Misfit Tractors a Money Saver for Arkansas Farmer

With two Steigers from the early 1980s in the background, producer Nathan Reed is flanked by his crew, from left: Thiaan De Jager, Pieter De Jager, Koos Fichardt, and David Booyse. ( Photo by Chris Bennett )

Every morning for 22 years, Nathan Reed passed a massive yellow tractor parked roadside on the drive to his farm, and barely noticed as weeds and growth took hold, laying claim to the giant, industrial beast. In 2018, spurred by the dollar, Reed made an unlikely offer and literally plucked a bargain off the highway’s edge: A 1984-model Steiger with a flat-black hood, the tractor became a vital cog in a dramatic machinery transformation across his operation.

Money in the pocket, not nostalgia, fuels a makeover. Reed’s tractors and trucks are a time machine of forgotten equipment arrayed in yellow, lime, flat-black, and olive drab colors. Purchased for pennies on the dollar, his fleet is a lesson in savings and an acknowledgement of the harsh realities of new equipment costs: Reed runs tractors as old as himself. “This is all about getting my equipment costs close to zero. My view now on equipment is once I buy it, it’s worth zero. I don’t care about residual value or net worth. It’s something I have to have to do the job.”

“I don’t consider equipment a large portion of my net worth because it’s a depreciating asset,” he adds. “Even with new tractors, I’d much rather buy a lower-cost tractor that’s not from a major brand because of depreciation issues across all brands, and getting in front of depreciation is really tough if you’ve got all your money in equipment. I try to make money on the front-end by buying at a low cost—new or used. I’ve stopped looking at equipment as a big asset, and starting focusing only on land.”

Rewind to 2011: During the shine of sky-high commodity prices, Reed jumped on new equipment and spent five years paying off the note, only to regret the financial dynamic. It was a day of reckoning and lit the fuse on major change. “It was five years paying on what became almost worthless equipment that had also taken a severe beating,” he says. “What if I had taken the same money and put it toward land? I was through and I knew there had to be a better way.”

A Better Mousetrap

On 7,000 acres split across Lee and St. Francis counties in northeast Arkansas, Reed, 40, grows minimum till corn, cotton, soybeans and rice wedged between Crowley’s Ridge a mile west, and the old St. Francis River two miles east. When Reed began farming in 2005, he paid $120,000 for his first new tractor, but fast-forward to 2020, and the equivalent tractor’s price tag now reads a heftier $350,000. Simply, since Reed started his farming career, equipment prices have left commodity prices in the dust.

Reed paid $5,000 for a 1982 Steiger PTA, dropped in $4,000 for repairs, and logged 1,000 hours on the PTA in 2019.

Scattered across Reed’s farm yard and greater operation are 12 tractors—aged heavyweights given another chance in the ring. The dozen M-R-S, Woods & Copeland, Rome, and Steiger tractors from the 1970s and early 1980s are either in operation or refurbishment, with several skeletonized for parts. Further, six 1980s U.S. Army trucks (American Generals) are undergoing tune-ups, waiting for another fall season of turnrows and levees loaded with grain. “A lot of guys buy older tractors and then nurse them along, squeezing the rest of the life out, not really putting in more money. Not me. I’m putting on new tires and hoses, and going in for the long haul.”

Reed possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of old tractors, and when he begins talking engines, parts and performance, the wealth of information pours out in passion. Whether online, drive-bys, or word-of-mouth, he stays attune to the second-hand equipment market: “The deals are out there if you keep looking and really know what you’re looking for. With a tractor, sometimes you find guys that hold on because it belonged to their papaw, but they’re stuck because they don’t want to take it to a scrapper, except they don’t have the time or means to fix it. It’s rotting under some trees or in the yard, but if you can promise someone their old tractor is going to get used again, they might really like the possibility. It turns into a good thing for everyone.”

Considering his geography and ground mixed between sand and clay, Reed estimates a modern tractor depreciates at approximately $85 per hour. “Around here, today’s 4-wheel drive tractor, five years old or less, will depreciate at a range of $75-$100 per hour. That’s not just my opinion, but it’s the consensus of all my farming friends that have put a real pencil to it.”

“M-R-S used to do contracts for the U.S. military, and this is an awesomely powerful tractor,” Reed says.

“The problem with modern equipment is depreciation; you can’t get in front. Let’s say I pay $350,000 for a new, major-brand tractor, run it for five years, and then sell for $100,000. How do I come out anywhere near ahead with these commodity prices? What I’m doing now with equipment is getting expenses down on my farm, and that ties directly into the ultimate goal on my operation: Improve my ground and have some extra money to buy more land.”

