Somehow, a tractor is the signature implement in a farmer’s arsenal. Symbolically, you can’t be a farmer unless you have a tractor.
It’s the source of power and propulsion for a lot of the other tools in a farmer’s arsenal. It pulls the plows. It powers the planters. It guides the tillage equipment. It shovels the snow and pulls cars out of drifts. About the only thing it doesn’t do in the modern production cycle is harvest the crops. Farmers and equipment manufacturers have discovered that self-contained and self-propelled equipment harvest better.
As tractors have gotten bigger and the market has shrunk, some of the best loved brands have disappeared –
- Allis-Chalmers struggled during the agricultural recession in the 1980s. It was forced to sell its farm equipment division to K-H-D (Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz) AG of Germany in 1985, the owners of Deutz-Fahr, which was renamed Deutz-Allis. Deutz-Allis later was sold to what is now the AGCO Corporation, which actually stands for Allis Gleaner Corporation. For a time, tractors were sold under the AGCO-Allis name. Later, the Allis brand was dropped and the tractors were just named AGCO. What remained of the Allis manufacturing businesses were dispersed in 1998 and the company officially closed its offices in Milwaukee in January 1999. The remaining service businesses became Allis-Chalmers Energy in Houston, Texas, servicing oil field exploration companies. In 2008, Briggs and Stratton announced it would sell lawn tractors under the Allis-Chalmers name.
- Ford Ferguson tractors disappeared when they merged with Massey-Harris to become Massey Ferguson in 1953. Massey Ferguson was bought out by AGCO in 1993, and the Massey Ferguson (MF) tractors are still one of AGCO’s leading brands.
- Both Oliver and Minneapolis-Moline brands were bought out by White Motor Corporation in the 50s. Then White was bought out by AGCO in 1991, and all three brand names were discontinued in favor of the MF brand.
- The Steiger Tractor Company – with their massive, 500 horsepower machines – were bought out by Case IH in 1986. Their lime green color was retired in favor of Case’s red. But in 2009, Case brought back the lime green and the name when it introduced the Case STX Steiger.
All of the manufacturers have pushed innovation in their tractor lines. They are larger and more powerful now, with amenities that once seemed like luxuries now necessities. Heated seats, enclosed cabs with climate controls, joystick guidance and control systems, electronic connectivity all make farming jobs efficient. One man or woman can now do the jobs that took many hired hands hours in the past.
Heather Derr (left) has experienced the advances in tractors from the seat of her pants. Her dad, Bill Kaliff, taught her how to drive a tractor on a 27-horsepower Kubota. “Ooooh, it was fun,” Heather remembers. “It was open air. It was little. We now use it to mow our lawn… It really is a great little tractor. I wouldn’t get rid of it. That tractor is going to be in our barn until the day we go on to Never-Never Land.”
Heather’s cousin, Valerie Kaliff (right), says that the manufacturers have taken into account that women are sharing many of the duties on modern farms. “They’re very wife-friendly,” she laughs. “The cabs are a lot bigger. The shifters are very small and easy for a woman to change gears. They have a buddy seat in them so if you want to have your child with you, you can.”
Equipment dealer Jim Ermer (left) has seen huge changes since he opened his business in 1976“The biggest tractor we had at that time was a 806, and it was a diesel [that had] 83 horsepower,” Jim says. “Today, the tractor that we sell the biggest number of is a 200 horsepower plus. And the biggest one is over 300 horsepower.”
But Chris Ziegler and his grandfather Clyde Ehlers (right) say there are limitations to both old and new technology. Chris remembers when “we had a 225-horse tractor, front wheel assist, dualed up, so six tires on the ground, all pulling,” he remembers. Even with all that horsepower, they had a wet fall one year. A new, 750-bushel auger wagon was filled with corn when it got stuck in wet ground. “Two hundred and twenty-five horse, six tires spinning. Everything was down to the frame.” Chris through he could bring in another auger wagon, unload the harvest and then get out. But the first wagon was so far down in the mud, its auger wouldn’t reach up to the second wagon. So they had to get a decades-old, gravity dump wagon with lower sides. “So, a 40 year old wagon, you know. And three trips later, we had enough weight out of that auger wagon that we got her rocked out.”
Clyde Ehlers remembers doing the same thing with his favorite horse. “There was this little valley formed. And I tried to get my horse to go through there, and he didn’t want to go through there.” Clyde was ignoring the recent rainy weather in the area. “I finally got him to go through, and we got in the middle of that and he went clear to his belly. He sunk in!” Clyde had to run and get another horse to pull his out. “From that day on, if that horse didn’t want to do something, he didn’t have to do it. He knew more that I did!”
No matter how good the technology, it may still take ‘horse-sense’ to get the job done.