Shortlines, as the name implies, are suppliers of specialized equipment, most often focusing on limited machinery types. Unlike the majors — AGCO, Case IH, John Deere and New Holland — that seek to provide a “full-line” of equipment to cover every need, shortliners are specialists.

One shortline manufacturer pointed out recently that only in the U.S. are there “full-line” manufacturers of farm equipment. In Europe, he says, all manufacturers are “shortlines” because it allows them to focus on what they do best — instead of trying to be everything to everybody.

While dealers generally rely on their majors to supply them with the products they require to meet most customer needs, they also see the shortlines as integral to their long-term sales and marketing efforts. This is becoming especially true as farming operations become more sophisticated and specialized.

Robert Downham, D&S Downham Equipment, a dealer in Stratford, Ontario, agrees that focusing on a specific farm operation or type of equipment does indeed afford manufacturers the opportunity to excel. On the other hand, he makes it clear he doesn’t like the term “shortline.”

The Success in Shortline Machinery series highlights the best practice strategies employed by top farm equipment dealers to promote and sell shortline equipment. It is brought to you courtesy of Art's Way Manufacturing.

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“Shortlines by definition is a problem. We do not consider companies such as Hardi Sprayer, Kuhn and Gehl as shortlines. They are product-specific specialists,” he says. “No one does a better job at what they do! We need this redefined!”

Terminology aside, most will agree with Downham’s assertion that shortliners are product specialists and are vital to the market and profit goals of most equipment dealers. In large part, dealers also agree that it’s the shortliners that are most innovative and quickest to the market as customer needs become evident.

Dennis Wagner, sales manager of Valley Implement, Sterling, Colo., puts it this way: “Generally, a shortline will come up with the idea, and then a major will advance it.”

In many, if not most cases, there’s a consensus among dealers that by their very nature, shortlines are much more capable of quickly responding to market needs than are the majors. This is increasingly true as professional farmers look for better ways to improve productivity and with the rapid emergence of large property owners (LPOs) and hobby farmers as a significant new customer base for farm equipment retailers.

Marc Taylor, Northern Plains Equipment Co., Mandan, N.D., explains, “Shortlines tend to have the innovations on the market first. Planter bar configurations are a good example,” he says. “Once the market becomes significant and the changes slow down, the major manufactures usually can refine their products and use their distribution channels to take a major portion of the market, but the speed to market is seldom anywhere close to the shortlines.”

Terry Jacobson, Eugene Beckman & Sons, Brookings, S.D., adds, “Usually, the shortline provides a given solution because the giants can’t react until the market is already developed.”

Don Miller, Sr. of Lloyd Miller & Sons, Corunna, Mich., doesn’t mince any words in comparing his shortline suppliers to the majors. “Shortlines specialize and have personnel who know what they are talking about. They seem to care more about our business. With the major lines, it seems like we have to educate them.”

Majors Remain ‘Major’

Despite their appreciation for the innovation and agility offered by shortline manufacturers, equipment dealers also recognize the power of the majors and their brands. They still know that it’s their major’s machinery that drives their business. The majors remain the “majors” for good reason.

While Carl Delekto, Delekto Bros., Auburn, Maine, concedes that imaginative shortliners “do a better job introducing revolutionary products for the first time to the marketplace,” it’s the major that he relies on for “major equipment.”

Increasingly, dealers ascertain that, with their financial might and long-term development capabilities, the majors will overwhelm their smaller competitors if and when a market segment becomes attractive enough to them. This means that even the most innovative and customer-driven shortliners must continue moving deeper into new markets and developing new products for long-established customers.

“The major lines usually lag behind shortlines for some innovative new markets, but majors will catch up and integrate [these products] into their lines, which will make it better in the long run,” says Richard McClymont, Jr., Landmark Implement, Holdrege, Neb.

Also, with their history and brand recognition, the majors often have an edge when it comes to growing markets like that of LPOs and hobby farmers. Rather than buying solely on price, many of these buyers treat their equipment purchase more as a hobby than an investment. Dealers say they’re finding that, in many cases, the rural lifestylers prefer the colors of the long-established brand names rather than taking a chance on equipment with names they don’t recognize.

“Subcompact and compact tractors seem to be the new kid on the block for us,” says Joe Wallace, Somerset Farm Equipment, Somerset, Ky. “Customers prefer the major line brands for quality and service.”

Adds John Schaff, Foley Implement Co., Foley, Ala., “We are not in a heavy ag area, but we feel like John Deere will cover most of our needs.”

In many cases the dealers believe the major equipment makers will win out when it comes to serving the needs of the LPO and hobby farmer market, and say they will stick with them to capture market share.

