These workhorses on grain farms across North America have their place on the lot if dealers price them right and put volume ahead of margins.
John Dobberstein, Associate Editor
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Grain augers still perform the same basic functions as they did when they were invented — move grain quickly and efficiently from trucks and grain carts to a customer’s grain bins.
But the size, design and technology of augers has changed since Peter Pakosh invented them 60 years ago in the basement of his Toronto home.
Today’s augers come in a wide range of tube lengths and diameters that meet ever-increasing demand from customers for higher material-moving capacities that are sometimes measured in tens of thousands of bushels per hour. It’s all about speed, as higher-capacity augers allow trucks to unload grain more quickly and get back to the fields sooner so they can be filled again by the combines.
Ag equipment dealers interviewed by Farm Equipment say grain augers are worth having on the lot — and with a record grain harvest forecast in the U.S. this fall, farmers may have more income to upgrade or expand their auger lineup.
But the auger-selling business is very competitive, these dealers warn, so the machines must be displayed and priced correctly, with parts and support staff on hand. If they’re not on the lot, they probably won’t get sold.
“When a farmer shows up, they want it now. They don’t want it 2 weeks from today,” says Chuck Houtsma, owner of Sheldon Grain Systems in Sheldon, Iowa, which carries Sudenga grain augers.
Times Have Changed
When grain augers were first mass produced by Versatile in the 1950s, they were only 17-21 feet long with a simple design and few moving parts. An advertisement about Pakosh’s auger, all steel and 16 feet long, touted a capacity of 1,200 bushels per hour.
As the size of farms and grain bins has increased, and the demands placed on grain-handling equipment has advanced, augers have breached the 100-foot mark and capacities can run well over 10,000 bushels per hour.
“Years ago, an 8-inch-diameter auger was a big one. Now the trend is 13-16 inch augers,” says Abe Penner, co-owner of Little Morden Service in Morden, Manitoba, a full-line dealership that has sold Farm King augers for decades. “Fifty feet in length used to be adequate, now they’re 100-104 feet. Customers just need size and speed.”
“Everybody wants to move grain faster, so you’ve got to give people what they want,” says Brandon Kies, regional sales manager for Harvest International, a Cherokee, Iowa-based maker of grain augers.
In recent years, electronics, hydraulics, swing-away systems, scissor-style lifts and drive-over hoppers have made grain augers safer, more efficient and easier to use, and manufacturers are focused on offering as many options and functions as they can.
Sudenga Industries, based in George, Iowa, has promoted its new high-efficiency series of portable augers that go up to 122 feet and have a low-profile, twin-screw hopper, rigid top trussing and a dual-cylinder hydraulic scissors lift.
Brandt makes a variety of transport, swing-away and open-top augers, and this year the company introduced its transport auger “EZMove” with hydraulic steering that requires significantly less effort than manual steering of an auger.
After buying the shuttered Feterl manufacturing plant in Salem, S.D., this year, Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Buhler Industries is reintroducing some heavy-duty augers under its Farm King brand — including a 12-inch-diameter, 122-foot-long model for large farms or co-cops that moves 300 bushels a minute.
Customers want longevity and reliability when they’re buying augers, says Adam Reid, spokesman for Buhler Industries. “If customers can’t get the grain from the truck to the bin, what are they going to do with it?”
Westfield Manufacturing, a prominent manufacturer of grain augers based in Rosenort, Manitoba, made news last year when it introduced its MK Flex series of portable, swing-away augers.
The MK Flex has a hydraulic hopper mover and swing cylinder that allows the auger to reach and retract along a wider area. Truck drivers can unload double hopper bottom trailers without moving the truck, speeding up grain transfer operations.
“Customers want anything that cuts down on time or makes their job easier,” says Tim Kuntz, assistant sales representative for Westfield.
Some other companies are focused on boosting the versatility of major brands of grain augers and filling a niche. Mast Productions’ “Pit Express” portable drive-over pits quickly unload hopper-bottom trailers at rates up to 8,500 bushels per hour. The company has 600-700 units in use across the U.S.
“Everyone wants higher capacity, whether it’s the combine, the auger or moving the trucks. Can we turn the trucks around faster?” says Steve Mast, president of the Payson, Ill., company. “The drive-over hoppers are considerably easier to use. The guys in the older generation might take more driving jobs if they could do that instead of pushing a hopper around.”
A basic rule for dealers wanting to sell more augers is having plenty of them on the lot, says Chuck Houtsma of Sheldon Grain Systems in Sheldon, Iowa. “When a farmer shows up, they want it now, they don’t want it 2 weeks from now.”
