The slogan in the Longhorn State goes, "Everything is bigger in Texas." Longhorn cattle and ranches are the first things to come to mind. When it comes to farming, Iowa doesn't play second fiddle to Texas as the machinery is getting bigger, and the number of acres tilled by the average farmer is increasing. Big farming is becoming more the norm in the Hawkeye State.
Visitors to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines the past 11 days could see first-hand the size of the equipment in the agriculture displays. The green mammoth in the John Deere area was a 9630T tractor with 530 horsepower and a price tag of $430,419. The red whale displayed by Case IH Steiger was a 600 Quadtrac tractor with a maximum horsepower of 660 and a list price of $506,780.
"Big tractors started in the '80s," said Karl Stuekerjuergen, general manager of the J.J. Nichting Co. locations in Pilot Grove and Mount Pleasant. He has been at the dealership since 1974 and witnessed the evolution of ag equipment.
J.J. Nichting sells primarily Case IH machinery, with the largest pieces being tractors and combines. Where tractors used to come with 300 horsepower in the '80s, the workhorse of the Iowa farm has evolved into 600-horsepower models.
International Harvester introduced axial-flow combines in 1977, which held a higher capacity of grain. Those combines led to bigger models later on as well.
"Case led the market for quite awhile," Stuekerjuergen said of the company's combines.
Today, one of J.J. Nichting's bigger combines is an 8120 Case IH, which sells for about $350,000. The combine can sport a 16-row corn head, which spans 45 feet.
Big machinery is not for the beginning farmer, but usually sold to farmers who've been at it for a minimum of 15 or 20 years.
"Most of our farmers are in it for the long haul," Stuekerjuergen said. "A lot of our customers do 2,000 to 3,000 acres."
The story was similar at Elder Implement Co., a John Deere dealer with locations in Mediapolis, Winfield, Houghton, Muscatine and Durant.
The Mediapolis location didn't have a 9630T on the lot, but had a 9430 with dual wheels on the front and back. It sells for about $300,000.
"If you are buying brand new that size, you probably have over 2,000 acres," said Jeremy Marston, location manager for Elder's Mediapolis dealership.
With tractors ranging in horsepower from 375 to 550, they can pull bigger equipment and speed up the work. The larger John Deere tractors can pull up to a 60-foot-wide disc and a 36-row planter.
"Planting used to be a huge event," Marston said.
"It can take one to two weeks to get planting done."
Farmers can put 500 to 600 hours of work on a tractor in a given year as they are built for longevity.
"Machinery is a lot bigger. You don't need as much," Marston said.
One of the bigger combines available from John Deere is a class 9, S690 with a 16-row header. The price without a corn or soybean head is about $450,000.
Another change that has come with bigger machinery is the way a sale is financed. Farmers typically got the loan from the bank in the past, whereas customers of green and gold machinery can go through John Deere Financial. A three- to six-year loan is not unusual on the purchase of a large tractor or combine.
"Some of the larger farmers might pay cash," Marston said.
A 2007 survey by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reveals there are farms of significant size in Iowa. The 92,856 farms listed in the Hawkeye State can be as small as 1 to 9 acres or fall in the largest category of more than 5,000 acres of harvested cropland.
There are 12,509 farms of a size between 260 and 499 acres; 11,390 farms from 500 to 999 acres; 5,812 farms in the range of 1,000 to 1,999 acres; 1,457 farms between 2,000 and 4,999 acres; and 75 farms measuring 5,000 or more acres.
The average farm size in Iowa is considered 330 acres, but that can be misleading as not all farms are farmed by the owners. Many farmers are covering more ground by renting acres from retirees, widows and non-farmer owners.
Jim Richers of Wever has been farming since 1983 and falls in the largest farm category. He owns 5,000 acres and cash-rents another 5,000. Richers farms 3,000 acres in the Green Bay Bottoms and 7,000 acres near Houghton.
In order to farm all that ground, he needs plenty of big equipment. He has four John Deere track tractors, a 9530, a 9430, an 8330, an 8230, and one 8330 with wheels. During planting season he uses three 24-row planters.
This year he planted 6,000 acres of corn and 4,000 acres of soybeans. Richers figured with his equipment he can plant 600 acres of corn a day, and sowed this year's crop in about 10 days. Soybeans takes a bit longer to plant, and he figured the task was done in 15 days.
With GPS in the tractors doing the steering, the person inside can watch the monitors to see how many plants are being planted per foot.
"They can keep an eye on what you're doing on the back," Richers said, as the rider watches the planter instead of where the tractor is going.
In the autumn, Richers attacks the harvest with four John Deere combines. Two combines are equipped with 12-row headers and two with eight-row headers.
When the weather is good, 250 acres of corn can be harvested per day. When it is time to hit the soybeans, 400 acres can be reaped per day.
Nine grain trucks are used to haul grain either to area elevators or to grain bins for storage.
Richers said getting the grain trucked can slow down the harvesting process.
With each decade, the equipment gets bigger in Iowa, and farmers are taking on more acres. It is a trend that appears to continue into the future.
"It's drawing that way," Stuekerjuergen said.
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