If you're like most farmers these days, you are probably looking for ways to increase flexibility in your grain marketing. Increasing the distance you're willing to haul your crop is one way to lock in a few more pennies per bushel. And the logical next step for more highway hauling? Buying a big rig.

If you've been thinking about checking out a semi, now is a good time to start looking. “The trucking industry has gone through major changes in the last 12 months; it's seen a real lack of business due to the general economic recession,” says Phil Baumel, Iowa State University Extension economist. “As a result, there are lots of good used rigs on the market now.”

There's a definite trend toward more semis on the farm, Baumel notes. According to the Iowa Grain Flow Survey conducted by the Iowa State University Extension Service, almost half the corn harvested in Iowa is hauled to market via semi. Iowa's farmers hauled 47.6% of their corn crop with big rigs between September 1999 and August 2000. That compares with 26% of the crop hauled in carts or wagons, 20% hauled in double-axle trucks and just more than 6% loaded into single-axle trucks. Numbers are similar for the soybean crop.

By asking respondents if they expect to own a semi in the future, the researchers determined that, by 2005, Iowa farmers will own 16,100 tractor-trailer rigs, compared with the 12,300 now owned by the state's 100,000-some farmers. “Farmers with over 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans owned 51% of all the semis and, following farmer projections, that number will grow to 69% by 2005,” Baumel states. He says 95% of those farmers have purchased used semi tractors.

Plenty of used semis

There are definite deals to be had when it comes to used semi tractors, says Mike Mikolai, sales manager at Curt's Truck & Diesel Service in Owatonna, MN. “The trucking industry has been declining for almost two years, and today you can get a five-year-old truck for half of what a five-year-old truck would have sold for two years ago,” he says. “The typical farmer only puts between 5,000 and 10,000 miles per year on a rig, so they can't justify the $125,000 cost of a new tractor and trailer.”

But affordably priced used semi tractors, many in the $15,000 to $30,000 range, have plenty of life left in them and are proving to deliver a cost savings over tandem-axle trucks, on a per-bushel basis, Baumel notes.

They also offer several other hauling advantages:

  • The larger hauling capacity can keep combines going in the field and translates into fewer trips to the elevator and less waiting in line.

  • The road-friendly vehicle can travel greater distances, which opens up new marketing options. Baumel says for every one cent higher grain bid, a farmer can afford to drive seven extra miles, one way, to market.

  • Hauling your own grain makes use of personal downtime in the winter.

  • Driving a big rig on the road is safer than pulling a wagon with a tractor or using a single-axle truck.

  • If you buy seed in bulk, you may get a better price taking delivery from the plant with your own rig.

The cost savings

Some of these reasons, as well as a few simple calculations, convinced Tom and Sterling Ness to invest in two used International semi tractors a year and a half ago. Before that time, the brothers had been paying someone else $0.17/bu. to haul grain from their Kasson, MN, farm to a grain terminal along the Mississippi River in Winona, MN, 75 miles away. “With our own trucks, it now costs us $0.10/bu. to haul the grain ourselves, and we've got time to do it,” Tom says.

Both of the semi tractors they bought had around 400,000 miles on them. Considering the brothers rack up only about 18,000 miles per year per truck, they anticipate getting up to 10 years of service from each of them. The new 38-ft., roll-top steel trailers they purchased should have a life of between 15 and 20 years, Sterling adds.

Operating a semi tractor does require a class A license, which in most states means taking written and road tests. Most states also offer a cheaper version of the license if you will be hauling only for your own business, rather than hiring out your time and truck. However, if you plan to haul your grain across state lines, you'll need to pay the required fees and fuel taxes (see “Rules of the road,” page 20).

Another detail to be aware of is the weight limits on roads in your area at various times of the year, the Nesses note. You may want to get the biggest trailer for the largest hauling capacity, but you need to make sure you won't be exceeding road weight limits. Some county and state law enforcement officials keep a watchful eye on seasonal grain hauling and will issue heavy fines to operators caught going over typical 7- to 9-ton weight limits.

