Increased regulation and a tough economy have taken a toll on commercial over-the-road operators in recent years. For grain trailer manufacturers, this has meant that demand for their products from the commercial market has decreased by 3 to 4%. For farmers, it means that good commercial contract haulers are charging more and are getting harder to find.

The situation has inspired more farmers to look into buying their own truck and grain trailer. And it's encouraged trailer makers to look at farmers more often as potential customers.

True, most farmers who go out to buy their first grain trailer aren't in search of the ultimate in features. Many do just fine picking up a used trailer. But with more than 20 different companies building new trailers, and more used trailers hitting the market, your field of choices is getting larger. It often comes down to deciding between two or three equally good trailers at a competitive price. In addition to finding a trailer that's in peak condition, you'll also want to look at some of the unique features of different trailers that can make your life easier when it's time to take your grain to market.

New or used?

Grab a copy of Truck Paper at your local café or convenience store. Or log on and visit www.truckpaper.com. Look at the section titled Trailers for Sale: Grain. There you'll find contact information for most new trailer manufacturers, and at any given time, scores of used and new trailers for sale will be listed. Prices vary from less than $5,000 for a corroded, banged-up 25-year-old trailer that needs work, to a year-old or brand-new trailer for $20,000 to $30,000.

Buying used might save you a lot of money. But corrosion, hundreds of seam-stressing loading and unloading cycles, getting in and out of uneven fields and the occasional too-sharp turn mean grain trailers take a beating over time.

Whether you're in the market for a new grain trailer now, or on the lookout for the type of trailer you might want to buy used in a year or two, it makes sense to pay attention to maintenance issues on old units as well as the new features on this year's models.

Eldon Erpelding, sales manager with Jet Company, says you shouldn't forget that used trailers mean you start with used components. It's not always obvious how quickly repair costs can add up on a used unit. “When you factor in the cost of the used trailer and then add in the estimated cost of parts, replacements, and repairs, you may be extremely close to the cost of a new trailer,” Erpelding claims.

He says that, if you do buy used, you should inspect the tires, brakes, kingpin, suspension, grain doors, axle subframe, lighting system and tarp fasteners. “With a new trailer, you not only start with new equipment, you also start with a full factory warranty and get the newest, best features,” he says.

New features

High on Erpelding's list of features are those that improve operator safety. He says, “View windows in the sidewalls reduce the need to climb the ladder to check on the load, and safety ropes allow for an easy way to get out of the trailer. Sloped ends make standing on ladders safer and easier. A center brake light at the top of the trailer increases visibility, and an electric tarp means no more fighting with the wind to open and close the tarp.”

No list of modern safety features would be complete without an antilock brake system (ABS) to prevent jackknifing. But Erpelding points out that an ABS also saves money. “ABS keeps the axles from locking up, thus minimizing flat spotting of tires,” he explains.

New trailers tend to have more lights to increase safety and make maneuvering at night easier. This is possible because light emitting diodes (LEDs) are replacing standard incandescent bulbs. LEDs draw one-tenth the power of the old bulbs, and that keeps the amperage manageable when up to 60 lights are burning on one trailer. Erpelding claims that the only downside of an LED is that it doesn't produce much waste heat and therefore won't melt off a coating of ice or snow in winter.

Design matters

James Rabenburg of Timpte Grain Trailers agrees that safety is a big factor in new trailer design. “Simple things like easy-to-operate tarps and a fold-down ladder can make a big difference, especially to an older driver,” he says.

If you want a trailer that's easy to operate, Rabenburg suggests you pay special attention to the doors, since they are the moving part you'll deal with most often. “Thanks to new sealed ball bearing designs, the doors on modern trailers take less strength to open,” he says. “Our new door requires just 20 lbs. of torque, which is so smooth, the weight of the handle is nearly enough to open and close the doors. That's much better than the back-breaking work many old trailer doors required.”

If you've operated an old trailer with door slides, you know that they can be difficult to open even when empty. Add a load of grain on a frosty morning and the doors can freeze up completely. Gear ratio doors and electric motor openers can be time and sanity savers. Erpelding suggests that, at the very least, you should consider upgrading from a sticky slide door to some kind of roller door.

The trailer's design plays a big role in how efficiently it bears its load and how cleanly it unloads. There are as many different philosophies on sheet metal angles as there are trailer manufacturers. Just about all of the newly designed trailers unload better than the old ones. Look for designs that will be structurally strong and easy to repair. Small sections of sheet metal, for instance, are easier to replace if the side of the trailer gets damaged.

