A former mechanic plans his machinery purchases using a single machinery ledger. Using it can save money and prevent downtime.

Mike Denton has worked as a machinery technician for such big-name companies as John Deere and White (since purchased by AGCO). In his 13 years of experience, he has fixed about every make and model tractor dating as far back as Oliver and Minneapolis Moline.

In 1991 he was called back to his family farm and now farms full-time with his dad on their 2,500-acre corn and soybean farm near Princeton, IL.

Denton, along with employee Dale Dugosh, is responsible for maintaining Denton Farms' full fleet of equipment. He says that if his experience as a mechanic taught him one thing, it is the importance of keeping good repair and maintenance records.

Little black book. Denton keeps a machinery ledger in his farm shop. A page is devoted to each piece of equipment. Any time a repair is made or a part is replaced, an entry is made in the book that includes the date of the repair, number of hours or miles on the vehicle and the cost.

Fuel and air filters are changed once a year, and oil and oil filters are replaced every 200 hrs., which is earlier than what most owner's manuals recommend. "If you don't change the oil or hydraulic filters, I've seen what can happen," Denton says. For example, a hole in an air filter can suck dirt into the engine. Dirt particles in oil can chisel away at an engine. "It just won't last," he states.

Denton says he doesn't skimp when buying oil and filters. "We buy only high-quality oil and filters direct from the factory. If you don't, it will cost you in the long run."

During harvest Denton sometimes has five employees busy at different times changing oil and fuel filters. Having the maintenance ledger prevents them from duplicating efforts and wasting supplies because everyone is required to check the book before making a repair.

Planned buying. The book also allows Denton Farms to anticipate needed repairs or replacements before they lead to breakdowns in the field. Each fall Denton and Dugosh look at the book to determine what parts will need to be replaced.

"For example, if our chisel plow is getting to be three to four years old and we know we haven't made any repairs to it, then we know major work will need to be done on it," Denton says. "Same thing with our semi-truck. If the book shows that brakes are usually replaced every 80,000 miles and the truck has 60,000 miles on it, then we know it is going to need brakes again soon."

Anticipating the repairs reduces downtime in the field and allows Denton to take advantage of special deals on parts and machinery.

If the anticipated repair is big-ticket, Denton often decides to invest the money in a new machine rather than make the repair. "We see it coming and trade ahead of that point to save money," Denton says.

On average, Denton Farms trades combines every three years and trades other machines between one and five years depending on crop prices, dealer price discounts or offers made by other farmers on their used equipment.

Denton says the ledger also boosts resale value of the farm's machinery during trade-in because the buyer can look at the repairs made and see that the machine was well maintained.

When it comes time to buy, Denton goes only to companies that are going to be around for a while.

He believes that, if a company is failing, the machine he buys from it may end up having little or no value when it is time to trade because replacement parts will be difficult to obtain, no product support will be available and potential buyers will perceive the product line as being old-fashioned.

A wish list. Each December Denton asks all the employees who use the machinery to make a wish list of the machinery they want for the coming year. Denton then prioritizes the items based on needs versus wants, which he can judge by looking at the maintenance ledger.

Anything that has to do with downtime in spring or fall is considered a need and is put at the top of the list. For example, a combine and its parts would be ranked higher up on the list than a paved road or new shop windows.

"We need a large dryer, so we all put that down and now we'll wait to see how the year is," Denton explains. "If corn prices are good, we get a lot more of those wants."