Buying the right rig

Bigger is not always better when it comes to finding the right used rig for your operation. “Farmers tend to start looking at big trucks and long trailers with the idea of hauling as much as they can in a trip. But it's more important to get the right tools for the job, and that includes pulling a load out of a field and sometimes maneuvering in tight spaces,” Mikolai notes.

He and other trucking experts offer the following tips for finding the best farm-friendly truck:

Don't buy too much horsepower

You don't have to go overboard on engine power, says Tim Peterson with Peterson Motors, a truck and trailer dealership based in Watertown, SD. “The 350- to 400-hp range is plenty for most grain-hauling situations,” he says.

Get the right transmission

Because farmers start and stop a truck a lot and need to be able to pull heavy loads out of a field, they need a vehicle with a good, deep gear ratio (between 3.90 to 4.10), Mikolai explains. A semi tractor with a 9- to 10-speed transmission is adequate for most farmers, Peterson adds.

Watch height and weight

Some of the best deals on used tractors right now are on the taller-style models with sleeper cabs. But those aren't usually a good fit for the farm, Mikolai says. “The added height might limit loading and unloading options, and most farmers wouldn't use the sleeper feature, so you're just adding unnecessary weight,” he says.

A day cab may be worth the added costs, Peterson says. The back window offers better visibility. And because it weighs less than a sleeper and is shorter, it's more maneuverable. Plus, Peterson claims, it will hold its value.

Consider service

Whatever rig you buy, make sure there is a dealership within a reasonable distance that can service it.

Don't go for the longest trailer

It may get you more capacity, but you've got to be able to match the rig to your field conditions, which often include some steep inclines on road approaches or sharp turns around bins and drying setups. A 34- to 36-ft. trailer is good, but trailers longer than that can be difficult to maneuver, Peterson says.

Check trailer height

Trailer wall height shouldn't exceed about 9½ ft. Trailer walls that are higher than that make it difficult to unload grain from the combine to the trailer.

Consider steel rather than aluminum

Although aluminum trailers are significantly lighter, the durability and affordability of steel is hard to beat, Mikolai says. “Right now you can get a new steel trailer for the same price as a used aluminum one,” he says.

Question creature comforts

Don't just assume you've got to have air-ride suspension and air conditioning. “Many farmers do the bulk of their hauling during cooler times of the year, so AC isn't that critical,” Mikolai says. “And most don't spend the long hours on the highway in their truck that a long-haul trucker does, so air-ride suspension is of limited use and just adds to the cost.”

With so many used semi tractors available now, it's definitely a buyer's market, Mikolai adds. “It's a great time to buy; you can get a lot for your money.

“But,” he cautions, “you need to look beyond price and make sure you get the right features for your specific farming needs.”

Truck dealers on the Web

Here are a few good Web sites to check out as you begin your search for used semi tractors and trailers.

General

www.selectrucks.com

This site has the national network of used Freightliner trucks, with dealer locator.

www.truckpaper.com

You can search this site by specific truck model or location.

www.truckswholesale.com

This site calls itself the “truck and trailer industries' super site.”

Local

www.chuckhenry.com

Kansas-based dealer has good selection of used rigs (785/655-9430).

www.curtstruck-dieselservice.com

Owatonna, MN, dealer specializes in International trucks (800/372-1326).

www.jaspertrucks.com

Indiana dealer has large selection of used tractors (219/432-9425).

www.labeautrucks.com

Illinois dealer carries most makes, new and used (800/747-9519).

www.lapinetrucks.com

Cleveland, OH, dealer has new and used rigs (440/526-6363).

www.lesstevens.com

Hayfield, MN, dealer specializes in Mack trucks (800/923-8115).

www.michaelstrucksales.com

Nebraska dealer's site lets you search by truck type or make (402/466-8388).

www.truckinfo.net/dealercenter/peterson.asp

Watertown, SD, dealer lists used trucks (605/882-3990).

www.us-trucksource.com

Kansas City, MO, dealer sells used Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks (888/819-8600).