An annual combine inspection can cut downtime and repair costs. But be advised: All are not the same. Price may be your best indicator.

What started out as a way to keep service technicians busy and parts sales up in the winter months has become a vital tool for farmers to cut machinery repair costs and prevent downtime at harvest.

Combine inspections have been around since the early 1980s. But until recently most farmers didn't see the need to have their combines inspected. They'd simply fix problems as they occurred. That's changing.

As farms get bigger and combines more complex, farmers are finding they no longer have the time or tools to service their combines. As a result, implement dealers are seeing a flood of requests for routine combine checkups that can catch problems before farmers hit the field.

"When we first started inspections, customers thought they were spending quite a bit on the combine before they went into the field," says David Goebel, service manager at Kibble Equipment in Montevideo, MN. "But those who spent the most were first to sign up the following year."

Jim Haar, owner of Fred Haar Implement in Freeman, SD, agrees: "I think we're pushing preventive maintenance more. Farmers have found it's very costly to be down for a couple of days during harvesttime."

But as a buyer, there's one critical question you need to ask: Do all dealers provide comparable inspections?

Quality at a price. "Emphatically, absolutely not," answers Jim Beal, co-owner of Taking Care of Business, a dealer consulting firm. For the past 16 years he has trained dealers nationwide on how to give a quality inspection and still make money doing it. During that time he has analyzed some 15,000 inspection experiences. He's found that quality varies dramatically because of in-line competition, which has caused dealers to price inspections lower and lower at the sacrifice of value. "They forget their customers are paying $150,000 for a combine and don't think they would spend more than $99 to do a thorough inspection." Hard costs alone for a detailed inspection before repairs average $340 for tractors and $460 for combines. (See table.) That's based on a $40/hr. labor rate and covers hauling costs, a complete cab and glass cleanup and inspection time. At those prices even the best dealers will not recover two-thirds of their hard costs in the inspection process, he says. Because of the narrow margin, you are better off purchasing a higher-priced inspection because it will be more in line with what the dealer invests in time. Tips for buying right. Beal estimates that only 30% of dealers offer a detailed, quality inspection that is priced appropriately. "Deere and Case generally lead the pack."

How do you know if your dealer is one of them? Beal says to look for these indicators:

Price. Make a buy decision based on price. Be wary of anything priced under $200 for tractors and under $250 for combines.

Points of inspection. Ask to see the checklist. It should cover at least 100 points.

Time. The inspection should take no fewer than 2 1/2 to 4 hours for tractors and 3 1/2 to 5 hours for combines.

Place. The best value inspections are conducted in the shop, not on the farm, Beal says. Otherwise you pay too much for road time.

Perks. Look for added values that may be packaged in the inspection cost. Storing could be one. Jump on parts discounts. Customer approval. Insist on approving every line-item repair on the inspection checklist. "If it is not part of the approach, then some dealers violate trust and have horrendous tickets that the farmer doesn't feel are justified," Beal says.

Size of repair bill. Expect to pay an average of $2,000 on tractors and $3, 000 on combines for follow-up parts and labor. Combine numbers are based on out-of-warranty units with 600 to 1,000 hrs. of use.

A packaged deal. Beal has taken these indicators and put together quality-driven inspection checklists for every make and model of combine that any dealer can purchase off the shelf. He has developed these checklists for combines, tractors, corn heads, flex heads, planters and hay tools. They are designed with the help of technicians and revised annually. What sets them apart? "Ours are more detailed, quality-driven and disciplined than anything we've seen. These are not $99 quickie lube approaches."

The checklist for combines is five pages and covers more than 100 points that technicians check. "I tell dealers to start at the right-hand side, then go to the left-hand, move up to the operator station and end with the engine."

It broadly covers the feeder house, rotor cylinder, cage and grates, shoe, drive train, cab and electrical, engine, grain handling system including sieve and chaffer, straw walkers (where appropriate) and unloading system.

A key feature is a three-step sign-off process to ensure all repairs are warranted. First, the technician identifies whether each item is okay. Second, the customer approves each suggested line-item repair. Third, the technician marks when each repair is completed.

