Implement dealers have used service trucks for years toomake service calls. Now some farmers are buying them to save downtime in the field.

Farmer Wilbert Ohlmann was tired of running from field to shop each time he needed a tool to repair a broken-down piece of equipment. Ohlmann's farm covers 52,000 acres outsideof the Badlands of South Dakota. When he takes a left-hand turn out of his driveway, it's 14 miles to his west fence line.

"When I'd get a call over the radio, I'd shoot out to the field to repair the problem, but it would never be what they said it was," explains Ohlmann, also a self-trained mechanic who does all of his own repairs.

So in the spring of 1997, Ohlmann bought himself a field service truck. "Now I carry everything with me," he says.

Ohlmann didn't buy just any service truck. He bought the largest Peterbilt chassis he could find from his local dealer. Then he had Feterl Manufacturing custom make a service body to fit the truck. His Dakota model 14000 is loaded with cranes, welders, lube kits, hose crimpers, fuel tanks and anything else he needs to service his own equipment (see sidebar). "It's a shop on wheels," says Jack Harriman, special trucks division manager at Feterl.

Ohlmann isn't the only farmer buying a field service truck. "Implement dealers have used them extensively, but now they are catching on with farmers," Harriman says.

As farm consolidation puts more miles between field and dealer, these buyers are finding it faster and cheaper to do their own fix-ups in the field. "We are getting into an age where it seems we have to do our own repairing," Ohlmann explains. "To have a dealer do it just isn't feasible."

Can you afford one? These trucks aren't cheap. The chassis of Ohlmann's truck cost him $80,000. The service body cost another $79,000.

Obviously, not everyone would need a truck that big. Typically you can expect to pay $30,000 to $80,000 for the chassis and $32,000 to $70,000 for the body. Ohlmann also has a smaller service truck from Feterl, model 10000, for an adjacent farm. He paid $35,000 for the body and $39,000 for the truck.

Keep in mind that these costs are for off-road service trucks, says Gary Hibma, national sales manager for Maintainer Corporation of Iowa, a service truck supplier for Case Corporation. He says it is possible to get an on-road truck cheaper, but you may end up buying another one after a year if the engine dies or cracks as a result of its vigorous use in the field.

The average life of a service truck is 12 to 14 years. To know whether you can justify buying one, consider these factors:

*Mechanical aptitude: "The biggest kicker is whether you have someone qualified to fix equipment," Harriman says.

*Size of farm: There's no magic number that applies, but most farmers who buy a service truck farm a lot of acreage.

*Distance to dealership: Some dealerships charge by the mile for hauling, so consider how much it would cost to haul broken equipment to the nearest dealer given trucking rates in your area. Also factor in travel time and how much downtime you can afford.

Sizing up a truck. If you decide to buy, you can choose from hundreds of companies that make service trucks. You may want to find one close to you to save on shipping charges. The National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA) has a Web site (www.ntea.com) that lists many of these companies along with their products, services and individual Web sites. NTEA's site lets you search by company name or location so you can find the one nearest you. If you don't have access to the Internet, you can call NTEA direct at 800/441-6832.

Some of these companies, like Douglass Truck Bodies in Bakersfield, CA, sell only the service body. Some supply only the truck. Still others, like Feterl and Maintainer, sell both the body and the truck and give you the option to buy either one from someone else.

You will need to determine how big a truck you want. They can range from three-quarter tons to one- and two-ton tandems. At minimum, you'll need one with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) of 15,000 lbs. to support a service body, according to Feterl's Harriman. But they can go as high as 80,000 lbs. or higher. For the most part, the size will be determined by what you want to put on it.

Next, consider the service body. Some bodies are designed strictly for maintenance; they include things like parts bins, tool drawers, a workbench, welders, torches, air compressors, hose crimping equipment, cranes for pulling engines and radiators and a light package for night work. Some bodies also can be used for preventive maintenance and refueling and include big tanks to carry the oil, diesel fuel, antifreeze and waste.

The combination service/lube requires a 33,000-lb.-GVW truck because of the weight of the tanks, Hibma says. With the maintenance model, you can get by with a lower GVW, typically 20,000 to 30,000 lbs.

Factory- or custom-made? Most companies sell service trucks that are factory-made, and only a handful will design them to meet your specifications. Maintainer, Feterl and Douglass all specialize in custom manufacturing along with selling standard lines.

"[Farmers] all kind of like a different look to their truck, whether it be lights, interiors or how the boxes are designed," says Rick Douglass, president of Douglass Truck Bodies."It's not cheap," adds Ohlmann about his custom buying experience. "But at least it meets your needs."

Wilbert Ohlmann's Peterbilt 379 is equipped with a 475-hp Caterpillar motor, an 18-speed transmission and 4.33 gear ratio on the rear end.

The truck has 16R2.25 tires on the front for the carrying capacity and weight distribution needed on soft ground such as newly worked field. The rear tandems are 12R24.5. All four wheels in back have full locking differential locks.

Feterl Manufacturing put on the body - a Dakota model 14,000 - the largest it has built to date. Here are just a few of the items Ohlmann wanted on it:

*14,000-lb. hydraulic crane with remote control and a 30-ft. cord to stretch to where Ohlmann is working *Hydraulic air compressor driven by the truck's PTO *Welder/generator mounted on a slide table operated by air cylinders *Hydraulic hose crimper with cabinet for hose ends *2,100-gal., three-compartment diesel fuel tank *Six 80-gal. product tanks for oils and antifreeze *Diaphragm pump with different valve configurations to smoothly pump everything from fuel out of a tank to oil out of a crankcase *Lights for night work *Emergency light bars *Heavy-duty tool drawers and bolt bins *DuPont's Imron durable paint for the body *Metered oil dispenser