The agricultural equipment supply chain: Planting the farm field

May 15, 2016 | 5:00 am
Justin Kiews operates a tractor pulling a Kinze 3600 planter as he plants soybeans on land farmed by Brent Adam near Packwood, Iowa, on Thursday, May 5, 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Chapter 1:

'We can plant today'

PACKWOOD — The unpredictability of Iowa’s weather is never more apparent than springtime when farmers need a few consecutive days without rain to plant.

As with most years, Brent Adam, a Richland farmer, is used to waiting and watching the weather forecast, studying the soil, counting on a little luck and, perhaps above all, relying on his farmer’s intuition.

Links in the agricultural equipment supply chain

For the last month, reporter Brian Morelli has looked into how agriculture planters are built. For the last part of the series, Morelli visited Iowa farmers, who use the planters in their fields to sow corn and soy seeds, which will eventually grow to feed people and animals and fuel vehicles.

 

Mine cart icon by Creative Stall. Steel icon by Pedro Martínez. Factory icon by Krisada. Tractor icon by Bernar Novalyi. All icons from the Noun Project.

“I wasn’t sure we could go today, this morning, but when I got out here this afternoon, I could tell. This is going to work,” Adam said at his field in Packwood earlier this month. “We can plant today.”

It had been about 48 hours since the last rain, and the dirt on this 160 acre field was a “gray” color. When he grabbed a handful, the soil crumbled up fine. It wasn’t clumpy — a sign it would stick to the wheels of the tractor or be too wet for soybeans to take root.

“You just know,” he said.

Fields such as these are where the creation of the Kinze Manufacturing 3600 series planter comes to life, sowing corn and soy seeds that eventually will grow to feed people and animals and fuel vehicles. In Iowa, agricultural equipment, such as planters, are as familiar as automobiles — but many know little about their origin.

Much of the steel, the primary material in the planter, starts in the ground. Iron ore is embedded in taconite rock 500 miles north in the Mesabi Iron Range in upper Minnesota.

Manufactured iron-rich taconite pellets move by rail cars to shipping vessels, which carry freight across Lake Superior and Lake Michigan to harbors in Indiana. In steel mills, such as ArcelorMittal’s Indiana Harbor and Burns Harbor facilities, the taconite is fired in furnaces and rolled under pins to become functional steel.

Because Williamsburg-based Kinze is a smaller manufacturer, the company buys steel through a service center, such as South Bend, Ind.-based Steel Warehouse. Primary manufacturing occurs in Williamsburg, about 50 miles north of Adam’s Packwood field.

Kinze sells through dealers scattered around the country in Alabama, Texas, New York and Oregon, as well as with other states, and ships parts via rail car and barge across the Atlantic to Lithuania, which has a Kinze manufacturing and distribution hub for the European market.

Because Iowa exports much more than it imports, shipping containers used on railroads and barges can be hard to come by. Kinze often must order empty containers shipped in from Chicago.

 

Trucking is more expensive than rail. But because of Iowa’s transportation logistics, rail often is less practical.

Rail shipments must be scheduled a week and a half out to ensure the containers are on hand, said Richard Dix, Kinze’s senior director of supply chain management.

“We are not particularly large, so we can get muscled out of containers,” Dix said. “There not much we can do besides plan internally. It’s a tactile inconvenience, not a strategic blocker.”

Most Kinze’s products — mainly planters and grain bins — are trucked to a network of dealers throughout the Midwest, which is the stronghold for sales.

Keith Stanerson, of Stanerson Implement in Conroy, has been a Kinze dealer for years. He said he orders about 20 planters per year, but sales are way down and dealers, as well as farmers, are feeling the pinch. Crop prices have plummeted 33 percent from the five-year average.

Net farm income is predicted to drop another 3 percent, to $54.8 billion, in 2016, which is the third year of decline and would reach the lowest level since 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Center. That’s down 56 percent from the recent high of $123.3 billion in 2013, according to the center.

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers reports four-wheel drive tractor sales are down 10 percent to 268 from April 2015 to April 2016, and down 31.5 percent year to date.