A Sense of Urgency
The biggest lesson dealers must learn about selling grain augers is this: Have them on the lot or farmers will go somewhere else to buy them.
“Grain augers are one of those impulse buying decisions. They’re not planned years in advance,” says Penner, whose dealership had sold 45 augers through mid-September of this year.
“We have augers in stock and priced competitively from the start, so if someone walks in we know what we can sell it for, with a more take-it-or-leave it price with little margin — but enough margin to make it worthwhile. Especially around harvest time, we stock them here with an assortment of sizes and lengths, ready to go.
He says the 13-inch, 85-foot-long augers have been the best sellers the past few years as customers move up from popular 10-inch, 70-foot models.
Farmers may have a few different reasons for buying augers. An auger they already own needs maintenance, or they want to boost efficiency on their farm and don’t view the purchase of another auger as a big expense.
Sometimes customers will put up new grain bins and realize they need a certain type or size of auger to maximize their investment. “Or they might put up a bigger bin and their auger does work, but the angle up to the bin is too steep and it reduced the capacity,” Penner says.
John Heide, owner of Killarney Farm Supply in Killarney, Manitoba, agrees that stocking augers consistently is crucial to selling them, and dealers shouldn’t limit themselves to seasonal buying.
“The customers have so much money invested in their combines, they often need to have more than one auger. The fewest number of augers we’d have on our lot is 20, and we go as high as 80,” says Heide. “We bring them in all year. When we’re done with harvest, we’ll sell a dozen more.”
Says Houtsma, “In December, we put an order in for 15-20 augers of different sizes and replenish them all the time. In the spring, you get demand for the truck augers because everybody is unloading their bins, and in July, when they’re filling the bins, you’ve got to be ready for the longer augers.”
Heide suggests dealers think volume. “Sell 100 instead of 10. Increase your customer base and keep a good parts inventory.”
There could be a sales opportunity for implement dealers in the right territory, based on what Heide sees as he drives on state highways from Canada to his vacation home in Texas. Killarney’s dealership sells about 150 augers a year in a territory of 100 miles in each direction from the store.
He notes that some customers will drive 100 miles to buy a grain auger if a dealer has the right machine. “I observe the smaller communities and there are very few auger dealers from here to Texas.”
Ask the Right Questions
Unlike precision ag systems, tractors or other farm equipment that is laden with complicated electronics and sensors, grain auger technology is relatively simple.
For that reason, it shouldn’t take much training of sales, parts and service staff to have augers on the lot.
But they still must know the features, strengths and weaknesses of each auger line. They must also know which questions to ask customers to get an understanding of how their farm is organized and laid out, and which auger will match their current or upgraded grain-moving system.
“Some of the things you must discern,” says Penner, “is their highest bin, or highest point of augering, and how many bushels per hour the augers can do. And you need to ask questions about maneuverability, because selling a customer something that’s too long or too short is an inconvenience to them. Some old farmyards aren’t designed for 100-foot augers.”
“Sometimes farmers will call up and ask, ‘Which auger is better?’” says Heide. “Then I’ll ask them, ‘What are you looking for? What’s your first expectation?’ If they want a heavier-duty auger, the Farm King has a heavier frame. If they want something that’s light and durable, Westfield’s augers are good.
“And you have to ask what features they’re looking for. Then you can zero in and understand what works for them. Fifty-percent of the time they rely on us.”
“What I always do is find out how tall the bin is and find a matching auger, without maxing out that auger,” Houtsma says. “If the bin is 50 feet tall, I don’t want to sell them an auger that’s 51 feet, I might sell them a 55-footer so they’re not maxing it out.”
Dave Ulrich, who owns Ulrich Sales in Cedar Falls, Iowa, has a shortline dealership dedicated to grain-handling equipment, including two buildings devoted exclusively to assembling and repairing grain augers and conveyors.
Ulrich’s business, which carries the Westfield brand, sells about 300 new augers a year and several dozen used machines. Ulrich gets about one semi-truck load of augers a week and he keeps 150-200 augers on the lot most of the year.
Ulrich says dealers can only succeed selling augers if they fully commit to them — and that includes carrying parts and having the right answers when customers call. “If you want to sell them you’ve got to have the nuts, bolts, bearings, PTOs and every gearbox. And if you want return business, you have to have sales, service, warranty and parts available, and have knowledgeable crews that can talk people through problems or have them bring the equipment in to fix it,” he says.
