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Semi pro

07/28/2011 @ 9:50am

Names that, not too long ago, were unfamiliar when it came to the machinery lineup on a farm.

But as farmers continually look for the most efficient, low-cost ways to bring crop to market, more have turned to investing in a semi. Today, these massive grain movers have become an integral part of many farming operations.

“The move to semis began in the 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s,” says Mark Berwick, North Dakota State University. “A recent study conducted by Denver Tolliver estimates that in North Dakota 56% of grain moves to the elevator in semis. But I think it may be higher.”

Berwick believes what's driven the shift from straight trucks to larger trucks in North Dakota (and other states) are larger operations, increased yields, rationalization of the elevator system, a move to the shuttle elevator system, and relatively cheap combination trucks.

“A new single-axle or tandem truck with box and hoist may cost as much as a used semi and a hopper bottom trailer,” he notes.

When it comes to hauling grain, owning a semi offers a number of advantages to Brent Gengenbach, who farms near Eustis, Nebraska.

● The larger hauling capacity keeps his combine moving in the field and translates into fewer trips to his grain's final destination.

● Semis can travel longer distances, which means he can cast a wider net for marketing options.

● A semi on the road is far safer than a tractor pulling a wagon.

● Gengenbach doesn't have to rely on someone else to transport his grain.

“One of the major reasons for using semis was to keep the corn away from the combine,” he says. “I transport corn about 25 miles to Frito-Lay, and it takes so many trucks to keep things going. During harvest, it's hard to hire trucks because they're in such high demand. If I have my own semi, I have more control over the flow of harvest.”

There are five semis in his lineup today. He realized years ago this was an investment that would add up to savings.

“We bought our first semi in 1979. In Nebraska, a semi can haul 80,000 pounds legally, which translates into about 450 more bushels than a tandem truck,” Gengenbach says. “The increased capacity has not only made me more efficient but also saved on fuel and labor.”

When it comes to shopping for semis, he concentrates on used.

“You don't have to spend a lot of money to have a good old truck,” he notes. “Most of my trucks have 700,000-plus miles on them. If I had to buy one today, I would probably spend from $35,000 to $50,000.”

While some may be skeptical of a vehicle with so many miles, he says if you look closely at the truck you're interested in, typically you can tell whether or not it's been treated right.

“Obviously, I want one that's been well cared for because it will likely do a good job for me,” he says. “That's why who the previous owner was is pretty important to me. It's too expensive to put more money into an old truck if it isn't in good shape to begin with.”

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