While farmers recognize the huge challenge they’re up against with global population growth, they say their more immediate problem when it comes to increasing their operating capabilities is the lack of people willing to do farm work and able to operate the newer machinery.

“The first question we need to ask,” says Robert Saik, CEO of Agri-Trend, an agricultural consulting firm that services farmers throughout North America, is, ‘Why has farm equipment gotten bigger?’ The answer, I believe, is manpower. We have fewer qualified equipment operators, so consequently instead of having 2 guys on 60 foot sprayers, we’ve got one guy operating a 120 foot sprayer. So at some point in time you wonder if there’s a limitation to how big the equipment can get. And who knows? Every time we think we’ve reached the limit to the size of the equipment we can operate, something like a 200 foot air drill shows up. I would say, as long as we have constraints with qualified operators, we’ll continue to push equipment size.”

“Even the proponents of the ‘need for speed’ in ag operations acknowledge that speed alone will not improve overall farmer effectiveness…”

Custom harvesters say that is precisely why they require the largest equipment they can get — and a little extra speed wouldn’t hurt either.

“Our biggest problem in this industry is people. Human beings to operate the equipment,” says Jon Orr, a custom harvester based in Apple Creek, Ohio. Orr also serves as vice president of U.S. Custom Harvesters, and says that as an organization, the group has determined that labor is its absolute biggest problem. “We need to figure out how we can decrease the amount of labor we need and I think all manufacturers are working on it. It’s just how far out do we want to go?”

And farm labor isn’t getting any cheaper. According to the August 8, 2014, edition of The Kiplinger Agriculture Newsletter, farm labor costs will continue to creep up in 2015, especially wages for people who can run machines that are getting more complex. In the Midwest, since 2010 wages are up $2-$3 per hour for workers operating farm machinery. Current going rates in the Midwest: $15/hour or so. The report says that long term, custom operators, too, have tended to add at least 2% a year to their fees to cover replacement of old machines with new ones.

Josh Russell, a custom harvester based in Texas, who specializes in silage, is in total agreement. “Finding qualified operators is our biggest problem.” As a result, he says, operations like his require big equipment, and the bigger the better.

Increasing the size and horsepower of farm machinery has been the manufacturers’ traditional response to farmer demands for increased productivity. More recently, with the aid of guidance technology, manufacturers have been able to greatly expand on the width and breadth of tillage tools, application equipment, tractors and machinery for harvesting crops to mammoth proportions. It stands to reason that bigger and wider machines reduce time in the field by covering more acreage in a single pass.

But, physically, how much larger can farm equipment get? Some say, “Not much.” Others say, “Only the imagination knows.” Most admit, though, that the industry is facing some practical constraints when it comes to further increasing the size of ag machinery.

The most often mentioned challenges in continuing to up-size ag machinery include transporting the equipment from the factory to the dealership, to operating it on country roads between fields, to simply maneuvering it in the fields. The weight of these behemoths is also causing headaches for some. If local municipalities aren’t complaining about the damage the equipment is causing to roads and bridges, then farmers struggle with soil compaction, which they know is a yield killer.

Nonetheless, Orr believes farm equipment will get bigger. He says manufacturers have been telling him for years that they can’t get any wider with the equipment because they can’t transport it. “Then, all of sudden, we’ve got 3-headed hay bines that fold up and go down the road and we’re cutting 30 and 45 foot swaths. So when they say they can’t go any bigger, I think that’s being a little bit shortsighted. My grandfather had a one row silage cutter and thought he had the world by the tail. If you had asked back then if there was a chance of having a 12-row head, he’d would have said, “Hell no.”

Size is an Issue

While the desires of producers will always be front of mind for manufacturers, they are exploring other avenues for increasing efficiency other than automatically thinking bigger is the answer.

To realize where the farm equipment efficiency is heading, Auburn’s Fulton says it’s important to understand how far it’s come in the last decade, largely due to increased size.

“Planting capacity in some areas has increased by 25-50% in the last 10 years. In the southern states, it’s definitely doubled,” he says. “Where farmers were using 24-row planters, they are now using 36 row planters. We’ve seen a definite increase in machine capacity, just by going wider.”

Sprayers too have grown in size. Whereas 10 years ago a 90 foot boom was a novelty, Fulton says, it’s more common to see 120 and even 130 foot booms in the field applying pesticides today.

And even combine headers have grown in width by as much as 10 feet in the last decade, increasing harvesting capacity.

“Today, we’re talking class 9 combines and 40-45 foot headers,” Fulton says. “A few years ago, a 35-foot header might have the been the largest available.”

But Fulton doesn’t see machinery getting much larger, for several reasons. First, there are the logistical challenges of delivering massive equipment to customers.

“We are at capacity for how large machinery can be built. We cannot build tractors or combines, in particular, any bigger, because we’re not going to split those machines to deliver them to the field,” he says. “I don’t think that’s a feasible approach.

“Primarily it’s a weight issue. I don’t see manufacturers taking an articulated 4-wheel drive tractor and splitting it in half to deliver it. That’s just too much work.

Today, a combine might be delivered in two trucks — one carrying the main body and the other with tires and additional components.

“They can’t afford to go to 3 or 4 trucks that deliver single parts,” Fulton says. “It’s too much of a cost that the end user won’t be willing to accept.”

That’s the way Robb Nelms, market development manager for Seed Hawk sees it. “We’re getting into this with some tillage equipment now. It’s so wide, you can’t get down the roads with them, and you’ve got bridges to cross, narrow gate holes to get through.

“I really don’t think we can go much bigger because of the road and transportation restrictions. A lot of farmers like to store their equipment inside and need to get it in and out of their sheds. I don’t see them building bigger sheds just to accommodate the bigger equipment. We also know the bigger the tillage tool, the more horsepower you’ll need to pull it. Even if you go with something smaller and want to go faster, it’s going to take additional horsepower.”

Whether or not equipment can or will get bigger, it’s clear the push is on to accelerate the speed as well as size of ag machinery. “The question is,” says Saik, “can it be done?”