“Too many places just want to sell augers and don’t want to do the follow-up. If you want to sell a guy 6-8 augers over his lifetime, treat him well from day one until the day he retires. Help correct a farmer on something they aren’t sure of and walk them through it,” such as matching the auger flighting speed to the capacity of a continuous-flow dryer on their farm, he says. “Talk through everything and set them up with the right machine.”
Be Ready for Service
Because augers are simple machines, dealerships probably shouldn’t rely on their presence to quickly boost of parts and service revenues or absorption rates.
But dealerships that carry auger parts, and can fix the machines in a timely fashion could uncover service opportunities in their territory. Having service technicians that can inspect used augers being re-sold is important, too, to minimize dealership liability.
“If you’re going to sell augers you’d better have a service department, because if they break they must be up and running immediately,” Houtsma says. “Some of these augers are so big we have to have power equipment to get the flighting out of it. If you’re tearing up a 10-inch, 70-foot auger, you don’t want to do it in the country, if possible.”
“There are always gearboxes, chains and other items that need regular maintenance,” Penner says. “We do have a mobile service truck that does augers and all other equipment, but it’s not a common occurrence.
“The biggest service item for us is for insurance reasons. Sometimes someone will tip one or kink one. Accidents are more common than actual maintenance service calls.”
Heide says his shortline dealership has its own building and setup personnel, and the phones have been ringing frequently this year for service work.
“We’re getting lots of calls from other dealers or customers 100-200 miles away that have problems. It might be a local dealer that sells 5 augers a year that isn’t sure what should be changed on the machine,” he says.
“It does lead to revenue. It’s a lot of work, but if you do it, it pays off. We really don’t do enough advertising, but it seems the best advertising here is word of mouth — what a customer experiences and he tells somebody.”
Ulrich says the parts business carries the biggest potential with augers.
“We have racks and shelves full of parts, like the PTOs, the sprockets, the bearings, 50-foot rolls of chain that can be cut and fitted,” he says. “We invest thousands of dollars setting up parts for the fall when the harvest starts. Seven days a week we’re open, and if somebody breaks a gearbox, it’s there.
“If someone calls at 7 a.m. on Sunday and says their PTO broke, I’ll go there in my PJ’s, set it on the counter, make a note and say, ‘I’ll bill you on Monday.’”
High-capacity augers on the market today are designed to speed up harvest operations by unloading grain trucks more quickly so they can rejoin the combines.
A Healthy Used Market
The constant demands on grain-handling equipment is also creating a healthy market for used grain augers, dealers say.
“One thing we do, that many dealerships don’t, is accept good trades, and the hottest item today is a good trade,” Heide says. “As a farm grows, a customer may have a 10-inch, 70-foot auger they’ve used for 5 years, and they decided they want to speed things up and get a 13-inch auger. That doubles their capacity, and we’re getting a very good trade.
“A lot of farmers would love that second or third auger, and would rather it be used. I’ve got 10 names right now of people who would love to buy a used 10-70 auger. And if you sell one or two, you can know what a used one sells for.”
Sheldon Grain Systems sells 70-100 augers a year and also works the trade-in angle.
“Some customers are smart and they’ll trade in one every 2-3 years so their auger is still worth something,” Houtsma says.
“If an auger only has 40% of its life left, we’ll steer it away from a farmer that has 2,000 acres, because it’s not fit for him. But if we’ve got a customer that’s only doing 500 acres, it will last him a long time.”
Says Ulrich, “An auger may need a gearbox, an oil change, or the bushing is wearing, or it’s the U-joint, but you can go in and do a service program with a 3-year-old auger, and with $100 in parts, put it on the lot and it’s gone a week later.
“Top farmers don’t wait until their augers are 10-15 years old before trading them in because they’ll be worn-out junk,” he adds. “If they have to set aside a couple thousand dollars a year to keep a new one on hand, it ends up working out.”
Having augers in a visible area of on the lot can also lead to more foot traffic, or allow sales staff to speak with customers about what models are right for their operation vs. something they saw at a farm show. Some dealers count on that to build relationships with customers.
“We sell grain bins as well, so if you have one you may sell an auger too,” Heide says. “We had a customer come in here recently to pick up an auger and he saw other accessories around and he says, ‘Oh, I need that too.’ We have to keep them coming in the door.”
Penner’s dealership has also experienced foot traffic from having augers on the lot. “And then we’re one step closer to building a relationship with a customer,” he says.
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