked in my yard for several weeks. It is a John Deere 9400. It is hardly the largest or newest John Deere four wheel drive model - that distinction belongs to the 9630. The 9400 is rated at 371 drawbar hp and 425 engine, and the 9630 is 530 engine hp (I couldn't find the drawbar rating). The 9400 is a far cry from what I've run in the past. When tractors get this big, they are pretty much specialized to the point where they are single purpose machines. You can mount a scraper blade on the front and use the hydraulics to adjust it, but there is no PTO (power take off) or three point hitch. A mower usually hooks up to the three point to raise and lower, and the PTO powers the rotating blades. This tractor would crumple the vegetation you wanted to mow before the mower got to it. So, this puppy sits idle when other tractor duties are required. Such is the cost of specialization. And what does this baby cost? Depends on the year and the hours used, but a worn out example might be found in the $75k area, and a decent long term investment type would be at least $120k. This model wasn't produced after 2002, so all the ones for sale out there are used.

Let's climb up and look in:

The steering column is tilted up out of the way to make entering and exiting the seat far easier. All the controls and instruments are on the right side of the cab.

Close up of the armrest. The vertical yellow knob at the end of the rest is to shift gears. There is a two stick gearbox we'll see a bit of in a moment that selects the range, then you have a choice of high or low in that range with the little knob. If the tractor is in the high range, and it starts to pull too hard you can shift down without clutching. The yellow/orange tab recessed on the arc is the throttle - turtle for slow, rabbit for fast. The hydraulics are to the right of the gearshift - they utilize rocker switches. The tractors I grew up with all had mechanical linkage to the hydraulic controls - so there were direct links to the outside of the cab, allowing noise and vibration into the operator area. These are electric over hydraulic - the "linkage" is wiring. Much quieter.

One of the manual gearshift knobs and two of the computer displays. The speed chart for the different gears is pasted on the right window. I could jump in this tractor and get it to go down the road, but I couldn't take advantage of the various technologies shown here. I don't think this tractor is equipped with GPS, but to be honest, I just don't know. The new tractors with GPS can take over the driving as far as proper spacing is concerned. When you are pulling an implement, you have to overlap a bit so you don't skip - or miss some weeds. With the GPS systems, you can program in the width of the implement and how much overlap you want, and the system will track accordingly. I understand this is really helpful when planting.

This is the instrument panel on the far right side. The far right shows the cigarette lighter and the data ports for diagnostic equipment. What I, II, III, IV, and V are for is beyond me. The display to the left has wheel slip, acres worked and a bunch of other stuff to play with. You can see the headlights, A/C and heat controls, windshield wipers and hazard lights are controlled from this panel.

This is the view looking over the left front wheels. My butt has to be at least eight or nine feet from the ground.

The view from behind the wheel straight ahead. I could crush that granary. But, since it's mine and the neighbors like using it, I'll forgo that pleasure at the moment. I'm sure I'd scratch the front of this green machine, too. Better not.

The loose nut behind the wheel.

Okay, so what does this hunk of iron and plastic pull?

This is a Flex King 9x6' (56' cut) sweep plow with the hydraulic rotary harrow option. The flat disk blade (rolling coulter) in front of the sweep blade cuts a slot for the vertical shank that holds the sweep blade (frog). The sweep blade runs underneath the surface of the ground, cutting the roots of the weeds without disturbing the ground cover very much, as opposed to a moldboard plow or offset disks, which roll the earth over and bury the ground cover. The rotary harrows (chicken pickers) break up clods and stir the topsoil up a bit, improving moisture retention. This implement is designed for farmers who have to leave their ground in fallow every other year or so. The ground cannot take continuous cropping and has to rest, but if you don't keep the weeds down, there will be no moisture for a crop later on. Most farmers who irrigate are more concerned with getting rid of the plant residue from the previous crop so that their drills can work properly. If there is a bunch of wheat straw left over on top when drilling, the drills often catch it and ball up. For a farmer who summer fallows, this isn't as much as a problem because the old crop cover deteriorates quite a bit over the year the ground rests.

