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Building a better planter takes Iowa farmer far afield

Vaughn Bauer, like many farmers, has always liked to build things. In the late 1980s, Bauer built his own 12-row, 30-inch, rigid base planter for his corn and soybean operation near Paton in west central Iowa.

Most farmers would have stopped there and turned their attention back to production agriculture. But Bauer built another planter and then another and another. By 1989, he was building some unusually large planters of his own design for equipment dealers and other farmers.

Today, those planters — which can run 90 feet and longer — have become Bauer Built Mfg.'s stock in trade. Bauer now sells planters through John Deere dealerships in 22 states and in Russia, Kazakhstan, Argentina and the Ukraine.

Time to think

“Farmers sit in the cab of the tractor pulling a planter or in a combine and think about things,” says Bauer. “There's nothing else to do but watch the row so you come up with ideas for new implements and other devices.”

In Bauer's case, the thought process has often turned to planters that help farmers cover ground more quickly in the spring when time is at a premium. He doesn't claim credit for all of the innovations.

“I have a good friend who comes up with a lot of good ideas,” he said during an interview at the modern manufacturing facility he and his wife, Lori, have built on the edge of Paton, a town of about 500 in the heart of Iowa's corn and soybean country.

On the day Bauer was interviewed in early October, he was cordial, but you could tell he was eager to leave. He had an appointment with a combine to finish harvesting this year's crop.

Bauer farms about 6,000 acres with his son, Adam, and son-in-law, Scott Walker, around Paton (pronounced Pey-ton). They own about 2,000 acres and rent the remainder.

The operation is large for the area — Bauer says the average farm size in Greene County where Paton is located is about 1,000 acres. The average age of the farmer is about 60, a fact that concerns Bauer.

“We have farmers selling out as they reach retirement age,” he said. “It makes you wonder where the next generation is coming from, but it also means farms are growing larger along with their equipment requirements.”

Bauer took his first major plunge in manufacturing when he built five units for a farm show in 1995. The planters had the lift-wheels on the front side of their heavy-duty frames, an innovation for that time.

From the exposure at the farm show, Bauer started receiving calls from equipment dealers and other farmers. In 2001, representatives of John Deere's Seeding Group contacted him about building a large-frame planter to be marketed by Deere.

Partnership signed

In May of 2002, Bauer Built Manufacturing Inc. signed a partnership agreement with Deere. Under the agreement, Bauer manufactures and assembles eight models of planters exclusively for John Deere dealers. The agreement also allows Bauer to market planter frames in other sizes and configurations through Deere dealers.

Bauer supplies the frame, the hydraulic system and the markers for Deere's DB Series planters. Its employees then assemble Deere's row units, seed drive, vacuum systems and monitoring components on the frame before shipping the finished units.

“Everything we market is through John Deere dealers or distributors, including the units that are sold overseas,” says Bauer. “Deere has two distributors in Russia, one in Kazakhstan and one just starting in the Ukraine.”

The company started with the sale of two or three planters in Russia in 2004 and has continued to sell more each year. “The ag economy in those countries must be getting better,” he said, smiling.

Bauer says farming in the countries of the former Soviet Union has undergone a transformation. “They've had to learn a lot on their own,” he says. “When the government owned everything, they didn't care. Now they're farming for themselves and they have to watch the bottom line.”

Selling planters overseas has also required some adjustments for Bauer. Planters bound for Russia, for example, can be configured for 45-centimeter row spacings for sugar beets or 70-centimeter row spacings for corn or sunflowers. Most are equipped with 24 or 32 row units.

“We have to fit what they want,” says Bauer. “Instead of being 80 feet wide, for example, the 32-row 70 cm planter is 76 feet wide.”

In Kazakhstan, the planters have been 32-row 30-inch or 80-footers. “They are really just starting to move into large-scale agriculture in Kazakhstan,” he said. “They're been mostly buying used machinery, such as corn heads from the United States.”

Because of the difference in row spacings compared to those used by U.S. farmers, Bauer rarely builds a planter for shipment overseas until it has an order in hand. It has been selling 25 to 40 planters overseas, depending on the year. Reports say the company could sell as many as 60 units in 2007, but Bauer says he won't get excited until the sales are completed.

Bauer Built can take out 1.5 planters per day when running at full capacity. The prime manufacturing season for the company starts in early fall and runs through the following spring in the 113,000-square-foot facility it owns in Paton.

Shipment deadline

“Most of the foreign-bound planters have to be ready for shipment by mid-February to meet the delivery schedule,” he said. “Things get a little hectic when we get near that cut-off date.”

Bauer credits much of the company's success to its employees. “There's no way you can do this without employees,” he said. “We're very fortunate to have the help we do. It would be impossible to do it without them.”

TAGS: Management
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