“Over the next 3 years, much like the past 3, the large property owners will continue to increase, and this segment will offer more promise for small tractors and attachments that offer a variety of solutions to a variety of needs, not just mowing or not just farming,” says Darren Mead, general manager, Deems Farm Equipment of Nevada, Nevada, Mo. “In this specific market, our major supplier provides the best equipment available.”

Kelly Mathison, Countryside Equipment, Brandon, Manitoba, keeps it simple: “Our major line is where we want to focus our efforts.”

On the other hand, some dealerships that specialize in serving the rural lifestyle customer are finding success in carrying only shortline brands. Dave’s Tractor, Red Bluff, Calif., is a newcomer to the farm equipment market and considers its “majors” as Mahindra and Branson tractors, the only two lines the dealership offers. It has no plans to add any other brands in the near future.

General manager Rob McFarlen believes the dealership’s success lies in keeping its focus on what it does best. “To successfully add any additional product line would require additional space, parts support and staff training for both sales and service on the particular product. We have chosen to keep our focus on our tractor lines rather than adding additional shortlines to our inventory.”

A Place for Both

The fact of the matter is, dealers generally prefer to maintain a good mix between their major line and shortline equipment. Especially now, as new markets emerge, equipment retailers say they need the capability to offer niche products and to be able to respond to today’s fast-changing marketplace. While the professional farmer remains the primary focus of their dealerships, for many, the LPO and rural lifestyler can’t be ignored.

Clayton Camp, president of West Kern Machinery, Buttonwillow, Calif., says that shortlines continue to be a vital part of his dealership’s strategy for current and future growth.

“Our business is an accumulation of shortlines. While we have a major manufacturer as our backbone, over the past 20 years we have steadily added shortlines and they now comprise up to 40% of our business. We no longer look at them as ‘shortlines,’ but as critical parts of our success,” says Camp.

He adds, “Major manufacturers continue to shrink their product offerings, pass along costs as well as decrease their warranty reimbursement costs to us, so we will continue to base our efforts on profit dollars, seeking those opportunities that maximize our bottom line.”

While the growth of the LPO and rural lifestyle customers is bringing new customers through the dealership door, the professional farmer remains the bread and butter for most farm equipment retailers. And many dealers find that shortlines are critical in meeting the new demands of the professional farmer as well. Changing tillage practices and cropping trends are good examples.

As more growers consider the benefits of conservation tillage, they’re turning to their equipment suppliers for answers to their questions. When it comes to equipment for strip-till, zone-till and vertical-till, dealers agree this is another area where shortlines shine.

“We believe that strip-till is the next big trend in our area. The shortline companies are ahead of our major in product development,” says Todd Channell, Farmers Equipment, Urbana, Ohio. “I feel shortliners will always be ahead of the major suppliers on this type of product. The majors use shortlines to do their market research for them. The shortliners will always have to come up with new equipment to stay in business and are more nimble with their research and development.”

Another example is the ethanol boom that is leading to an explosion in the growth of corn acres. As Ron Waldschmidt, vice president of sales for A.C. McCartney in Durand, Ill., points out, here too, shortlines have demonstrated their ability to respond quickly.

“The expansion of corn acres has created a new expectation in tillage and planting practices and new products to meet these demands. The shortline companies have been most aggressive in meeting these demands and more willing to provide new equipment designs. The majors tend to follow with models designed after the shortline products have already been introduced,” he says.

Nonetheless, given a choice, dealers say they like the opportunity to offer a combination. When it comes to niche markets, James Wozniewski of Jim’s Repair Service, Cedar Lake, Ind., believes it takes both to satisfactorily meet customer needs, “although shortlines usually have a profit edge,” he adds.

And Marcus Madewell of S&H Farm Supply, Rogersville, Mo., sees the combination as the best of all possible worlds. “The shortline will be the solution for the lawn and garden customers, but New Holland will be the solution for the part-time farmer,” he says.

As his customer base for compact tractors grows, Frank Sidwell, Muskingum Tractor & Equipment, Zanesville, Ohio, sees OEM and shortline equipment satisfying the growing need for both small tractors and implements.

In some cases, dealers say the two — majors and shortlines — can work together, and it’s best for everyone involved. “Deere is pretty good about opening new lines with potential sales for us,” says Travis Emitte, Lawrence Tractor of Tipton, Calif. “Shortlines will always have the niche product. They concentrate on a specific need for an area and make the product for it. Right now, we have the best of both worlds. We’re going to start demonstrating a double windrow attachment soon. It is built by a shortline and supported by Deere.”