Sizing up semis

The semitrailer has become the transportation workhorse of choice in farming.

Dig into a truck’s history before buying used

The challenge with buying used semitrucks, unlike farm iron, is that they are employed in a huge variety of transport jobs or may have a murky past. For these and many other reasons, it is most prudent to dig deep into a truck’s past before buying – even if it is a late-model vehicle. “Before bidding or buying, get the vehicle’s VIN and find out what you’re getting into,” warns Tim Meyer of the Steffes Group (

You are looking not only into the truck’s use, care, and maintenance, but also into its specifications, particularly engine design. Meyer explains that trucks built during the transition years (roughly 2007 to 2010) of the truck industry adopting Tier 4 emission standards employed a mixture of pollution equipment. 

If you prefer a pre-Tier 4 truck, be warned it will come with high miles (from at least 13 years of use) and “you will sometimes pay a premium for these vehicles,” Meyer says. 

The condition and past care of any used truck, even if it is a late-model vehicle whose numbers are currently glutting the market, should be investigated. “A common mistake is not knowing everything there is to know about a sale vehicle,” explains Bill Nelson of US Auctioneers ( “It starts with doing business with a reputable auction company or dealership that will tell you the bad and good about a truck.” 

Start your investigation into a truck by getting the name of the seller or previous owner. Call and ask how the semitruck was maintained, how it was employed (local transport vs. over-the-road hauling), and why it’s being sold. Also ask for the maintenance logs and check to see if they were kept up to date. These logs reveal how well the truck was maintained and exposes any major repairs it has received. 

Investigate whether the truck was involved in an accident and what damage occurred to the vehicle if it was in an accident, and whether it has a salvaged title assigned to it.

Go online and find that particular model’s track record. Look for owners’ comments regarding chronic problems, particularly regarding engines and transmissions.

Finally, perform a personal inspection of the truck or hire a mechanic to examine it. This should include driving the truck (if possible) and thoroughly inspecting its structure. 

“Uninformed buyers usually ask about tires and brakes only,” Nelson says. “These can be replaced for relatively low cost. But a damaged frame or questionable engine can be enormously costly to repair.

Farmer-owned is the gold standard with used semis


The gold standard in used semitrucks is farmer-owned not only for other agricultural buyers but also for purchasers from other markets. “There is little doubt about that fact,” observes Bill Nelson of US Auctioneers. “This is particularly true of trucks owned by Midwest farmers (a fact that is also well established with farm equipment, in general).”

How much more does farmer-owned add to a truck value? “That is hard to say,” says Luke Sullivan of Sullivan Auctioneers ( “Age and condition are such overriding factors in auction prices. Being farmer-owned definitely brings with it buyers’ peace of mind that the truck or trailer hasn’t been out on the road all of its life racking up an excessive amount of miles, and it was more than likely operated by its owner.”

Online price research of 152 comparable trucks did find a consistent 15% to 18.5% value boost to farmer-owned.

Retread myths debunked

There are a lot of myths and misunderstanding surrounding retread tires because of recap problems from the distant past. Yet, a University of Michigan study led by Jon Woodrooffe and conducted for the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not find any differences in tire failure patterns between new and retread tires.

“There is a bad reputation surrounding retreads that has been present for a very long time,” Woodrooffe acknowledges.

However, when his research team studied tire casings, they found there was essentially no failure differences between new and retreads.

“Where we found retread failure was through hitting a road hazard (32% of the cause of failure), poor maintenance (30% of the cause), or improper inflation pressures (14% of the cause),” Woodrooffe points out. 

“The quality of these retreads has really risen to be equivalent to a new tire,” Woodrooffe notes.

Regarding use life, Bandag (owned by Bridgestone) contends that retreads last as long as most new high-quality tires, but they usually sell for 30% to 50% less than new tires, depending on tire quality.

What is the weight savings of aluminum trailers?

I was reading an online exchange regarding the most popular features on hopper-bottom trailers. It included a rather heated debate about the value of aluminum trailers. That argument boiled down to whether the extra price of trailers with aluminum composition and major components was worth the extra bushels they allowed farmers to legally haul.

A search of trailer manufacturers turned up the following approximate weight savings of aluminum components.
  • Subframe: 350 to 450 lbs. 
  • Aluminum wheels: 300 to 400 lbs.
  • King pin: 220 to 250 lbs.
  • Drop-leg landing gear: 80 to 120 lbs.
  • Hubs and drums: 80 to 100 lbs.

Wilson Trailer claims its Superlite trailer line which uses aluminum extensively, depending on a particular trailer’s configuration, reduces that trailer lines’ weights by as much as 7,500 pounds. With corn weighing 56 pounds per bushel, this means you can legally haul an additional 134 bushels in Superlite trailers.

What does it cost to upgrade to a tri-axle trailer?

The opportunity to legally haul several hundred more bushels of grain (depending on your state’s weight limits) has farmers taking a hard look at triple-axle hopper bottom trailers. Often referred to as tridem-axle trailers, such haulers are taller (66- to 78-inch sidewalls are common), wider (96- or 102-inch widths are industry standards), and longer (often stretching out to 48- to 52-foot lengths).

Often offering the capacity to legally carry 42,000-pound and heavier loads, their bushel capacities, on Wilson tri-axle trailers, for example, range from 1,272 to 1,278 bushels or 1,413 to 1,420 bushels with grain heaped to a 10-inch peak.

Below are asking prices for 227 tri-axle trailers on the market at press time. The model year 2020 prices represent brand-new values.

What is fascinating about these price averages is how well tri-axles maintain their values. The average price of a used 2019 tri-axle is but $18,000 more than 2011 trailers, for example. Factors influencing tri-axle trailer prices include whether they are sold with two (most common) or three hoppers, an additional rear lift axle, power tarps and traps, catwalks, and ladders.

