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FARMERS LIKE to tinker with their field machinery, modifying it from the original manufacturer's design. But when Mark Bauer decided to modify his tillage and fertilizer equipment, he ended up in the manufacturing business.
Today, Bauer is a farmer and the CEO of Environmental Tillage Systems (ETS), a Faribault, MN-based business that builds zone tillage and fertilizer implements. These implements meet Bauer's criteria for one-pass tillage and fertilizing in the fall and spring in a 10-in.-wide zone. And he designed the implements to handle heavy residue and tough field conditions while carrying bulk fertilizer.
The new company enters a competitive strip-till market with more than a dozen manufacturers. But Bauer and his staff don't want their equipment to be pigeon-holed as strip-till machines. Instead, they say, the tasks their new tillage/fertilizer unit, called the Soil Warrior, performs are more like conventional tillage than strip-till. “We prepare the same seedbed as conventional but without the broadcast tillage,” reports Kevin Kuehn, ETS.
“We're only disturbing one-third of the total soil surface doing tillage and applying fertilizer, so the same horsepower tractor can handle wider machines,” Bauer adds.
Transition to manufacturer
Bauer's farmer-to-manufacturer conversion began several years ago when he tried strip-till and found it interesting, but didn't like the equipment design. So he decided to start from scratch and build his own implement. A local welder helped him design his first tillage toolbar and fertilizer cart. Bauer's brother Jay, who has an engineering degree, then got involved and helped design a well-balanced, rugged implement that rode on air springs instead of mechanical springs. The toolbar was able to handle the rigors of tillage in biotech corn stubble, and the integrated fertilizer cart was easy to maneuver in the field.
The new implement worked so well that Bauer and his wife Sue sold their stock choppers, v-rippers, soil finishers, rock pickers and conventional tractors, which were no longer needed with the new one-pass implement. Bauer painted the new unit pink so everyone would know it was not a major company brand.
The implement didn't go unnoticed. As word got out that the Bauers had a different style machine, farmers came to visit and inquire about buying one. The next year Bauer and his family built four units for other farmers on a test basis. They made some improvements to the machine, like using oil-bath hubs, and switched the paint color to purple.
During the next couple of years, Bauer and his family and an employee continued to build a few units on the farm. They used old hog buildings for welding, painting and assembling parts and built the large units outside in the yard. The crew also kept making improvements on the design. And Bauer kept farming.
Through word of mouth, interest in the implement grew to the point where, in 2007, Bauer started selling the implements retail. Their first two retail machines were exported. Realizing that his family and one employee couldn't handle the job alone, he hired staff to help. By 2008, he had moved the business to an empty manufacturing facility in Faribault.
Today, 13 employees, plus Bauer and his wife, work for ETS. As of mid-summer, ETS had sold 65 machines, most in the Midwest and some to Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
“It was a huge education going from farming to manufacturing,” Bauer recalls. “I liked the design aspect, but as the company started to get busy, there were so many other aspects like record keeping and inventory management that I just can't do. For example, there are 9,000 parts on one machine and 1,000 of the parts are manufactured just for us. So I learned early on that we needed to make an investment in human capital.”
While the learning curve was steep, Bauer says he also received some much-needed financial support from outside investors at the right time. The major investors were from the Broin family, which started the ethanol company POET. The capital helped the Bauers move ETS into a full manufacturing and retail business.
The official name of Bauer's tillage/fertilizer unit is the Soil Warrior. This massive machine is used in the fall and spring. For fall tillage, 30-in.-dia. cogwheels and serrated coulters produce a 10-in.-wide tilled zone that is 8 to 12 in. deep. The coulters and cogwheel also mix fertilizer and residue with the soil.
In the spring, each cogwheel is taken off and replaced with two 20-in.-dia. wavy coulters. The smaller coulters till the soil only 2 to 6 in. deep in the same 10-in.-wide zone.
“With Soil Warrior, we honor conventional tillage with a heavy primary till in the fall and then a shallow fluff and condition in the spring to get the soil warm for seeding,” Bauer explains. By closely replicating conventional tillage in the 10-in. zone, he says, yields should be similar to those obtained from conventional till.
The Soil Warrior cuts down trips across the field by including fertilizer, which saves fuel and time. “We don't ever make a pass across the field without handling fertilizer at the same time,” Bauer says.
“One of the shortcomings of early toolbars is they didn't have the ability to carry large volumes of fertilizer,” he explains. “We addressed that right away knowing that if we carried large weights of fertilizer, we needed to have the right weight and balance plus sizeable tires. Now the toolbar handles so well that we have producers asking us to put corn planter units on it.”
The toolbar is constructed of 7- × 7- × ½-in. steel tubing and is available in several pull-type configurations from single rigid to double folding.
Standard fertilizer options on the Soil Warrior include a 1,500-gal. liquid fertilizer poly tank and a 230-bu. steel hopper for granular fertilizer. Twin, elliptical, 300-gal. fertilizer tanks may be added for more liquid capacity.
Options for granular fertilizer include dual hoppers, a Weightronix scale system, and wiring for either a Dickey-john Land Manager II or Ag Leader Insight controller. Heavy-duty axles and dual tires may be added on the cart assembly, depending on the size of the unit.
The Soil Warrior is available in 6-, 8-, 12- and 16-row sizes and at row widths of 20, 22, 30, 36, 38 and 40 in. The company has built up to 60-ft. toolbars and may test a 90-ft. model with 36 rows next year.
Retail price for an 8-row Soil Warrior is about $115,000. A 16-row Soil Warrior with guidance and variable-rate control can retail for up to $215,000.
Bauer says one important feature of the Soil Warrior is its ability to produce uniform tillage depths on uneven ground. This becomes more important as widths of the toolbar increase. Parallel linkage provides 18 in. of vertical clearance.
“Producers just keep pushing these machines harder and harder,” Bauer adds. “They do fluff tillage in the spring at speeds of 12 to 13 mph. I think 9 and 10 mph are more comfortable. But it's been successful and the machines hold up.”
It takes higher horsepower tractors to handle the large Soil Warrior models with 16 rows. Bauer estimates 25 to 30 hp/tillage unit is needed for fall work and 12 to 17 hp/tillage unit for spring.
Bauer has added other products to the ETS line of equipment including the Mini Warrior designed for spring tillage and fertilizer use only. Another new implement is the Roller Warrior that smooths out dirt clumps and residue. The company has developed the Honey Warrior that attaches to a Mini Warrior for manure application. And ETS plans to market a Seed Warrior for planting.