If there were report cards for farmers, Dale Rinas' would say, “Works well with others.”

Rinas is at the center of a group of Sisseton, SD, farmers who have been pooling machinery and labor for a decade. Rinas shares planting equipment with one neighbor, harvests with another and hauls seed with several more.

Sharing lets Rinas and his neighbors — all good friends — farm with better machinery and use their equipment and time more efficiently. Not only that, “We enjoy working together,” says Alan Veflin, a member of the group.

There's strong interest these days in sharing equipment, especially among mid-sized farm operators who are trying to cut costs and spread machinery expenses over more acres, says William Edwards, an Extension economist at Iowa State University.

A Saskatchewan study estimates that by pooling equipment, three 1,500-acre grain farms could lower their per-acre machinery expense by one-third to one-half.

Sharing equipment often leads to greater labor efficiency, too, Edwards says. “A lot of farmers we talk to find that's even more important than the cost savings.”

DIVIDING THE COST OF AN UPGRADE

The Sisseton-area growers all raise wheat, corn and soybeans. Rinas and his neighbor Rydell Nieland have shared planting equipment since 1992. In the early '90s, both men wanted to go to an air-delivery seeding system, but neither had enough tractor power. So they decided to divide the cost of upgrading. Nieland, who farms 950 acres, bought a 40-ft. Concord planter. Rinas, who farms 1,600 acres with his son Travis, bought an 875 Versatile tractor and 4900 Case IH cultivator.

They keep the entire rig together during planting season and talk daily to plan their work schedules. “Dale will take it for a couple of days, then I'll take it,” Nieland says. “It depends on whose fields are driest.”

It takes flexibility to make it work, they say — and courtesy. Each man makes sure the equipment is clean, greased and fueled before turning it over to his partner.

Sharing machinery requires a lot of give and take, Edwards agrees. “You have to recognize that not everyone can be first, and things may have to change quickly with the weather.”

Nieland and Rinas charge out their equipment use at local custom rates: $5.50/acre for the seeder; $3/acre for the field cultivator; and $33/hour for the tractor. They each buy their own fuel. A detailed logbook stays with the rig, and the partners settle up at the end of the year. “Financially, we're both better off with this arrangement,” Rinas says.

It's nice knowing they can depend on each other for help, too. One spring when Nieland injured his back, Rinas seeded his crop. “That was a real life-saver,” Nieland says.

SOLVING A LABOR SHORTAGE

It was a labor crunch that led to Rinas' harvesting partnership with another neighbor, Verlyn Steiner, who farms 800 acres. Steiner, working alone, was short of help. Rinas, whose three sons were then still at home, had plenty of manpower. So they joined forces.

Each grower owns a combine. Rinas supplies the corn head, plus a Brent 450 grain cart and 10-in. grain auger. Steiner supplies a grain vac. They charge out the combines at $21/acre and swap use of the grain cart, auger and grain vac, calling it an even exchange.

Rinas employs the extra workers they need at harvest, and Steiner reimburses him for hired labor on an hourly basis. The two also split ownership of a truck: Rinas owns the tractor and Steiner the trailer. “Verlyn pays for all the expenses and maintenance on the trailer,” Rinas says, “and I do the same for the tractor.” They buy a joint insurance policy on the truck and use the same bookkeeper, which simplifies the accounting.

Their partnership has worked well for 10 years, the men say. “We both benefit from each other's labor,” Steiner says.

In addition to raising grain, Dale and Travis Rinas finish 800 head of cattle a year. They co-own more than $30,000 worth of equipment with several nearby producers, including a bedding machine, truck-mounted manure spreader, roller mill and Ditch Witch trencher. They split parts and maintenance costs, and each operator pays for his own fuel.

HOW TO KEEP ON TRUCKIN'

Rinas and several of his neighbors also grow soybeans for the Pioneer Hi-Bred International seed plant in Wahpeton, ND. For the last eight years they've pooled their trucks and labor to haul their seed to the plant, 60 mi. away. They have four semis between them and deliver 75-100 loads a winter. “We've got the trucks,” says one member, “so we might as well use them. And we've got plenty of help, so it's not such a bad job.”

The trucking group includes Steiner and the Rinases; Russell, Tim, Douglas and Alan Veflin, who farm 3,500 acres near Sisseton; and Bob and Bud Metz, who farm 3,600 acres near Browns Valley, MN. Each grower keeps track of the number of loads he hauls for other members of the group. “If one of us owes another some loads,” Rinas says, “we exchange labor instead of a check.”

They have a handshake agreement, cemented by friendship. Quips Steiner: “We'll settle up when we retire.”

SECRETS TO SUCCESSFUL SHARING

What makes all these sharing arrangements work? “Communication,” Rinas says. “That's the most important thing.”

Beyond that, the men have a strong camaraderie, which is evident as they trade jests in Rinas' machine shop one wet morning before heading off to town for lunch together. They all grew up in the area and have known each other most of their lives.

This kind of friendship and trust are essential for successful machinery sharing, says Edwards, the Iowa economist. “A lot of it comes down to getting along with each other. You really need a compatible group of people to make it work.”