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Farmers look for ways to be efficient

Marketplace Staff Feb 18, 2010

Farmers look for ways to be efficient

Marketplace Staff Feb 18, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: The coming change of seasons has farmers in the Midwest a bit rattled. They’re worried about a springtime repeat of their past two growing seasons, when rains and cold threw planting completely out of whack. The lousy weather has been pretty good for some farm equipment makers, though.

Jay Field took a trip to the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Ky.

JAY FIELD: So there’s this special tiller. A guy at the show tipped me off to it. When I finally found it, at the back of an exhibition hall the size of an airplane hanger, a farmer named Shepp Sheppard was quizzing the salesman.

Shep Sheppard: If you set it on the, like most aggressive and you want, say, 200 bushel corn ground in the fall, what percentage of residue do you think you’re leaving, I mean roughly?

Sheppard’s got a problem. He raises corn and soybeans in Northeastern Missouri. And every year, after harvesting, there are lots of plant stalks left behind. But this past year, there was even more debris than normal.

Sheppard: The fall this year was just so wet. The harvest lasted forever. There’s still quite a bit of crop still left in the field in the areas.

Sheppard needs to work this junk into the soil to get the best possible seed bed for his new crops. That usually means several trips, with multiple pieces of equipment, across all 3,000 acres he farms. It’s manageable if the weather is dry. But two years ago, big floods hit the Midwest and Sheppard couldn’t start planting until June, shortening the growing season.

His buddy Brad Cook, who farms 1,300 acres in Illinois, says the recent weather has given a whole new meaning to the word efficiency.

Brad Cook: We’re not going out there four different times to get a seedbed. We can’t. As many acres as guys like him are farming. I mean, I’m spread out over four counties. I mean, you just don’t have the man power or the time. You’ve got to have a one-pass type situation to get a seed bed.

Which explains why Cook and Sheppard are standing here, in front of this unremarkable, but powerful super tiller. This red contraption breaks down residue, grinds it into the soil, and produces a plantable seed bed, all in one trip. Wisconsin’s McFarlane Manufacturing makes it. And efficiency has become a top selling point as the recession has forced farmers to cut back on replacing anything still serviceable like combines and tractors.

Charlie O’Brien: This year, this last year that just passed, in 2009, many of the sectors were down from last year, double digits.

Charlie O’Brien, with the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, says that companies are trying all sorts of strategies to sell more products, including the “conquer Mother Nature” approach. O’Brien says it makes sense.

O’Brien: People want to take weather, as much as you can, out of the equation.

Which didn’t explicitly factor into McFarlane’s thinking when it designed its tiller three years ago. But worsening weather sure helped.

Steve Pesik: This is the Reel Disk, it’s called. The McFarlane Reel Disk.

McFarlane Sales Associate Steve Pesik is showing off its attributes to me. I ask him how much it costs.

Pesik: That machine there is $53,000.

FIELD: Can you pay cash?

PESIK: Yeah, you got it? Get that credit card out! We’ll take it right here.

Farmers Shep Sheppard and Brad Cook walk away chuckling, not quite ready to throw down 50 Gs. They’ve got plenty of other distractions at this fair, courtesy of other companies like John Deere and Case. Toys like high-powered fertilizer spreaders or ultra-fast tractors equipped with joy sticks and video screens.

In Louisville, Ky., I’m Jay Field for Marketplace.

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