How does the farmer get this down the road to the field? Roads aren't sixty feet wide, dern it. If you look closely, you can see the frame is put together in hinged sections, and there are long throw hydraulic cylinders mounted transversely. There are also support beams along the way. The outer "wings" fold in first, then the next wing folds up, then the wing after that. You can see holes in the support beams - they match up with brackets on the wings so that they can be pinned. There have been instances where the hydraulics failed and the implement unfolded during transport. These babies are heavy enough that when the implement is parked, it is a good idea to unfold the thing. The wheel bearings in the inner wheel hubs that support the whole shebang during transport will fail more frequently if the implement is left folded.

When I look back at what Dad and I farmed with, this sort of equipment just blows me away. When a farmer makes the commitment to economies of scale, just buying a bigger tractor and implements isn't the only step. Dad and I pumped our fuel by hand out of a tank in the bed of his pickup. It took about twenty minutes to pump thirty or forty gallons - the tank held forty seven. This puppy? 270 gallons. This means a dedicated fuel trailer or truck with an electric pump. You don't buy engine oil in plastic one gallon containers for this tractor. You have to have a place to keep old engine oil. When Dad's 3x6' Noble needed new blades, he bought three. This implement requires nine. With no power tools, it took a day to change out blades on Dad's Noble. It was a good idea to have a bearing or two, some seals, and maybe an extra hydraulic cylinder or line "in stock." Now, one or two won't get you very far. Better have plenty of that stuff on hand. You need a pretty decent sized and equipped shop to work on this stuff. Dad and I? Outside. In both cases, calling up someone to work on whatever is wrong will break a farmer in a hurry. There are times when the specialists are required, but minor stuff needs to be handled by the farmer. Economy of scale applies to the support services the large equipment requires.

This tractor isn't very versatile, so smaller tractors are needed for other tasks.
This means more parts in the shop, more fuel and more oil, more implements and attachments, and people to run them. If you get a large combine, then you need more parts, trucks, grain carts and labor. You could purchase a similar tractor and implement for $150 - 160k, but that is only a tiny part of the picture.

I'm pretty tickled I'm just a rich landlord.


Unknown said...

Ahh, the Field Office!! :) Good post!!

I’ll help you out here a little; my rear has spent quite a little bit of time in a seat exactly like that one. This particular machine is equipped with a GPS system, given away by the yellow object mounted on the front, center, top of the cab; this is the ‘Starfire’ receiver. John Deere calls their GPS system Greenstar, and the monitor to the right of the steering wheel is the Greenstar Display. The display lets the operator adjust the functions and settings of the system. Greenstar, and most brands of guidance systems function in two basic ways; Straight Track and Curved Track.
In Straight Track mode the operator can select a direction of travel of a straight line by typing in a heading between 0 and 360, 0 degrees for North, 180 for South, 90 for East and so on. If it is desired to follow a property line or a fence line that isn’t perfectly straight direction wise, the operator can use the A-B method, where the computer draws a line from two or more separate points inputted by the operator. For example, if you want to draw your line off of a fence, you would put an A point at the South end of the fence, drive to the North end of the fence, and put a B point there. The computer will then calculate a heading from those two points, A and B, and drive the machine according to this heading. In the Straight Track method, the passes that the machine will make and has made are numbered, which makes it handy for estimating finish time on a piece of ground. I can typically guess within five or ten minutes.
In Curved Track mode, the computer remembers where the machine drove in the last pass, and follows it. For example, if you wanted to make a line off of a waterway, you would start ‘Track Logging’ at the East side of the waterway, drive to the West side, then turn around and activate the computer’s steering mechanism for the following passes. The computer ‘looks ahead’ at what the upcoming curves were like on previous passes, and steers accordingly.
The only thing the operator does is turn corners and watches the machine and implement for problems. Where the machine is relative to the desired track is shown on the monitor during corners, I have on several occasions turned the lights off and made corners in complete darkness by just watching the display. Newer Greenstar models do not require the operator to even turn corners. GPS is great for the farmer for several reasons, in my opinion the biggest is that the farmer can quickly train most anyone to run the machine, and then go do other work knowing that his machine is operating to it’s full capacity, regardless of the operator’s experience level. And yes, it is quite helpful during planting, minimal seed is wasted this way, and it also makes for a professional looking wheatfield, to impress the landlords!!
As for the Roman numerals on the right side control panel, they are for adjusting the flow rate and timing of the hydraulic controls, if you want to adjust the first hydraulic function, you press Roman numeral I and turn some knobs and press more buttons. The tractor has an awesome hydraulic power, so much that it can burst lines and fittings on older and/or smaller implements, so you can tone down the flow of the fluid on certain outlets, or all of them if desired. You can also adjust how long the outlet is actuated, for example, if it takes 8 seconds to raise your plow out of the ground, and your plow is hooked up to the first rocker switch, you can program the first lever to work for only 8 seconds, and then shut off. Then, the operator can hit the rocker switch with one touch, and the plow will rise out of the ground.