Another moment of reckoning came to Reed directly from his dirt-moving operation. He was running new tractors, but between wet years and wear, the expenses chewed through the profits. Pencil to paper, his numbers came up short: “Let’s say you’re charging $200 per hour with a modern tractor. You’ve got to pay for a warranty on the tractor. Let’s say you’re facing $100 in depreciation and maintenance, at a minimum. Then you’re paying labor at maybe $30. Then you burn diesel at 20 gallons per hour and that is another $40. Then you might have paid several hundred thousand for the dirt pans. No. No. I wanted to build a better mousetrap.”

Function over Form

Standing in a 200-acre field as a pair of tractors haul buckets filled with clay dirt from the highs to the lows, and shape the land into a level tabletop in preparation for row rice in 2021, Reed points at the aforementioned yellow Steiger as it emerges from a thick cloud of dust.

Purchased in Marianna, Ark., for $10,000, and then shipped to a specialist in Illinois for tuning and interior work, Reed continued with LED lights, USB, joystick controls, stereo, air conditioning, wheel seals, bearings and more, turning a neglected roadside afterthought into a farm workhorse. A 1984 CA325 Industrial, the tractor is equipped with an Allison automatic shift, heavy-duty axles, electronic locking differentials front and rear, extra wide cab, and modern hydraulics.

Reed and his highly skilled South African crew, from left: Thiaan De Jager, Reed, Pieter De Jager, Koos Fichardt, David Booy.

All said, he has invested roughly $50,000 in the machine. “It’s a phenomenal buy,” Reed explains. “This same tractor in decent shape, pre-restored without any of our work is about $20,000. I’ve already put 1,400 hours on it and that means money very well spent. Take a look at the big Steiger community in Australia, where those boys put about 30,000-40,000 hours on these tractors.”

“The beauty is these Steigers were built with big truck parts and all the parts are so easy to replace, and a large portion of those can be bought at TruckPro, or you can buy all the specialty pieces at Big Tractor Parts. A lot of people are surprised by a yellow Steiger, but this is an industrial version and they only made about 100 total—pretty rare.”

The CA325 offers two major advantages to a farming operation, Reed continues: “It’s got no complexity, so if something does go down, we can fix it fast and don’t have to call a dealer. Second, there is no downtime because the Steigers don’t break, anyhow.”

“I look at the money I’d be spending on newer equipment, and then what is available that’s old, but still does a fantastic job.”

Reed’s emphasis is on function before form, and he buys old tractors intent on heavy use—not impressive visuals. Translation: He moves fast to get the tractor mechanically sound and comfortable (seating, AC, radio) out of the gate. All other amenities are given back-burner priority. “We’ll get them going, ready for use, and then find out what else is needed as we go along,” Reed describes.

Case in point: Running parallel to the CA325, and also pulling a bucket, is a lime green 1982 Steiger PTA, outfitted with a late 1990s model electronic engine, Allison automatic transmission, new tires, electronic hydraulic valves, substantial cab updates, and enough air conditioning power to hang meat. As the PTA rumbles, its box bobs along in comfort, thanks to Reed’s design and engineering on a custom air ride cab with awesome suspension. Reed found the green Steiger in New Mexico, and paid $5,000, aware he’d need to drop in $4,000 more for a gear box repair. He logged 1,000 hours on the PTA in 2019. “All said, the money saved is unbelievable. These Steigers will pull anything you can pull with a modern front-wheel assist, and the beauty is parts are so cheap—any part, next day.”

Thiaan De Jager at work inside the cab of the 1984 CA325 Industrial.

Historically, Reed hasn’t had enough time in spring to get across his ground for both planting and rut repair tillage. However, the relatively inexpensive Steigers have bridged the gap. He contends his total cost on some old tractors equates to a single payment on a new, 400-horsepower, major-brand tractor in the $350,000-$400,000 range. The Stiegers, he says, have already paid for themselves and have no extra costs beyond potential breakdowns. “I can spend $400,000 on a new tractor and run it for five years on dirt pans at 1,000 hours per year. At 5,000 hours, it’s junk because of the pans, and worth $60,000-$100,000. If I run out of warranty, it may cost me another $100,000 in expenses, and that means total cost of ownership is astronomical. In this tractor (CA325), I’ve spent $35 per hour with zero residuals. If the motor blows tomorrow, it still makes economic sense, and I’m talking exponentially cheaper.”

Reed engineered on a custom air ride cab with awesome suspension for the 1982 Steiger PTA.

Reed’s satisfaction over the simple logistics of the Steigers is infectious, but his deeper excitement is channeled toward the next phase of machinery transformation. The Steigers will be repainted over the winter, and then Reed will turn attention on his corps of dream tractors—the Romes.

Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day

Only several years back, a Rome tractor was Reed’s white whale, and he’d never seen one in person. Originally built in Wharton, Texas by Woods & Copeland in the 1970s, the company was bought out by Rome Plow in Cedartown, Ga., in 1979. Romes, built partially from heavy-duty Caterpillar parts, were considered by many as the ultimate dirt moving tractors. (Romes also feature Allison transmissions, a contingency for all of Reed’s tractor purchases.) “They’re not as heavy as Big Bud tractors, but had the same power, and worked better on finer Southern soils,” Reed explains. “They’re even simpler than a Steiger—simple wiring and an articulation joint like a hinge. Tough to hurt. A giant machine with a 19-liter, V8 Cat engine.”

Rome: “They’re even simpler than a Steiger—simple wiring and an articulation joint like a hinge. Tough to hurt,” Reed says.

After several years of searching, Reed found a low-hour Rome in Fayetteville, Ark., paid $20,000 after six months of negotiation, and watched as the dam broke on his quest. In rapid succession, he found five more scattered in Mississippi and Alabama, and snatched the quintet for another $20,000 combined.

Out of the six, he intends to run four fully-restored Romes (Reed also has a single Woods & Copeland, the Rome precursor), and drop in modern computerized engines. “Farmers always complain about computers and I do too, but the best thing about them is having a computer engine. Efficiency, power, and fuel consumption have no comparison. The best of both worlds is an old mechanical machine with brand new technology in the power train.”

Prior to the Steigers and Romes, and even before Reed hatched his machinery overhaul, he took a $10,000 chance on a 1978 M-R-S tractor (manufactured in Flora, Miss.) with new tires, a scraper, and only 1,000 hours, but his initial effort was scuttled by unreliable labor. “M-R-S used to do contracts for the U.S. military, and this is an awesomely powerful tractor. I got 1,000 hours out of it and it was great, until I let a former employee on it, and he blew out the engine. I’m putting a computer engine in it and we’ll have it back running very soon.”

“Every farm is going to be different, but there are ways to save some major money,” Reed says, from inside a Rome cab.

“I look at the money I’d be spending on newer equipment, and then look at what is available that’s old, but still does a fantastic job,” Reed adds. “Every farm is going to be different, but there are ways to save some major money. I’m not telling anyone to go out and do what I’ve done, but I’m saying it makes a huge financial difference for me.”

Half the Money

Beyond tractors, grain hauling is another area where Reed has reached into the past. He runs six 1985 6x4 American General trucks, and bought the lot for $4,000 a pop, each entirely refurbished with new motor, hoses, AC, wiring, transmission and rear end. Basically, the vehicles came with extremely low mileage and the military did all the fix-ups. “Everything is new on them and they’re easy to work on. They’re not for everyone, but we let them beat on the levees and they work great for us.”

Reed runs six 1985 6x4 American General trucks, and bought the lot for $4,000 a pop, each entirely refurbished.

Reed doesn’t eschew new equipment. He views each part of the farm separately, and newer machinery is an absolute for particular facets of operation. “You can work on little stuff a lot, or work on a lot of stuff a little, but you can’t work on everything all the time. I still believe you need some newer machinery in the mix, and my harvest equipment is where you’ll find it. Also, I run several newer Versatile row crop tractors—quite a bit cheaper and around half the cost of most major brands, but they do so well.”

But plainly stated, if Reed comes across an old piece of machinery that functions well and saves dollars—he grabs it, and uses the same logic with tillage or planting equipment. “Look at planters and what you can save. The guys in the North started going with hydraulic downforce, and now I can buy air bag downforce for literally 10 cents on the dollar. Or look at my GPS for dirt moving—I’m buying 10-year-old systems at half the cost and work great.”

The American Generals are a fit for Reed: “They’re not for everyone, but...they work great for us.”

“I start getting really serious about my efforts when I see that I’m only spending half the money or less in equipment compared to many other farms my size,” Reed adds. “That’s huge and I can put that extra in land.”

The Misfits

Older equipment means access to labor and a setup capable of refurbishment. Reed employs a group of highly skilled operators from South Africa, and when not busy in the rows, the crew works on tractors. “Everyone wants to save money, but older machinery has to be a fit, and you have to put the time in to fix it. A lot of farmers don’t want to work on restoring equipment and I completely understand, but I could never do what I’m doing now with new equipment. That’s just the math of it.”

“I’m not discriminatory toward a brand anymore...If it works, is serviceable, and I can get it cheap, that’s me,” Reed adds.

On his operation, Reed insists older equipment has become a major boon, and a significant counterweight to abysmal commodity prices. “I can’t tell you how nice it is not to have huge equipment payments right now, and I actually sleep a whole lot better. I’m not discriminatory toward a brand anymore. I’ll run anything. If it works, is serviceable, and I can get it cheap, that’s me.”

Surrounded by his fleet of misfit tractors, Reeds walks over to the yellow Steiger and slaps the front end: “At this point, it could burn up or I could drive it into the river, and it’s still a complete bargain.”

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