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Nothing but the best

George Disney, Mark Formo and Joute Meinema span the color spectrum when it comes to their farm equipment. Disney buys only green. Formo buys red. And Meinema buys multicolor AGCO.

All insist their brands are best and won't settle for anything else. What's more, all buy the biggest models available in their respective shades.

Buying the biggest and best farm equipment may seem extravagant in times when crop prices are low and many farmers are struggling to make ends meet. However, these farmers say their buying philosophy actually saves them more money in the long run than if they were to settle for smaller, lesser-known makes and models.

Here's a rundown of the big machines they own and how they justify their purchases.

Disney's green

Corn and soybean grower George Disney of Clarion, IA, didn't always have the biggest and best equipment. “I had to work into it,” says Disney, who started farming in 1958 on an FHA loan.

Back then he didn't have the money to buy new equipment. So he bought used and had to make it work.

Slowly he acquired more land. And in 1967, even though crop prices were low, he bought his first large brand-new piece of equipment, a John Deere 4020 tractor, to work the additional acres.

Disney now farms 3,500 acres with his wife and sons. And to cover those acres, he has the biggest or close to the biggest equipment John Deere has to offer. For example, he owns a 9750 STS combine and a 1760 24-row corn planter, and recently he bought a 9420 T track tractor. “We got to see [a track tractor] being built the other day,” Disney says.

He buys rather than leases his equipment, and he staggers his purchases rather than buying all of his machines at the same time. He trades each piece before he has any major repair bills. How often depends on the piece of equipment.

“On tractors, we like to put between 3,000 and 4,000 hours on them before we trade,” Disney says. “On combines, we like to trade every two to four years, depending. For example, if there is a promotion going on or new technology coming out that is going to help our operation, we might try to trade quicker.”

When he does trade, he likes to buy the new machine for 20% under list price. “But it is up to their dealer,” he says.

How often he trades planters depends on the shape they are in, and if there is something better that comes out that will help his operation. Disney says his planter is one of the most important pieces of equipment he owns because it can determine crop yield. “If you don't get it planted correctly or on time, it doesn't matter about the rest of the harvest equipment because there's not much there to harvest,” he states.

Disney says the reason he buys the biggest is that the future of farming demands it. “I have always tried to look ahead. And the way the farming business is going, if you want to stay in it, you have to get more efficient,” he says. “And you have to get bigger in order to do that.”

But buying the biggest is only part of Disney's formula for success. He also looks for the best, which he defines as high-quality equipment that won't break down in the peak times. “Time is money,” he says. “If it is good-quality stuff, it doesn't break down every time you turn around.”

He also requires it to be comfortable and easy to handle and to have superior service. “You need someone who can back it up if there's a problem,” he says.

Disney says John Deere meets all of those criteria. In addition, he likes the fact the company has been in business for more than 100 years and has not been bought out or merged with other companies. He says such buyouts can lower trade-in values because buyers become skeptical of whether products and parts will continue to be produced.

Disney says his philosophy of buying the biggest and the best is the same for all farm inputs. And he sticks to it regardless of the economic climate to ensure availability of product.

“Manufacturers aren't building stuff unless it is sold,” he says. “So you have to make those decisions a lot of times way ahead of knowing what your crop or what the prices are going to be. You can't just wait for the time you need it and buy something new off the lot. Those days are gone.”

What's the price tag?

John Deere 9750 STS corn combine, 325 hp. Base list price: $197,743

John Deere 1760 corn planter, 24-row, narrow 30-in. spacing. Base list price: $108,311

John Deere 9420 T track tractor, 425 engine hp, 24-speed PowrSync transmission. Base list price: $209,693

Third-generation red

Mark Formo farms just more than 4,000 acres with his dad Jack, his uncle Larry and cousin Duane in Litchville, ND. They also custom farm 2,000 acres.

Given the ground they need to cover with the manpower available, they rely on two Case IH STX450 Quadtracs, with the highest horsepower in the industry, and three Case IH 2388 Axial Flow combines. “The advantage of buying the biggest is you can cover a lot of ground in a day,” Mark Formo says.

Not only do they buy the biggest, but they also buy the best. For them, that means anything built by Case IH. “When you consider what is ‘best,’ you have to look at downtime, maintenance and how your dealer presents the product,” Formo explains. “And for those things, Case has been good.”

The Formos have bought Case IH products for three generations. And because the family has grown up with their machines, they know how to work on them, which is important because they do all of their own maintenance.

“My cousin was a diesel mechanic,” Formo says. “And I was in tool and dye. So we try to cover all the ends ourselves as much as we can, less the warranty work.”

The Formos trade their two Case IH tractors and three combines every two years, when each machine has between 600 and 1,200 hours on it. It's at that time when more and more components need replacing, Formo says.

He buys all five machines at the same time through an incentive package put together by his dealer. “We used to trade a tractor and a combine each year, and rotate them every two to three years and the other combines down the road,” he says. “Now we just buy them all as a package deal because it is cheaper than buying each one separately.”

