The following is the full interview between Farm Equipment editor Mike Lessiter and Ric Kirby of Kirby Manufacturing.
Merced, Calif., based Kirby Manufacturing has made cattle feeding equipment since 1946. Ric Kirby discusses how his family and company navigated the California dairy industry and went from manufacturing the first self-unloading forage wagon to other products, including a vehicle to assist presidential customers.
Mike Lessiter: Why don't you tell us what Kirby Manufacturing does?
Ric Kirby: We're a manufacturer of cattle feeding equipment primarily, TMR mixers for dairy and beef operation. Started out in 1946 in manufacturing, and over the years have just kind of added on to the product line with manure spreaders and different types of hay feeding equipment for the larger mid-sized big bales. And some other associated products that complement our feeding equipment, and things that dairy men and beef ranchers need in their operations.
Mike Lessiter: You're the first in our podcast series to be from the republic of California, so tell us a little bit about where you're located and the markets that you serve from.
Ric Kirby: Yeah usually when I'm outside of California, I say that I'm involved with agriculture, it usually gives me a little bit warmer reception than stating I'm from California. But we're located in Merced, Calif., right in the heart of the central valley there, right in the middle of all the agriculture. Very diverse agricultural area, not just corn, and I don't know of any slaving farmers in California. But, there's a lot of dairy operations, lot of row crop farming, and permanent crops such as almonds and pistachios, and wine grapes, raisin grapes, fresh market grapes.
A lot of different products, so it was the place where my great grandfather settled, when he moved the family out from Missouri in the '30s, and he had five children, my grandfather Tom was the youngest of the five, and he was the only one that was born in California, the rest of them came from just north of Springfield, Mo., in a little town called Dade Ville and Loliver.
My great grandfather went to the University in Missouri, and worked for an International Harvester out of college, and traveled around the Midwest, helping set up dealerships and working with the dealers, and made a trip out to California, and thought it was a pretty nice place, and sent home for his family, and moved everybody out.
When they came to California, they settled in Visalia for a short time, and then a job opportunity came up in Merced, about 100 miles north and he took that opportunity and moved there, and worked for a kind of a local hardware farm supply type store, and then he set up a dealership for himself in town, selling Minneapolis Moline tractors and some other short lines in the late ‘30s.
And then my grandfather and his brother, they worked in the farm dealership assembling tractors when they came in, assembling the implements and working in the dealership, and became familiar with the machinery, and then when World War II broke out, both of my grandfathers and my great-uncle went off to fight in the Pacific, and when they came back from the war, my grandfather had worked in the ship yards helping build Liberty ships and what not, and so he was quite a welder.
And, then he went off into the Pacific and first joined up with the Marines and then they figured out that he lied about his age and they kicked him out. Because he wasn't 18 yet, and then a few months later when he did actually turn 18, the Marines wouldn't take him back in because he lied on his application, and so he joined the Army. And they accepted him, and so he did a stint in World War II in the Army. So when he came back, him and his brother went back to work for their father, and started building small implements and selling them through their dad’s tractor dealership.
And so that's what the manufacturing kind of spun off of, and that was in 1946 when they founded Kirby Manufacturing off of the Kirby implement company.
Mike Lessiter: How common was it back in that day for a dealership to also make and brand some of their own equipment? Was that common?
Ric Kirby: Not that I'm aware of. A lot of I think, more of the small farm equipment manufacturers started out from farmers building their own equipment and then starting to sell it to their neighbors. Whereas my grandfather and his brother started building equipment from their background working in with their father’s equipment dealership. In 1949, one of their friends, local dairy man, said he was a little tired of pitchforking hay and hauling in green chop in wagons and doing all the feeding manually, so they developed the first self-unloading forage wagon, and they would pull up behind the tractor and chopper and load the green chop alfalfa into the wagon, and then disconnect from the chopper and they'd pull the wagon in, and go along and feed the cattle with the green chop. In 1949 was the first one.
It saved a lot of labor. The first one didn't have a PTO on it, they powered it with a Wisconsin gas engine, because the tractor that the farmer had didn't have a PTO on it, and so he'd go and fire up the gas engine and run and jump on the tractor before it left too big of a pile of feed before he got going down the feed manger. And we have that original wagon in our yard today. In 1995 I bought it back from the family, they still had the first Kirby feed wagon and we bought it, restored it, and gave it to my great-uncle for Christmas that year. That was fun.
Mike Lessiter: So that was a major innovation in cattle farming at the time?
Ric Kirby: Yes, yep. It retired a lot of pitchforks. And, in the central valley, dairies were pretty prevalent, a lot of small dairy farms, and so the wagon took off, and pretty soon they maintained the tractor dealership for a few years after that, and as the manufacturing grew and kind of took over, Minneapolis Moline was bought out by White, and they were consolidating Oliver and what have you. The local Oliver dealer took over the dealership, and my grandfather, and my great-uncle Bill, focused on manufacturing at that point.
Mike Lessiter: Over what period did you unleash the other products?