 

The reality of the market is evident with agricultural manufacturers, including Kinze. The plant has let go 336 employees since June, including 121 last month.

Stanerson said selling a local brand has helped as does being responsive when problems occur.

The Kinze 3600 is his most popular model. The 12-row planter edition sells for about $150,000 new.

“Some of the guys don’t care for the high-tech stuff — they just want a planter that can run, a basic plain Jane,” he said. “A 3600, most anyone can keep one of those running with a pair of pliers and a bailing wire.

“You don’t need any electronics really, but you can put a lot on it.”

The best deals come toward the end of the planting season in late summer. Kinze and other manufacturers offer discounts for preorders, which help with planning production.

The implements often are delivered to dealers for resale the next spring in time for planting season.

A tractor is silhouetted as it pulls a Kinze 3600 planter operated by Justin Kiews as he plants soybeans on land farmed by Brent Adam near Packwood, Iowa, on Thursday, May 5, 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Chapter 2:

'You have to keep an eye on things'

Back in southeastern Iowa, Adam grows corn and soy — about a 50-50 split — on more than a dozen fields in Packwood, Stockport, Richland, Agency and Fairfield. He also raises custom-fed hogs and cattle.

Driving between the fields to drop off supplies, check on conditions or monitor operations is a job in itself.

“You can spend your whole day driving between the fields,” said Lena Adam, Brent’s wife and a partner in farm ownership group with Brent and Brent’s brother and sister-in-law.

Justin Kiews, of Batavia, one of Adam’s three full time farmworkers, drives a 200 horsepower 7230R series John Deere tractor on a hilly 160-acre field under a crisp blue afternoon sky earlier this month. Kiews sits in the cockpit of the enclosed tractor, which is equipped with GPS, Bluetooth, FM radio and two display monitors.

 

The royal blue Kinze 3600, which is devoted to soybean, is attached in the rear and stretches 30 feet wide across the field. When Kiews must pivot to start a new row, he flips a switch and the hydraulics lift the planter off the ground and the automated steering corrects course.

The automation allows Kiews to track the planting and a display of seed meter rates.

“You have to keep an eye on things,” he said. “It’s much easier when you don’t have to worry about steering.”

The planter’s coulter blades cut through the earth and “bring the moisture up to the surface.” The seed is deposited about 1.5 inches deep — positioned to the depth of the right moisture — and closing wheels return dirt over the seed. The design includes hydraulic weight transfers to flex mainframe where the seed bins are mounted for even planting on uneven terrain such as the Packwood field.

The implement plants at 15 inches apart, upward of 152,000 seeds an acre, and about 25 acres an hour. At this rate, beginning at 5 p.m., Kiews will finish up around 10:30 p.m.

"It's our family business...I can't picture what else I'd do with my life"

A 14-day window of good weather in April was enough to plant all his corn seed. But then it rained off and on before conditions cooperated enough to get started on the soy crop. That should take about 10 days of planting.

This planter is three years old, Brent Adam said. As with a lot of farmers, he has cut back on new-equipment purchases — even though he prefers to invest in equipment to help avoid downtime due to breakdowns.

“There isn’t extra money to buy new equipment to keep updated,” he said. “We are buying new parts to put on the planter to keep it running for a few more years until the grain-market changes.”

Adam, now 37, has been farming his whole life. His grandparents started the business in 1948. He earned a farm management degree at Muscatine Community College and returned home to the farm with his father, Bill, until Bill died in 2010. Just before that, Brent’s brother, Troy, returned to farming and they went into business together.

Kinze has been on the farm for more than 30 years, which is why Adam said he has remained loyal. He recalls the days when Kinze founder and inventor Jon Kinzenbaw personally delivered equipment, and the “blue,” as he calls it, has continued to treat him well. If something breaks down, they can fix it. He calls it his “go-to planter.”

Just as Brent Adam followed his father around the farm, his sons — Will, Henry and Leo — are his frequent helpers, he said.

“It’s our family business, and we love what we do,” Adam said. “We love working with the land and I can’t picture what else I’d do with my life.”