I figured I would add to your post when I could Jeffro, I like to see ya showing people what we do out there, keep it up!!

Dad Bones said...

Very interesting. The last field work I did was one fall in the early 80's, and I thought that tractor was a monster compared to the 50's machines I grew up on. But apparently I hadn't seen anything yet.

Jeffro said...

Joe: I was hoping you'd stop by and explain what all that was for. Thanks!

dadgum: Believe me, I know the disconnected feeling well.

Unknown said...

No problem man!

Believe me, I have always wanted to crush something like a grainy, must, resist, temptation...

ptg said...

The cat that farms the land I live on (an old feedlot) always has the latest and greatest. I can't begin to guess how many acres he farms. My experience in his big John Deere's is limited to the infrequent ride up the lane when the place is snowed in.

Fascinating stuff!

Frank W. James said...

My question is, With all these computer controlled features in today's tractors, how well will they work in about 20 years when all that solid state fun is encrusted with 20 year old dirt and corrosion has set in inside the computer?

Don't ya just love the way I think?

Good post and thanks for the bump.

All The Best,
Frank W. James

ptg said...

Frank, they will be like my old Chrysler New Yorker - runs good, but only half the electric windows work and not much else. I hope the 6-way adjustable seat dies in a comfy position.

Will anyone be able to get any use out of these tractors after it doesn't pay to fix the gee-gaws? At least I have an old beater to drive when the roads are icy.

Maybe folks will figure out ways to use them to generate electricity or pump water. They are too big to make good lawn ornaments.

Jeffro said...

More proof of the disposable culture. Our new trucks have trouble with wiring harnesses and ECMs, much less older ones. Gee, do I think running in extreme conditions every day might break electronics down?

Frank - doncha know that The Long Green Line and their Legendary Parts Network will have the goodies necessary for a few years at least. For a price....

Just wait until the EPA strangles the farm diesels the way they have the trucking variety. Catalytic converters that glow in the dark, ash burnoff systems that shut the engine off instead of burning ash, and so much more with less efficiency. Woo Hoo.

Frank W. James said...

One thing I won't have to worry about in the coming months and years is the EPA rules on NEW tractors. :)

I have three cab tractors; two were new in 1977 (one is a 4430) and the other was new in 1990. They will probably serve me until I can't physically do it any more.

All The Best,
Frank W. James

Anonymous said...

Thanks to you (and Joseph) for the grand tour. Amazing how much change in 30 years - back in High School the guys with the "big" tractors were running 4020s or IH 1166's. Now my Massey 298 (80hp) is a "little" utility.

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