Ric Kirby: The '50s, there's some development of new products, they developed a manure spreader, they did a self-propelled manure spreader. We did some dry chop wagons, and they just really improved on the feed wagon as well, increasing the size and capacity or capabilities of it, and that carried them into the '60s, we did a lot of little subcontracting as well. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, we made bomb shelters. And there's still a few of those in the ground at residences around the central valley.
And then, in the early '70s, started working on developing the feed mixers with the three auger mixer, which progressed into a four auger mixer, and we developed the first feed mixer that you could drop baled hay directly into the mixing chamber without having to break it up or process it or grind it before you mix it. And that's when the TMR rations came out.
Most of the other manufacturers that were building similar equipment, they had to run the hay bales through a hay grinder before you put the hay in the ration, in the mixer. And our machine was able to take the bale of hay directly into the mixer. So that eliminated a piece of equipment for the farmers. We built a hay grinder ourselves as well, for early on, but we always tell people that they really didn't need a hay grinder if they bought a Kirby mixer, but we still built them for the customers that had the brand x, y, and z.
Mike Lessiter: Tell us, if someone walked into your facility today, kind of visually bring someone in and plant them here?
Ric Kirby: Yeah, so Merced was a small town when I was growing up, it was under 20,000 people, now it's just over 80,000 — the typical central valley town that's got an agronomy based economy. Car dealerships sell a lot of pickups, because of the farmers. But we do have a new University of California campus in town, so the dynamics of Merced are changing, but back in the '40s, '50s, '60s, it was primarily a farming town. The original storefront was on G Street, and then when Highway 99 was improved and came through town, they took the land and made a freeway overpass out of it.
And that was in the early '50s, and my grandfather and his brother bought some land outside of town where our current location is. We got about 15 acres there. Currently have about probably close to 50,000 square feet of manufacturing space. The original building on that land is still there, it's our main office, and then everything has just kind of grown off from that. So, the older buildings are somewhat of a maze. Not very efficient with product flow, but we put up some newer buildings that we can expand on and work with for future production. So our parts department, when you first pull into the place, kind of an old western looking building, and you walk in and it's got kind of the old flair to it still.
And we got an old Minneapolis Moline tractor sitting in the parts department, kind of paying homage to my great grandfather. And some old signage, some old photographs of as the company grew and what have you. We're one big family there. We've got 65 employees, we have quite a few people that have been with us for over 20 years, some been with us over 30 years, and even a couple that have hung on for over 40 years. And so we've got a good, close knit group that really takes care of our customers, and I think that's what's really helped our company succeed over the years is the relationships we've built with our customers and being there for them when they needed us. From a service aspect. And having a product that satisfied the need that they had.
Mike Lessiter: Tell us what kind of manufacturing equipment that we'll find inside of your facility.
Ric Kirby: When you've gotten to the shop, some of the older buildings, lower ceilings, not a lot of clear height. So we use part of our front shop for service and repairs. In California we act as our own dealer and sell direct to the customer. Outside of California we use a dealer network. So, within California we'll take trades, we'll refurbish them, some of the local farmers will bring their equipment in, we'll refurbish them, repair them, send them back out. We have a fleet of service trucks that will go out on the farm and service and repair the equipment as well.
Once you get past the service department, we've got some of our sheet metal working machinery, some press brakes, sheer, CNC plasma cutter, high definition plasma, some presses to form our auger flighting, and then several welding stations to assemble augers. Adjacent to that is our engineering office. And then adjacent to that is what we call a prefab area, and we do a lot of small sub assemblies, so there's a lot of different jigs and things that come in and out of there, as work orders come through. And they'll make small part runs or individual runs depending on what products are being built in the assembly shops. We have really technical names for these shops. It's front shop, back shop, mixture shop. So, in the back shop is where we used to do our feed wagon production, later in life, when we were really putting out a lot of wagons, building them one right after another, in the '70s. But, again, that building has low ceilings, the crane capacities are low. We have like 11’6” under the hook on the cranes.
So, as the mixers were starting to be developed, and we started assembling those in that shop, we started running out of room, because the capacity of these things, just the equipment got larger and heavier, and we found ourselves having to pull some of the stuff outside to complete them and drop the augers inside the finished product. So that drove the need for the future, and we put up a new building in 2000, and it's got 10-ton bridge cranes in it. We've got about 23” clear height under the hook of the cranes, and that building's designed to go out at least four times the size that it is now.
So that's where any future expansion's going to take place is on that building. Now in that back shop we build our big bell feeders, the manure spreaders, and then our bulk delivery boxes. These bulk delivery boxes are equipment that we use in the beef industry, feed mills that these feed lots will drop the finished ration into them, and they go out to the pens and feed the cattle. And then we also use them in the dairy industry where some of the larger herd dairies will have stationary mixers, and they'll use these bulk delivery units to go out and feed the finished ration to the cattle pens.
So we move quite a few of those. The newer shop, the mixer shop is where we do all the assembly on the feed mixers. And, they're trailer-mounted bolt, behind the tractor, we'll mount them on truck chassis, we do stationary models as well. And so that's kind of the walk through the shop.
Mike Lessiter: When you first went to market with your own product, was it direct to dairy men, or was it—?
