Iowa farmers Roger Zylstra and Bryce Engbers have a simple formula for efficiency: they share.

Engbers and Zylstra have been sharing machinery and labor for more than 20 years. What began as an ordinary custom combining arrangement in 1982 has evolved into a nearly total integration of their cropping operations. Sharing machinery eliminates duplication and gives the two Jasper County growers access to better equipment. But more important, they say, working together makes better use of their labor and takes full advantage of their complementary skills.

Cooperation is one way for small- and medium-sized farmers to stay competitive in an era of high labor and machinery costs, according to ag economists Georgeanne Artz of the University of Missouri and Roger Ginder of Iowa State University. This year they completed a study of farm machinery and labor sharing arrangements in the Corn Belt for the North Central Risk Management Education Center.

They identified more than 50 groups of cooperating farmers across the Midwest, including Zylstra and Engbers. What stands out about the Iowa pair, Ginder says, is “their longstanding cooperation, the degree to which they share and how they've so successfully accommodated their strengths.”

Zylstra, 56, and Engbers, 51, began farming in 1980 near Lynnville, in southeast Iowa. Zylstra had about 300 acres of high ground and raised cattle and hogs. Engbers, his next-door neighbor, also raised hogs and farmed about 240 acres of river bottom land. Engbers didn't own a combine, so “I was doing his combining for him for a couple of years,” Zylstra says.

Then one spring, Zylstra — planting on the hilltop — looked down into the valley at his neighbor, who was doing the same. “We'd jump on the tractor and take the field cultivator and go out there for a while, and then we'd go back and jump on the planter,” he told Artz and Ginder. Likewise, Engbers, looking across the fence at Zylstra, was struck by how both of them “had one piece of equipment standing still at all times,” he recalls.

“You know, why don't we get together here?” Zylstra suggested. “One of us could be running the field cultivator and the next guy could be planting.”

The need to improve labor efficiency is a common theme among cooperating farmers, Artz says. “They talked about how with a greater pool of labor they could be more efficient, keep the combine going for more hours and cover more ground in less time.”

Zylstra and Engbers planted and harvested together for a couple of years, and then decided to buy a new planter for use on both farms. As they expanded their operations over the next two decades, they continued to buy new machinery together. Currently, they each farm about 750 acres, feed hogs, and share ownership of a White 12/23 planter, 30-ft. field cultivator and Gleaner R65 combine.

They split the purchase price of their shared machinery 50-50, and go halves on maintenance and repair costs, too. Their parts dealer knows which equipment they own together and automatically divides the bills. Each grower arranges his own financing and insurance on jointly owned property. Each lists half the value of shared equipment on his inventory and claims half the depreciation.

Engbers and Zylstra also share several pieces of individually owned equipment. They put Zylstra's AGCO DT 225 front-wheel-assist tractor on their jointly owned planter, and Engbers' New Holland 8970 tractor on their field cultivator. Engbers also furnishes the spraying rig for both their operations.

During the growing season, Zylstra and Engbers treat their individual farms as “one operation,” Engbers says, “and we do what's best for the whole operation.” They work the ground that's most fit, regardless of whose field it is, Zylstra says. “We've never had a disagreement over what to do next.”

That's fairly unusual, Artz says. Scheduling equipment use was a difficult issue for many of the groups she and Ginder studied. For Zylstra and Engbers, it helps that their land and soil conditions are variable, which extends their window for field work. And their farms are close together so they don't spend a lot of time moving between them. In addition, they try to coordinate hybrid maturity dates, and they maintain complementary drying systems, which is helpful in wet harvest conditions.

Their personalities and work habits are also compatible, the two growers say — something they made sure of before they bought their first piece of machinery together. That was a wise move, says Artz. One group she and Ginder studied acquired a complete set of machinery without having worked together first. The partnership dissolved after just two seasons, in part because the members' approaches to farming conflicted. “But because they were all friends, they had just assumed it would work out,” Artz says.

By pooling their machinery, Zylstra and Engbers avoid expensive duplication and lower their overall equipment costs. Engbers estimates that their machinery expense is at least a third lower than it would otherwise be.

Growers don't always save money by sharing equipment, though, Artz notes. “They often upgrade to newer, more expensive machinery, so their payments may even go up. But they get a better machine than they could afford on their own.”

That's the case for the Iowa pair. “I farm 750 acres,” Zylstra says. “I certainly couldn't afford that 12-row planter by myself.” Yet, in today's agriculture, he adds, “it's not very easy to be competitive if you're not running the latest technology.”

But the biggest advantage of sharing is access to each other's skilled labor, Zylstra and Engbers say. Each man has specialized in the tasks he does best. Zylstra, a trained mechanic, does most of the maintenance and repairs and usually runs the planter and combine. Engbers generally does the tillage, spraying and grain hauling. However, “we can both do everything,” he adds.

“We have a lot of trust and confidence in each other,” Zylstra says. The two men usually meet early in the morning to plan the day. Then they go to work, and often “that's the last we'll see each other that day,” Engbers says. “It's one of the huge benefits of a long-term relationship like ours. We've farmed each other's ground for so long, we know exactly how the other wants things done.”

An unusual aspect of this partnership is its informality. Each farmer strives to contribute equal amounts of both labor and machinery — but “we have not worried about the details,” Zylstra says.

They don't keep track of the hours they work, nor do they maintain machinery logbooks. They assign fuel costs by filling up at whichever farm they are working on. Although they farm about the same amount of land most years, their individual acreage does vary. Still, they've never allocated expenses on a per-acre basis. And they've never had a written agreement.

Instead, they always try to treat each other fairly, Engbers says. And they focus on the larger benefits of cooperation. Says Zylstra: “We realize that what we're doing together gets us further ahead than if each of us tried to do it alone.”