Heavy truck manufacturers build a pretty wide variety of new models for the tandem- axle market, and the features they offer run the gamut from basic to downright luxurious. But most tandem-axle farm trucks log only a few thousand kilometres each year. So, do you really need to buy a new one to get the job done?
For about half the cost — or less — of a new rig, used models can provide decades of service on a typical farm. Currently, there is a lot to choose from in the used-truck marketplace, along with a wide range of prices. Even if a dealer doesn’t have one with the options you want, some can soon put one together for you. Yes, put one together.
To meet the demand for reliable used trucks with just the right options, several companies and brokers now specialize in converting retired highway tractors to grain-hauling tandems ready for farm duty. That means they’re able to tap into a large pool of used models, and they’ll likely be able to easily find one with just the specifications you’re after. “We take the sleepers off and make them into day cabs,” says Peter Polet, a sales rep for Custom Truck Sales Ltd. at Winnipeg, Man., a Kenworth dealer.
But with modern integrated cab designs, removing sleepers is much more involved than it used to be. Any company converting highway tractors needs to have the truck in its shop for several days. A proper cab conversion kit needs to be installed and the frame may need to be lengthened to set the correct wheelbase for a grain box. These aren’t exactly do-it-yourself projects.
Darrel Thiessen, president of Cancade Co. Ltd., a company that does highway tractor conversions, believes buying a unit that is already converted and ready to go can be well worth the extra cost of letting the pros do it. For anyone who intends to find his own used truck and do the conversion in a farm shop, there are more than a few potential pitfalls.
“We’ve had end-users and farmers that have bought a truck and brought it to us to have a box installed,” says Theissen. “But you couldn’t install a PTO on it, because when the truck was initially ordered (new) it didn’t have a PTO provision on the transmission. Now they’re stuck with a truck they can’t use. They have to resell it to someone who wants to use it as a tractor unit or doesn’t need a PTO.”
And depending on where the truck was originally operated, it may need to be retrofitted with some equipment required for local conditions. “It’s buyer beware,” he says. “If you jump on a flight and go down to Florida to buy a truck, you need to be aware of the little things.” For example, new trucks purchased to operate in warm southern climates are often equipped differently than those frequently running in cold winter conditions. Upgrading one can add unexpected expenses to its overall cost.
That’s where relying on a local, reputable dealer or broker can pay off. “If you go to someone who has repeat customers and has been around for a long time, they’ll know (what you need),” adds Theissen. “In most cases they’re not making a lot of money on each truck. I would happily pay to buy from a reputable dealer rather than try and save a couple of thousand dollars — because that’s about all it would be. I’d rather do the things I’m good at and leave the truck buying to other people who are good at that.”
And you’ll likely be able to find a dealer that can provide a truck to match your budget. “So many farmers want so many different trucks,” says Leonard Friesen, owner of L and B Friesen near Brandon, Man., another company that does truck conversions. “That’s why we carry this full line (including less expensive models).”
“I start out by asking a guy how much money he wants to spend. Most of the time he’ll buy something a little higher (priced).” That’s because spending a little more gets a much better truck. But Friesen also points out lower cost units may be the right choice for some operations, depending on what a farmer intends to use it for.
Polet says he understands the rationale of those farmers who start out looking for the cheapest option. But going for a lowest-cost truck isn’t always the best bet, especially if they need one that will stay up and running during harvest or other critical times of the year. “Cheaper isn’t always better,” he says. “If you try to spend less on a truck, then you’ll run into a higher-kilometre unit. But if in four or five years you have to do an engine job, what have you really saved?”
“We try and bring them (highway tractors) in with under one million kilometres. The life expectancy of these engines is about 1.6 million. That means, all things being equal, you can expect 600,000 more kilometres from these trucks. With most (farm) trucks only doing 20,000 a year, you’re a long way from having to do an engine overhaul.”
Thiessen agrees farmers should look for a truck with ample life left in it before it becomes expensive to maintain. And while mileage can be a good indicator of that, buying from a dealer who can provide some background information on it can also be important. “How the truck was used can make a big difference,” he notes.
If, for example, a truck was used in a long-haul application, it will not have had a lot of cold winter starts the way a local-haul truck would. An engine suffers from delayed lubrication during cold starts, which can significantly reduce its operating life. “I know which one I’d
rather have,” he says.
He adds that trucks operated by large companies are almost always on strict maintenance programs, meaning they’re very well looked after. In most cases they are still in excellent condition when fleets turn them in at the end of a lease.
Buying a good, converted highway tractor also allows a farmer to add capacity to his truck in the future, it will have enough muscle to pull a pup trailer. That usually requires 350 horsepower or more.
Including an automatic or auto-shift transmission may also be a worthwhile consideration. “I would say we probably sell about 80 per cent auto-shifts compared to the others,” says Friesen. Although they can add $10,000 to $15,000 to a truck’s cost, they’re much simpler to drive than manual versions. That can make it easier to train a driver, which can be a big advantage on a farm that relies on family members to help out during seeding and harvest.
Finally, if the idea of having an efficient, reliable truck isn’t enough on its own, there is one more thing to consider. “It goes without saying,” says Polet, “there’s the image factor. Like it or not, we form opinions about people by the vehicles they drive.” Keeping a farm’s fleet looking professional and well maintained could pay dividends by helping maintain a favourable public impression of all farmers.
Cheaper isn’t always better. If you try to spend less on a truck, then you’ll run into a higher-kilometre unit