10 years of asking prices on tri-axle trailers

  • 2011 Model Year
    • Average price: $30,485
    • Price range: $21,000 to $39,800 
  • 2012 Model Year
    • Average price: $32,650
    • Price range: $29,970 to $35,500
  • 2013 Model Year
    • Average price: $35,200
    • Price range: $19,900 to $42,500
  • 2014 Model Year
    • Average price: $36,200
    • Price range: $27,500 to $42,500
  • 2015 Model Year
    • Average price: $37,018
    • Price range: $27,750 to $39,900
  • 2016 Model Year
    • Average price: $40,890
    • Price range: $37,500 to $45,800 
  • 2017 Model Year
    • Average price: $40,254
    • Price range: $36,995 to $50,900
  • 2018 Model Year
    • Average price: $48,715
    • Price range: $44,900 to $52,500
  • 2019 Model Year
    • Average price: $48,621
    • Price range: $38,500 to $57,450
  • 2020 Model Year (25 listed)
    • Average price: $56,317
    • Price range: $44,700 to $65,136

Should you get or do you need a CDL?

By Tharran Gaines

Less than 10 years ago, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation were studying whether farmers should be required to have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) when operating larger trucks. Fortunately, due to input from a number of state legislators and farm organizations, no new rules were implemented. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t benefits to having a CDL  or to getting it sooner rather than later. As a general rule, most states currently allow a farmer, farm family member, or an employee of the farm to transport their own agricultural products, farm machinery, and farm supplies to and from their farm within the state lines or within 150 air miles of the farm when crossing a state line.

The exemption from a CDL does not apply, though, if the vehicle is used in a for-hire operation or if the load must be placarded for hazardous materials. “Technically, if you haul grain for a neighbor and you don’t charge him but he gives you money for fuel, it’s considered a for-hire operation,” explains Krystina Dowler, senior transportation enforcement investigator for the Missouri MoDot Motor Carrier Services. “There are also differences between states. In Kansas, for example, a regular driver’s license is sufficient for a vehicle up to 26,000 pounds. Yet, in Missouri, a Class E license is required for most farm trucks, even if they’re under that limit and a CDL is not required.”

The problem is, it’s not unusual today for farmers to haul grain to a distant market (such as a river port, for a better price) or to travel to another state to pick up a piece of equipment purchased over the internet, which readily surpasses the 150-mile limit. 

According to Dave Pfiffner, director of the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) Transportation 

Institute, a CDL simply provides farmers with a higher level of flexibility. In addition to a full six-week commercial vehicle operator training course, the college offers CDL refresher training, defensive driving, and CDL test preparation for those who already have experience with tractor/trailer units and just want to obtain a CDL. “Granted, most of our graduates get jobs as over-the-road truckers,” Pfiffner explains. “But we also see farmers who want to haul commodities for others during the winter or even get a seasonal job with a trucking company. We also offer a classroom-based hazmat endorsement program for those who might want to haul chemicals or fertilizer for themselves or the local cooperative.”

Tuition for the full six-week, 240-hour program currently runs $4,700 and includes around 60 hours behind the wheel, Pfiffner explains. Other courses, such as the CDL test prep, are priced accordingly. In the meantime, expect to pay around $75 to $100 for CDL tests and fees. Again, it depends on the state, which endorsements you need, and whether the license office provides credit for the remaining time on your current license. 

If you are considering getting a CDL, you might not want to wait too long, Pfiffner adds. “The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was previously set to enact new “minimum training requirements for entry-level commercial motor vehicle operators this past February,” he says. “Now, they’ve delayed that until February 7, 2022. As of that date, the rules will be more complex, and any first-time CDL applicant will be required to go through an approved curriculum with an approved provider,” he adds, noting that DMACC is one of only 60 schools nationwide that is currently certified by the Professional Truck Driving Institute. “So that will put a number of one-day schools and what are often called ‘CDL mills’ out of business – or at least require major changes. 

“The bottom line is, if any farmers are considering getting a CDL, I would recommend doing it in the next couple of years,” Pfiffner concludes. “It’s good for eight years and provides a level of options that many don’t have right now.” 

What is involved in a CDL driving test?

  • Pre-Trip Vehicle Inspection. You need to know your vehicle is safe to drive. Sections 11, 12, and 13 of the CDL manual cover how you need to explain what you are inspecting and for what reason.
  • Basic Vehicle Control. You will be evaluated on your control of your vehicle. This includes moving a vehicle forward, backward, and within a defined area.
  • On-Road Driving Exam. You have to demonstrate you can safely drive a commercial vehicle on the road in various traffic situations.
There is a military waiver for service members and veterans who recently drove a CMV (the military equivalent of a commercial motor vehicle). You may be able to waive the skills test portion of the CDL test. The CDL knowledge written tests, however, are not waived for service members.

But military drivers must apply for a CDL within one year of separation from active duty.

Who Is exempt from having a CDL?

The following vehicle operators are not required to operate with a CDL.
  • Farm Equipment Operators. This exemption covers legitimate farm-to-market operations by farmers, not commercial grain haulers. 
  • Operators driving vehicles controlled and operated by a farmer, a member of the farmer’s family, or an employee.
  • Trucks used to transport farm products, equipment, or supplies to or from a farm (including nurseries and aquacultures). 
  • Vehicles operating within 150 air miles of the farm.
  • Vehicles not used in the operations of a common or contract carrier and employed in nursery or agricultural operations.
CDL-exempt drivers include the farmer, spouse, and their children; parents on both sides of the family; brothers and sisters on both sides of the family and their spouses operating a truck-tractor semitrailer. These drivers must be at least age 21, and the vehicle must have farm plates.
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