Ric Kirby: Yeah, we've primarily grown our business dealing direct with the user. My great-uncle was more of the sales person in the company, and my grandfather was more of the engineer production person. Things were slower, they had a little extra inventory, my great-uncle would hook onto one of the wagons, and tow it around until he sold it. He’d go over the hill and go into Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and he'd hook onto a wagon, he'd take off on the road, and wouldn't come back until it was sold. And so he had a lot of, lot of good stories.
My grandfather died young, he was 50. Died in 1974, and my father also passed away young, and my great-uncle ran the company for a lot of years. When I graduated from college in '89, came back to work for the company full time, that's when he and I really got to work together and get to know each other a lot better. And I cherished the moments that you know, that we were together and were able to, to share a lot of the stories.
Mike Lessiter: This is Bill?
Ric Kirby: Bill yeah, he told me, just some off the wall things that he'd do, such as driving off with the wagon and wouldn't come home until it was sold, and he said one time he pulled into a potential customer’s place and told the customer that the radiator was overheating on his truck and would he mind if he just left the wagon overnight, and/or a couple of days, so he could drive to the truck back home without the load and get the radiator fixed, and he'd come back and get it.
The dairy man would joke, ‘well it might not be as clean, you know, the wagon might not be as clean when you get back as it is now.’ And he'd say no, ‘you know what, appreciate you letting me drop it off, you know, go ahead and use it.’ And he said he sold a lot of wagons that way, about this faulty radiator that really wasn't faulty, and there's just an excuse to drop a wagon off and let the customer demo it for a couple of days, and more likely than not, when he came back they, they would make a deal.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. A no pressure demo.
Ric Kirby: Yeah. It was harmless.
Mike Lessiter: Nice, a faulty pickup truck.
Ric Kirby: Yeah, so you know, he told me one time he bought a new Studebaker pickup and their dad was still around, and, and helping them out, and he said his dad got mad at him because it had a heater in the pickup, and his dad was afraid that, you know, on cold days and whatnot, that he wouldn't want to get out of the truck and go talk to customers, he'd want to stay in the truck with the heater. So, this conversation came up probably after we'd just bought some new sales trucks and you know, maybe had a CD player or something in it.
Mike Lessiter: Very much a believer in eyeball to eyeball, getting out of the truck.
Ric Kirby: Oh yeah.
Mike Lessiter: Working alongside that dairy man.
Ric Kirby: Yep. He told me one time, he was at lunch in town on a Friday, and he ran into one of his competitors and the competitor was bragging that he'd just sold a tractor and a baler to one of their customers, and my uncle said that he had a quote out to that same customer, and thought ‘well, that's too bad.’ The competitor was just kind of bragging about the sale. ‘Yeah we're going to take that new tractor out to him on Monday, and get him all setup,’ and my uncle said ‘oh, well congratulations.’
He said he went back to the shop and called up the Minneapolis Moline distributor, the main distribution point in Stockton, Calif., and they had a tractor they needed, they had the baler they needed, so, he went up there and picked them up in the truck and they worked all Friday night getting everything setup, and was out at the customers place early Saturday morning, and ran the baler around a couple of rounds in the fields and made a deal with the guy, got the check, and went on home.
His competitor called him up on Monday, a little upset, when he went out to deliver the product, and there was brand new Moline sitting there, a Moline baler, and so my uncle told me, he goes, ‘you know, it's never a done deal until the money's in the bank.’ So, that was one of the little lessons I learned.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah, all's fair in machinery sales. There was a story that you shared earlier that I'd like to ask you about, it has to do with the technique that you had for selling manure spreaders.
Ric Kirby: That was my great grandfather. And my great-uncle shared the story with me, but he said that he was having a hard time convincing this farmer the advantages of spreading manure, and manure as a fertilizer, and the farmer just wouldn't listen to him. He said ‘I'll tell you what, let me go out and spread a little load of manure on your field here that you just planted, and we'll see what happens. I'm not going to tell you where I spread it, but we'll see when the crop comes in if you can see the difference in an area.’
And so, farmer agreed to it, and my great grandfather got on the tractor and went out there and spread the shape of a dollar sign in the field. And so, a few months later, I don't know if it was oats or wheat or what have you, it was coming up, and you could tell where the manure had been spread, because the crop was higher in that area, because it'd gotten a little bit more nitrogen and fertilizer, and it sold the customer.
Mike Lessiter: He didn't expect to see a dollar sign.
Ric Kirby: No, so the customer equated, yeah there's more for it there, and it equates to more money, so.
Mike Lessiter: Good.
Ric Kirby: That's been kind of a fun story to tell. And he, he'd just have crazy little stories about, he was a smoker, my uncle that he'd roll his own cigarettes, because he didn't want the customer thinking that he had too much money and could afford you know, I guess factory cigarettes or whatever they called them, the pre-rolled ones. But he would roll his own, and in front of the customer. So they could show off that he was a little frugal.
Mike Lessiter: Right.
Ric Kirby: Yeah.
Mike Lessiter: This is your great-uncle Bill?
Ric Kirby: Yeah, great-uncle Bill.