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Brother, can you spare some time?

Do you ever have days when you feel like you're juggling chain saws as a vise slowly squeezes your head?

You know the type. Your corn planter breaks down in the heat of planting season. An employee quits the same day. “Oh, by the way,” phones your spouse late that afternoon, “could you please pick up the boys after baseball practice? I have to work late again.”

Unfortunately, many more tasks weigh on your time now than during your father's or grandfather's farming days. Competitive world grain markets force you to either farm more acres or grow more on the land you have just to maintain your family's standard of living. Meanwhile, each day still contains only 24 hours.

“I really get overwhelmed sometimes,” says Tom Young, who farms near Onida, SD, and is a territory manager for Mycogen Seeds. “After I do something, I always ask myself if that was an important use of time.”

More farmers need to ask themselves that question, says Terry Kastens, a Kansas State University extension agricultural economist.

“There are times when a farmer's time is worth little,” he says. “But at certain times like planting, a farmer's time can be worth hundreds of dollars an hour.”

Producers need to devise ways to quickly perform tasks during high-value time periods, Kastens adds. They may “buy time” by devising smart machinery strategies, managing their employees wisely and using communication tools.

Maximize machinery buys

The value of a farmer's time is particularly high at planting. For example, Minnesota corn producers may glean the full yield potential of corn hybrids they plant from April 15 through 30, says Dale Hicks, University of Minnesota extension agronomist.

Planting delays keyed by weather or equipment breakdowns rapidly zap yield potential. Planting from May 1 through 10 decreases yield potential 7%. Assuming a 150-bu./acre yield at a $2/bu. price, a $21/acre loss occurs. Over 1,000 acres, that's $21,000. Although optimum planting dates vary across the Corn Belt, similar losses occur in other states.

Consider this fact if you're farming more acres with no corresponding increases in equipment size. For example, you may be stumped between upgrading to a 16-row corn planter or simply putting more hours on your trusty eight-row corn planter. Although the price of some new 16-row planters hovers around $90,000, the trade-in value of your old planter and added insurance against yield loss due to planting delays can defer this cost.

“Assuming both machinery sets run the same number of hours per acre, equipment costs for 2,000 acres are slightly less than for 1,000 acres,” says Howard Doster, retired Purdue University extension economist. “When in doubt about which size to get, buy the next largest size.”

This is particularly true when you consider two combine sizes. Although the larger unit incurs higher costs each year, it also yields bigger benefits. During a soggy fall, the chances of the larger combine completing harvest are greater than with the smaller combine. Yields decrease substantially if corn remains in a field over winter.

“In one year out of five, the benefits are so great that the larger size pays for itself in just that year,” Doster points out.

In other cases, though, it may pay you to buy multiple implements rather than one large one. Kastens and other KSU researchers worked with several northeastern Kansas no-tillers who suspected that cold soils decreased corn plant stand due to planting too early and/or too late in the day.

“Sure enough, the farmers' intuition was correct,” Kastens says. “The optimum planting time was approximately between 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Some of the farmers had one big planter so they could plant between early morning and midnight. Instead, it would have paid them to have two planters so they wouldn't have to plant so much of the day.”

You can use Purdue's linear crop budget program to compare costs and benefits of different machinery sizes. For more information, contact the Purdue agricultural economics department at 765/494-4191 or

Don't blindly buy

It's not always necessary to have a large machinery line to maximize your time.

Young hires custom harvesters to combine the 3,000 acres that he manages. “You need to cover a lot of acres to pay for a $150,000 to $200,000 combine,” he says. “Besides running a combine, I'd also need a person to run a grain truck and another to drive truck.” Young instead invests this money and his own time in fall seeding winter wheat and working for Mycogen.

Tom Niewohner, who farms on his own near Onawa, IA, decided to swap his two eight-row planters for a 16-row unit, and two John Deere 8820 combines for a John Deere 9600 combine. Although Niewohner could run both combines on soybeans, he could not operate both on corn because of hauling and grain dryer restrictions. He pulls his planter, sprayer and tillage equipment with the same tractor — a tracked John Deere 8410T.

Owning one combine rather than two cuts harvest capacity by 25%. Yet, Niewohner thinks the ease of upkeep offsets the capacity decrease.

“It is far easier and cheaper to maintain one combine,” he says.

A Tractor Autopilot Guidance System from Trimble Navigation allows Niewohner to maintain this spartan machinery line. This unit allows “hands-off” steering that automatically steers a tractor down a field to within 1 in. via GPS signals. Although the unit costs $54,900, it eliminates time-wasting and input-wasting overlaps during planting, spraying and harvest.

The cost of even a minor 2-ft. overlap adds up, Niewohner explains. Over 2,500 acres, 146 total acres of overlap occur when a 34-ft. field cultivator applies and incorporates chemical. With a $20/acre chemical cost, the overlap wastes $2,920 in extra chemical.

There's more. At a coverage rate of 22 acres/hr., the overlap adds 6.6 hrs. of operation time, costing another $600 in labor. Thus, the overlap costs $3,520.

Because it permits planting without row markers, the Autopilot also allows Niewohner to more accurately plant during evening hours. Its automatic steering feature reduces operator stress and increases endurance during busy times.

“It's like the difference between driving 500 miles down I-80 yourself or taking the bus and letting someone else do the driving,” Niewohner says.

Machinery maintenance is another time-buying tool because it helps halt time-robbing field breakdowns. Prior to harvest, Dale Ellens, Wentworth, SD, takes his two Case-International 1660 combines into his dealership for an extensive preharvest inspection.

