Thursday, February 7, 2013

Profile of a Peterson Cat Ag Customer

When most people think Cat equipment, they think big iron, big jobs, and big diesel engines—all things that are typically associate with the construction industry. But the modern Ag business has no shortage of high-powered gear, and any farmer can tell you that their industry is every bit as stressful and labor-intensive as those of the contractors, loggers, and utilities Peterson Cat also serves. One Peterson customer, Mark, is a grass seed farmer in our Oregon territory, and he provides an excellent example of how complex a modern farm can be.

Mark farms about five thousand acres in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, between Eugene and Albany. He owns some of this land, and he rents the rest. That is a fairly large farm by our standards, but larger operations do exist. Mark is responsible for seeding, growing, and harvesting this acreage, and he uses several pieces of heavy-duty gear from Caterpillar-allied brands to do it: four Lexion combines, a Challenger 900-series high-horsepower articulated tractor, and various seeding and tillage tools and rental tractors. Growing grass seed is a very equipment-driven business.

The farming business is cyclical. Mark’s work goes on year-round, and follows a rhythm that predates all other human invention, even in our age of high-tech wonders: If we were to start observing Mark’s operation a few months ago, in October, we’d get to see what can be thought of as the beginning of the planting cycle—planting the seeds for the 2013 crop. Mark seeds his fields in the fall, and when the rain starts—typically late October or early November—he’ll check their drainage. If everything looks good, he’ll give the field a shot of fertilizer and a spray of pesticide and weed control using equipment like AgChem, Spracoupe, or Rogator spraying gear.

Winter on the farm is spent applying additional fertilizer and spraying for pests. Mark must rely on decent weather, since too much rain will make it impossible to fertilize his field. If the water table is more than six inches below the surface, Mark can’t properly apply fertilizer. The ag business has many gambles like this. Farmers must rely on the weather for everything they do, and as everyone knows, you can’t count on the weather to do anything reliably!

Things really heat up on Mark’s farm in spring; he and his crew begin prepping equipment for the busy summer season. In June, when the crop is at the proper point in its growth and pollenization cycle, they begin harvest by cutting their grass crop with a windrower, a self-propelled machine that cuts the grass and leaves it piles in rows (Mark operates eight windrowers). Mark and his team, mostly family, will work day-and-night to mow the crop, which will then spend approximately ten days drying on the ground.

When the cut grass is dry, Mark’s team will harvest the seed—the crop he sells for his living—using Lexion combines, the enormous Cat-powered devices that separate the seed from the chaff (the dried grass stems and leaves). Mark’s team will typically spend about sixty days harvesting; as the combines fills with grass seed, the chaff they discard is accumulated in the field, where is later baled using a Massey Ferguson MF2170 or Challenger LB34B large square baler—these pressed bales of hay will eventually be sold overseas as feed filler for livestock and other feed demands.

When Mark has harvested all of the year’s grass seed, he cleans the crop and processes and bags it for sale; at this point, Mark’s attention returns to his fields, which must be prepped for the next year. The ground work begins immediately after the harvest. Mark uses a high-horsepower tractor—in this case, a Challenger MT955D—to pull an implement called a disc that aerates the soil and drives the remaining chaff into the earth to form mulch. He then switches implements and pulls a finishing tool called a heavy harrow through the soil to break up clods of dirt and further prep the soil. All told, he’ll go over the field five or six times, and by the time he finishes, it’s once again fall and time for the cycle to begin anew.”

The cyclical nature of the ag business makes it a high-stakes gamble: Mark and his team seed his fields months before they know what kind of money they’ll make from the crop. Commodity prices are uncertain; the weather could do just about anything…Mark’s business is highly dependant on a number of factors outside his control. That’s why farmers in general demand quality from their equipment and reliable service—they don’t need any more variables that could go wrong.

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