Thanks to bigger and more powerful tractors, pull-type earthmoving implements are popular on — and off — the farm.
Most of the machinery on the lot of an off-highway equipment dealership is designed for the unique requirements of a particular industry, such as agriculture or construction. However, while corn planters won’t be found in a road builder’s fleet, some of the equipment used to move dirt next to the interstate is right at home in a corn field.
Farm equipment dealers carrying tractor-pulled machinery, such as scoop-and-carry scrapers and land-leveling blades, are finding them to be important components to a successful rental business, especially if they also rent or sell high-horsepower tractors. Farm equipment dealers offering earthmoving implements are attracting new customers from construction jobs, who often buy or rent several units to ensure a project is completed on time.
Wheeled pull-type scrapers have been around for more than 130 years. The earliest applications were on the farm, where they were used to prepare new fields. As their power source evolved from horses to steel-tracked crawler tractors, the amount of soil that scrapers could move increased. When hydraulic systems came along to control the scraping and dumping action, the efficiency with which they worked increased exponentially.
Construction companies adopted them, too, but because they needed to move
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massive amounts of dirt even faster, the simple pull scraper evolved into massive, dual-engined, self-propelled units. During this transformation, the tractor-pulled scraper never left the farm. Usually pulled by crawlers, their price and ease of use gave them an advantage over motorized units. The popularity of pull scrapers is seeing a resurgence as the power and size of farm tractors increases. In fact, these days, it’s not unusual to see a farm tractor pulling a scraper on a construction job.
“High horsepower tractors have made this equipment more popular today,” says Roger Sorensen of Sorensen Equipment Co. in Harlan, Iowa, who has been selling earthmoving equipment to farmers for 12 years. “We never used to have big tractors like we have now. A farmer can move as much dirt with a tractor he already owns as a contractor can with a crawler.”
Sorensen’s typical customers are large-acreage farmers who are rebuilding grass waterways, filling ditches or leveling building sites. “It’s expensive to hire a contractor to come in and do that work, and the timing can be even more challenging if they need to have it done between crops. Some farmers may wait more than a year for someone to come in and do the work.”
Scrapers are built by a number of specialized manufacturers, and some offer units designed specifically for farm work, which are often lighter than their construction counterparts. They’re available in sizes compatible with tractors from around 100 horsepower and up. One manufacturer offers 9 sizes of scrapers ranging in capacity from 5-26 yards. Often used in tandem, scrapers can offer as much as 40 cubic yards of capacity. Suitable for rough dirt-moving tasks, they are also ready to take on precision laser land-leveling jobs.
Scott Equipment, a multi-store farm and construction equipment dealership in Louisiana and neighboring states, has found that catering to contractors has helped move iron on the farm side. “The agriculture division moves scrapers because these products are a good fit for our 4-wheel drive tractors,” says Shannon Wilson, Ag Division rental manager for Scott Equipment. “You can’t pull a scraper with an excavator. A lot of times, construction customers will end up renting several tractors along with the scrapers.”
Sorensen says keeping scrapers on the lot has helped him sell higher-horsepower tractors than farmers might have considered at first. “If they have dirt to move, I can show them they will get more use out of a tractor by owning a scraper. That makes it easier for them to justify a larger tractor.”
While many of Sorensen’s earthmoving customers also bought New Holland tractors from his dealership, Sorensen has sold the machinery to farmers out of the area because “not every dealer sells this type of implement. We found a niche in the market and keep equipment in stock so it’s here when they need it.” Advertising that focuses on this particular line and good-old word-of-mouth marketing helps bring new customers to his store.Many OEMs offer high-horsepower 4-wheel drive tractors designed exclusively for scraper work. The Versatile 435 and 485 Scraper Specials feature high-flow hydraulics and an automatic lubrication system.
Consider Renting Before Selling
Farmers who go shopping for scrapers usually have a specific job in mind, and chances are they will not need the equipment all the time. “I know some farm customers who have purchased scrapers to level their own ground,” says Wilson, “but once they get that job done, they don’t need it anymore. So, some of them start moving dirt as a side business.”
This limited use makes a strong case for renting earthmoving equipment, and in some cases the tractors to pull it. Although many of the dealers Farm Equipment talked with sell scrapers and other earthmoving equipment to farmers, they agree that renting is a business model that works well, especially for dealers introducing the equipment to their territories.
Scott Equipment purchases earthmoving equipment for rental, and it currently has 16 scrapers in stock. Thanks to the dealership’s large construction equipment business, only 25% of its scraper rentals go out to farmers, while the rest are rented out to build airport runways, golf courses and shopping centers.
For Sorensen, renting scrapers is a way to get customers to “pay for a product demonstration. A lot of times farmers will rent scrapers before seeing the value of owning them.”
Scraper usage is cyclical. With farmers planning to move dirt between crops, rental fleets can be quickly sold out. “The equipment may not always be available when they want to move the dirt,” he says, “so they end up waiting as if they’d called a contractor.”