To make sure the price of the package is reasonable, he compares it to what they would pay if they leased or rented the machines. “We look at the number of hours we put on our machines compared to what guys can rent the tractor or combine for,” he explains. For example, Formo says he can rent a tractor for around $50/hr. So he multiplies $50 times the number of hours he puts on the tractor plus the trade-in value the dealer is offering to come up with a price to see whether the dealer is in the ballpark. “If he isn't, he negotiates until the prices are about comparable,” Formo says. “Because when they resell what we trade in, they will sell it by how many hours are on it.”

The Formos, like Disney, say their philosophy of buying is the same for all inputs. And to ensure they are buying the best, they study each product prior to purchase. For example, when shopping for a tractor, they tour the factory to see how the components are built. When buying seed, they study the genetics and look at test plots to see how the crop stood up.

When considering buying a product they have never used before, they ask farmers who have used it how they liked it and whether they would buy it again.

Formo says a lot of what makes a product “best” is how long the company has been around. “History is a big part of it,” he explains. “If someone new comes into business, they might be around for four or five years and then vanish. Or they might have a good product but can't get established. So then buyers will have a hard time finding parts. So you have to consider that part.”

What's the price tag?

Case IH STX450 Quadtrac tractor, 450 engine hp, 4 independent track system with positive drive, 16/2 powershift transmission. Base list price: $235,010

Case IH 2388 Axial Flow combine, 280 hp. Base list price for a typical configuration of a 2388 corn/bean combine only: $189,716; base list price for a typical configuration of a 2388 small grains combine only: $190,067

Faster with Fendt

Speed is paramount to Canadian farmer Joute Meinema, who runs a 12-person custom farming crew in addition to having his own farm of 2,000 acres in Lacombe, Alberta. To get from one place to the next quickly, he relies on three Fendt 926 tractors. These tractors can go 32 mph over the road, a speed typical in Meinema's native country of Holland.

The 926, currently Fendt's biggest model, allows him to cover a lot of ground. And like all models in the Fendt line, it has a continuously variable transmission, which Meinema says saves on fuel and provides increased capacity because he can operate the tractor at any speed without having to worry about jumps between gears.

Fendt tractors command a premium over competitively sized tractor brands. However, Meinema says the higher price tag is worth it because of the Fendt's higher productivity. “I can put one man on one Fendt machine and do the same amount of work as two men on two competitive machines,” he claims.

Fendt tractors are available with an optional 3-pt. hitch and PTO in front, which Meinema equips with a 33-ft. disc mower he bought overseas. He runs two more disc mowers behind the same tractor, allowing him to cut 35 acres/hr. versus about half that with a normal configuration.

“I am trying to manage as much productivity from one guy in an hour as possible,” he explains. “If I do mowing by the acre, we make money by being more productive. We can do a lot in an hour.”

Meinema leases his three Fendt tractors. Every year he trades for new. To get the full value from his investment, he tries to put at least 2,000 hours a year on each machine by running it 24 hours a day in the spring and fall.

“The tractors run in front of manure tanks in spring,” Meinema says. “And in summertime, they run in front of disc mowers and a pull-type forage harvester. And we do custom spraying in mid season. So we try to use them as much as we can.”

What's the price tag?

Fendt 926 tractor, 240 PTO hp. Base list price with 4-wd, front-axle suspension, vario transmission with infinite speeds from 0 to 31 mph, cab suspension and 18.4 R-46 duals: $169,715

Worth the premium?

All three farmers admit that buying the biggest and best costs them more up front than buying smaller and lesser-known makes and models. And a producer needs to farm a certain amount of acres to justify the cost.

However, all agree their buying philosophy is worth the extra money and actually saves them money in the long run. For instance, their big equipment lets them farm the additional acres they need to cover in a timely manner. And because they are buying high-quality machines, they have fewer breakdowns and lower repair costs.

“I've seen guys buy the cheaper brand stuff to save some money, and invariably it breaks down on them,” Disney says. “Or it has given out right during the busy time. And it costs them money every time.”

What's more, he says, big equipment commands a higher trade-in value than small because the market is now made up of fewer farmers with more acres. And when it comes time to sell out, it can be a drawing card for your farm sale.

And there's the reward you get from driving the equipment, Disney adds. “I'm finally at the point where I can financially afford some of this stuff that is new and nice. And I enjoy running it. If you can't have any fun doing it, after all the years you worked, well then what's the point of farming?”

What's your buying philosophy?

Consider your skills to know what's right.

Basically there are two types of buyers: those who buy new and those who buy used. And both types have about the same cost per acre, according to Dr. Craig Dobbins, agricultural economist at Purdue University.

“In the end, it seems to wash out if you look at the studies that have been done,” Dobbins says. “The cost per acre isn't a lot different.” That's because buyers of new equipment tend to have high depreciation expense, whereas buyers of used, even though they have lower machinery costs, will have high repair costs.

The difference between the two types is one of philosophy, Dobbins says. And which camp you fall into should correspond to your individual skills and preferences.

“If you buy used equipment and have to have it repaired, then you better have mechanical skills,” Dobbins says. “And it is going to take your time. Some people don't want to mess with that. So buying new and the latest gives you access to technology and gives you lower repair costs. And you can devote the time you would spend on repairing things to doing other things.”

So what's the bottom line? “I think people have different skills, and the question is, how do you make the best use of them?” Dobbins says. “For some people it is concentrating on new machinery and for other people it is not.”

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