Consolidated Ag Service (CAS), a multi-store organization in central and southwestern Minnesota, uses Beal's checklist and subscribes to his approach. It charges $175 for the inspection plus hauling charges. All inspections are done in the shop. They cover more than 150 points and take about a day. The technicians prepare a list of recommended repairs and present it to the customer for approval. The customer pays for all parts and labor, and there are no parts discounts.

CAS goes one step further. If the customer agrees to make all the repairs, he or she is enrolled in a Priority Service Program, which basically guarantees the usability and serviceability of that unit for 12 months. If the unit has a failure in season and CAS can't fix it within 24 hrs., it will send out a loaner unit at no cost.

"It really puts the monkey on our back to perform," says Grant Hustad, CAS president and CEO. "And it also fills up our service department in the off season so we have more time available to take care of problems in season."

His best advice for farmers seeking a quality inspection is to offer to pay the dealer for 6 to 8 hrs. of labor for a qualified technician. "I don't know of anybody who's going to provide a quality inspection if they're not paid for it," he says. "I don't want a free job here. I want a good job."

The dealership has 700 units signed up so far this year and expects to have 1,000 by the end of the year.

Gerald Rust, a corn and soybean farmer from Glenwood, MN, is a customer. He has enrolled not only his combine but also his tractors in the Priority Service Program since 1991. His total machinery repair bill has dropped from $22/acre down to $12/acre currently, which he credits to the program. "The technicians catch things long before they turn into major problems." Repair bills for his combine average $1,000/yr.

Room for variation. But not every dealer follows Beal's formula. For example, Kibble Equipment doesn't use a checklist. The reason? "A 150-point checklist is just a number to me," says Goebel. "Maybe one dealer does 125 points and another does 100 points. How do you determine how many points to cover?"

Instead, technicians start with a blank piece of paper and write down everything that needs to be repaired to make it function through the season. They look at every point on the machine and go over the list with the customer, who has the final say.

The inspection takes three to four hours, and the customer pays $90 plus hauling. They offer a graduated parts discount ranging from 3 to 12% based on the amount of service work performed. "We could probably get more, but we look at the fact of rolling through a lot of customer work. The customer still gets a good inspection and we gain a lot of service work that may have gone to someone else."

For an extra service call fee, they'll do the inspection on the farm. Why the option? "Some customers have about the same facilities we do. And there are a lot of farmers with big operations and have people they hire year-round. Those customers want to work on their own machines."

Kibble has been conducting inspection this way for 15 years and has been able to keep its shop busy year-round. "They don't have empty stalls very often," attests Beal. "That's a measure of customer trust and confidence."

Fred Haar Implement charges an hourly rate for in-season checkups and in the winter offers them for free. The reason? To encourage parts sales and keep technicians in off-peak months. Parts and labor are not discounted. They work from their own checklist. Technicians pull the shields and feeder house, inspect all points inside and make a check next to the items that need repair.

"We don't touch the machine until we show the farmer everything that needs to be done," says Haar. "They make the decision on the work." All inspections are done in the shop, and the customer pays for hauling.

Are combines being serviced right with this approach? "Let me put it to you this way," Haar says. "We started out in 1990 doing five inspections. The second year we did 10, and the next year we were up to 20. Right now we've got anywhere from 75 to 100 combines that come in each year. If customers didn't feel it was being done right, they wouldn't bring them back."

Schedule early. The best time to sign up is two weeks after harvest because it buys the deepest discounts, the most hauling value and the most detailing value, Beal says. That will vary by dealer.

Keep a record of repairs made. It will not only remind you of the work that has been done but can add value to the combine if you decide to sell.

Deere is making available to its dealers annual inspection stickers for cab windows to verify combine inspections. "There have been cases where the well-maintained, window-stickered units have been sold at a premium over non-maintained, non-stickered units," Beal says.

Documentation is especially important with the number of low-hour used combines changing hands under interest-free roll programs, he adds. "They are trading so many rolls that farmers are slacking off on their maintenance because they only have it for a year. So, for the guy who picks it up next year, it's 'Buyer better beware.'"

For more information about Beal's inspection checklist, have your dealer contact Taking Care of Business, Dept. FIN, Box 38, Allenspark, CO 80510-0038, 303/747-0447.