There is a seasonal aspect to the business, as well. “Like a lot of things, scraper usage follows the weather,” says Wilson. “We’re moving into a time of year when we will start renting scrapers. During the wet winter season, no farmer or contractor wants to rent it and have it sitting around waiting for a dry day.”Powerful tractors have made pull scrapers popular for moving dirt on farms. Contractors have also adopted the combination on their jobs. Because construction companies often travel to projects and rent machines, earthmoving equipment can be a good sideline for farm equipment dealers.
Spreading the Word
Marketing dirt-moving equipment to farmers can be as easy as parking it on the lot. Regular farm customers with dirt to move will recognize what the equipment can do for their operation.
“In the farm equipment business we have a captive market” says Wilson. “Farmers in our area already know us, and we know them. Sometimes a competitor’s customer will stop in for a scraper their dealer doesn’t carry.”
Many of Sorensen’s scraper sales are to farmers who were tired of watching their neighbor use one. “Keeping units in stock is important for making the sale,” he says. “They want to look at the machinery for themselves.”
Like any tool, the message for both dealers and farmers is that good-quality scrapers will pay for themselves. Sorensen tells farmers, “If you buy good equipment, it’s not going to break easily. If you take care of it, it is something that will last for years.”
With proper maintenance, a scraper in the hands of a farmer may be a dependable member of the equipment fleet for a long time. “Farmers might only put 500 hours on the unit in a year, compared to more than 1,500 hours for a construction user,” says Mike Stevenson, a salesman for Linder Equipment Co. in Tulare, Calif. “If farmers keep the blades sharp and repair hydraulic leaks, a good scraper is not going to wear out.”
The tractors aren’t so lucky: one of Stevenson’s customers has worn out two tractors since he sold them a scraper 20 years ago.
The long life expectancy of this equipment, combined with low utilization rates as a result of fewer construction jobs, have put a lot of good used equipment on the market. “Many of the farmers who want their own earthmoving equipment first search for used bargains,” says Stevenson, “and the market has been flooded for the past several years.”
This is one of the reasons why offering the equipment as part of a rental fleet may make sense for some dealerships. “We can keep one in the fleet a long time,” says Wilson. “Their maintenance requirements are relatively low compared to a piece of motorized equipment and it’s a rugged implement. By maintaining these units we may keep one in the rental fleet for 10 years, and then sell it for half of the new cost.”
There have been better days for earthmoving equipment sales and rentals in California, but the market is poised for a rebound. Many of the farmers who do business with Linder Equipment flood irrigate their row-crop land, which involves laser-leveling and regular maintenance. “The ground has to be perfect, so every three or four years farmers have to go in and touch up their fields,” says Stevenson. The dealership has been renting and selling equipment to farmers since 1976. Stevenson started with the company in 1978 as a scraper mechanic, and has focused on that type of equipment in a variety of roles ever since.
“In our area,” he says, “farmers who have enough ground — more than 500 acres — will buy their own equipment because of the time in which they need the earthwork performed. They can do the work cheaper themselves.”
Due to Scott Equipment’s broad coverage throughout its region, there are some areas where even large-acreage farmers simply don’t need scrapers. According to Wilson, those are areas where the dealership’s visibility in the construction industry keeps machines rented.
Before entering the land-leveling equipment rental business, he recommends that a farm implement dealer take a look at the region to determine if scrapers are even required. “Then I would start with two scrapers,” says Wilson, “because many customers will pull scrapers in tandem.”
To keep equipment utilization as high as possible, he recommends partnering with a scraper manufacturer that offers a size that’s small enough for farmers in the region to use with their existing tractors, yet big enough for a contractor who can use them in tandem if required.
Some Maintenance Required
With no engines and little in terms of electrical systems (some models have road lights) earthmoving implements are simple machines. They’re comprised of steel and hydraulic hoses and cylinders. Despite the simplicity, proper maintenance is important. This includes lubricating pins and other joints as well as inspecting hydraulic lines. Tires and blades also need to be inspected.
“There is a minimum amount of return you need to get from renting scrapers to cover expenses and show some profit,” says Wilson, “and upkeep is very important in maintaining the full value of the investment, so we monitor how the scrapers go out and come back from a job. The biggest mistake you can make is to take their simplicity for granted. Some people can tear up an anvil.”
While farmers are comfortable using their tractors with an implement, Wilson says running a scraper can put him into two different scenarios.
For most applications where moving rough dirt is the goal, and the land owner is not really concerned about grade, such as cleaning out a drainage ditch, a quick introduction to scraper operation is sufficient to get the farmer working safely and efficiently. “Running this equipment is one of those deals where you get in the tractor seat and learn as you go,” says Sorensen. “That’s the fun part.”
The skill level required changes when farmers need to move dirt to conform to a certain grade. When the work requires the use of lasers and survey equipment, specialists need to be on hand. While some dealers may outsource that work to a third party, Stevenson says, in today’s market, if a farm equipment dealer “sells and supports a good brand of blade control, you will sell more scrapers.”
Dealers looking to sell and support earthmoving equipment need to partner with someone that offers a laser system that’s popular in the area, or find a good laser system and promote it within the dealership organization.
“When farmers come to our dealership to look at scrapers, they already have a job in mind,” Stevenson says. “If I can offer that customer a complete solution, from the electronics to the scraper itself, completing the sale becomes that much easier.” FE