Also look for a smooth interior and a steeper angle on the sides of the hopper. A design in which the metal bends around the corner and rivets down the center helps to keep grain from getting hung up on the rivets. Competitors such as Wilson, Jet and Wheeler have all focused on smoother hoppers that let grain slip out more easily instead of hanging up. Perhaps the most pronounced difference in this area is in the round, funnel-shaped Jet brand hoppers.

No design is perfect though. If you need your trailer to empty out really clean, you may want to add an air-operated vibrator.

Another design improvement in most new trailers is more clearance between the doors and augers. New Timpte trailers, for example, have 25 in. of clearance, whereas a lot of older trailers clear only 17 in.

Deluxe features worth it?

Marty Pfeiffer sells Corn Husker brand trailers out of Lincoln, NE. He says Corn Huskers are primarily targeted to commercial haulers, but large-acreage farmers, or those looking to earn extra income on the side hauling grain, are starting to look at the trailers as well. “Starting at around $25,700 for a 8,400-lb., 42 footer, our trailers cost a bit more than many of our competitors' [models] because they are 1,000 to 1,500 lbs. lighter,” Pfeiffer says. Our deluxe models for $29,700 use more aluminum to get the weight down to 7,800 lbs.”

Trailer weight is crucial for commercial haulers who want to haul maximum bushels per trip while still staying legal at the U.S. Department of Transportation weigh station. Farmers who haul on short runs from field to town might not feel weight is important enough to spend the extra money on aluminum. But the aluminum does last longer and improves resale value. Plus you get some deluxe features on the new aluminum models.

The Corn Husker has a two-speed gearbox on its door openers to maximize torque. And for $1,500 to $1,800, an optional electric opener takes all the effort out and keeps the operator away from most of the grain dust. An electric tarp option for $800 to $1,000 is another feature that's a time and labor saver.

Upgrade what you've got

If you want to upgrade a used trailer, a better tarp system may be the easiest and most worthwhile addition. Roll-Rite sells an automatic side-to-side system for watertight tarping of straight trucks, side dumps and long trailers. The cable-free system, which features an in-cab switch, stretches the tarp and holds it in place with specialized lock-down accessories. Prices range from $1,000 to $3,000. The company also offers electric gear motor kits for grain trailer hopper doors for about $700. Contact Roll-Rite Corp., 2574 School Rd., Alger, MI 48610-9651, 800/297-9905, or www.rollrite.com.

Suspension

The old leaf springs will do the job, just not as well as an air suspension system. Purchased as an option on a new trailer, air suspension costs somewhere between $1,200 and $1,500 extra. The obvious benefit is a better ride in the field and on the highway, which makes driving easier and increases the life and resale value of the trailer.

A nice side benefit is the gauge that comes with an air suspension system. A quick glance tells you how many pounds the trailer is carrying.

Other than the cost, the downside of air ride systems is added weight of 250 to 300 lbs. Some farmers are opting for a partial, or mini, air ride option, which costs an extra $500 over conventional spring suspension and adds just 115 lbs.

Lease or own?


Ken Reiners of AgStar Leasing Group suggests that many farmers could learn a thing or two about financing equipment by looking at how agribusiness managers treat their capital expenditures.

“Too many farmers tend to think of equipment in terms of absolute cost and/or ongoing payments,” Reiners says. “Agribusinesses, on the other hand, rely on a much more margin-oriented thought process. They determine the revenue gained [increased income or decreased operating cost]. Then they calculate the cost of each unit purchased and compare the revenue gained per unit against the cost per unit. This process is called margin management.”

For most farm equipment, margin management requires that you figure cost per acre against additional profit gained per acre. In the case of a grain trailer, you might instead figure cost per bushel moved versus additional profit per bushel. For more details on margin management and equipment leasing, contact AgStar Leasing Group, 1352 Northridge Ct., Hastings, MN 55033, 877/424-7827, www.agstar.com.

Length versus weight


A 38-ft.-long trailer might be good for tight roads or less experienced drivers. But anything shorter severely limits your rig's ability to haul big loads and still meet federal regulations. The following formula is part of a federal regulation that limits the weight on groups of axles in order to reduce the risk of damage to highway bridges. Allowable weight depends on the number of axles a vehicle has and the distance between those axles. However, the single- or tandem-axle weight limits supersede the Bridge Formula limits for all axles not more than 96 in. apart.

Federal Bridge Formula

W=500 [(LN/N-1) + 12N + 36]

W = the maximum weight in pounds that can be carried on a group of two or more axles to the nearest 500 lbs.

L = the distance in feet between the outer axles of any two or more consecutive axles.

N = the number of axles being considered.