“I'd rather spend less money on used combines and more money on maintenance,” Ellens says. “Breakdowns are not fun.”

Unloading on the go while combining also maximizes time use. “It makes us 35% more efficient,” says Curtis Watson, a Renville, MN, farmer. “We can combine 13½ acres when we unload on the go to every 10 when we stop to unload.”

Manage employees wisely

Another way to use your time more profitably is to delegate more production tasks to your employees.

“Farmers who want to compete in this highly competitive environment will shift to people management instead of hands-on production management,” says Val Farmer, a Fargo, ND, psychologist who specializes in rural relationships. “This frees up time to deal with the big picture — the finances, marketing and other factors that help make a farm profitable.”

Young delegates most of his field work to his two full-time employees so that he may devote more time to his Mycogen position and other tasks.

“I can count on both hands how many days I've been in a tractor this year,” he says. “I'm fortunate to have conscientious employees.”

Employers must be willing to switch into a different mind-set when delegating tasks that they formerly did themselves. Young recalls a day when one of his employees, Keith Gebhart, repaired an auger and requested a part.

“I remembered that the implement dealer closed at 5:30,” Young says. “I didn't expect Keith to worry about that, because he was busy with the task at hand. That was my job. Employees have a responsibility to do the job at the time. But employers need to have accountability for what gets done.”

Use communication tools

Machinery breakdowns in the field are expensive time-wasters. However, cell phones and two-way radios can remove some of the sting by helping you to better pinpoint parts and coordinate field repairs.

“When I came into this operation 11 years ago, the farm manager drove around with all the tools in a pickup and fixed equipment,” Young says. “He'd put on 40,000 miles a year driving between Agar, Onida and Pierre [SD]. The first thing I did was get two-way radios so I could talk to other people.”

These tools also keep you from being stuck in your office all day. “I do a lot of business just by walking around the house and yard that I normally would have done sitting at a desk,” Ellens says.

Cell phones also enable farmers to enjoy more personal time. “You now have the advantage of doing business during business hours,” Kastens says. “When you get in late at night, you don't have to spend the rest of the night on the phone. You can relax.”

Smell the roses

Granted, you'll still be busy if you use these time-buying steps. But you'll be more at ease, more in control and better able to enjoy farming.

“It's tempting just to stare ahead at what's ahead of you through the combine window,” says Rolland Schnell, who farms and operates a custom harvesting business with his son Jason near Sully, IA. “But if you're not careful, you may forget to look around and see the beauty of the area that you're in. We might as well enjoy this life as long as we're in it.”

Time machines - Machinery companies design time-friendly equipment.

Those of you who morph into a human pretzel while greasing a hard-to-reach combine zerk may grumble that equipment manufacturers don't listen to you.

Yet, machinery firms clearly hear that you're short on time.

“As recently as five years ago, this wasn't the top feature that farmers wanted in equipment,” says Ann Schreifels, marketing communications manager for Caterpillar. “But now, we're seeing a lot more attention paid to time-saving features.”

Machine speed

“Lots of farming now occurs at 6 to 8 mph,” says Terry Kastens, Kansas State University extension agricultural economist. “Twenty years ago, it was 4 to 5 mph. Corn heads are designed so that combines may go faster. Stripper heads allow farmers to harvest small grain faster. Even blades and chisel points on tillage equipment are designed for faster speeds.”

Equipment also now zips quickly between fields.

“When I was a kid, we'd spend three days in a field that was close to another one,” Kastens continues. “Now, we spend three to four hours in a field before moving on to the next one. Field size hasn't changed, but field distance has. Farmers are now spread out over 30 miles or more.”

European tractors have had high road speeds for years because European farmers often use them to haul grain down highways. “We've just recently picked up on this concept as a way to move quickly from field to field,” Kastens says.

American farmers can now buy Fastrac tractors, which are manufactured by the British firm JCB. These tractors can zoom down highways at 40 mph speeds.

American manufacturers are following suit. For example, AGCO tractors with Quadrashift transmissions zip down the road at 26 mph, says Dennis Heinecke, general marketing manager for AGCO tractors. Future designs may increase road speeds to 30 mph, he adds.

Maintenance-friendly implements

“We've made it easy for the customer to do routine maintenance on our tractors, Heinecke says. “He doesn't have to remove side panels, because the hood actually lifts up in two positions to clear the engine.”

Caterpillar helps farmers better manage time by offering in-field repair service, says Lori Porter, marketing project engineer for Caterpillar.

“Instead of hauling equipment to town, field service folks can come to the field with service trucks and diagnose the problem in the field,” she says. “That can be a real time-saver.”

On-the-go adjustment

Caterpillar Lexion combines feature an electronic board information system option that the operator may use to monitor machine functions, Porter says. The system allows the driver to automatically adjust components, such as sieves and reels, without leaving the cab.

Increased machine capacity

John Deere's new STS 9750 combine has up to 25% more capacity than its older 9610 combine, says Barry Nelson, manager of public relations for John Deere. “You can cover more acreage in a day,” he adds. “That's part of the story that sometimes gets lost when people look at a $200,000 combine.”

Improved operator comfort

A comfortable cab can help farmers feel more rested and therefore accomplish more in a day. For example, John Deere 8020 series tractors feature an “active seat” that increases operator comfort by adjusting 200 times/sec. to the motion of the tractor, Nelson says.

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