As machinery on his Perry, IA, farm gets wider, Mike Brelsford's list of workers shrinks accordingly. In the last two years, he's bought big enough equipment that he can farm 5,000 acres with just part-time help at planting and harvest. At the same time, he's dropped his machinery and labor costs to just $80/acre.

To get costs that low, you have to focus on efficiency, according to Moe Russell, Russell Consulting Group, Panora, IA. “Our records show machinery and labor costs per acre aren't a function of the size or the age of machinery,” he says. “Farmers who think they can't afford bigger equipment need to run the numbers.

“Our rule of thumb for quite a few years has been that you need 1,500 acres for every full-time employee. Mike has leap-frogged over that standard,” says Russell. “He probably leads the pack in using the newest equipment with the latest technology to reduce labor costs. As quality labor gets more costly and more difficult to find, Mike's system will be something for other producers to look at.”

BRELSFORD'S ENTIRE machinery line now includes two 4WD tractors; a 36-row, 30-in. planter; a 45-ft. soil finisher; a 9-shank ripper; a self-propelled sprayer with a 120-ft. boom; a combine with a 35-ft. bean head and a 16-row corn head; a 1,500-bu. grain cart; and four semis.

“I used to run two 24-row planters, two 60-ft. field cultivators and two guys handling seed. It took six guys to plant the crop,” Brelsford says. “I'm doing more acres a day with the 36-row planter than I did with the two 24-row planters. One of the advantages is the central-fill seed box. I can plant 500 acres a day with just two fills.”

While Brelsford plants, a second crew runs the 45-ft. soil finisher around the clock to stay ahead of the planter. Liquid fertilizer tankmixed with preplant herbicide goes on ahead of the soil finisher.

There's an old rule of thumb that you need enough machinery to plant your crop in 10 days and harvest it in 30. With the ability to plant 65 acres/hour, Brelsford falls comfortably within that planting criteria. Although he admits: 5,000 acres is beginning to push the outer limit with a single set of equipment.

If it's available, Brelsford intends to buy a 48-row, 30-in. planter in 2009 — a machine that would increase his planting capacity to roughly 90 acres/hour. “I've got my name on the list with my dealer to buy one,” he says. “We just have to wait and see about availability.”

Ironically, when Brelsford expanded to 5,000 acres, he had enough equipment to start a small dealership. “A local farmer with no children interested in returning to the farm approached me to buy him out,” he says. “At the time I was farming 2,000 acres and he had a 3,000-acre operation. We each had 24-row planters, semis, air seeders and tillage equipment. When we combined the two operations, I ended up with four 4WD tractors.”

Those days are gone. Brelsford did a lot of calculating before he made the decision to trade his two combines with 12-row heads for a single combine with the 16-row unit in 2008. “I knew I could harvest as much with one 16-row unit as I did with the two 12-row heads. But, I needed to make sure there weren't any bottlenecks that would slow harvest down,” he says.

IT STARTS WITH the combine. Brelsford had been leasing two combines through MachineryLink, a program that he says worked well for him. But the company doesn't lease a combine big enough to handle his new 16-row Drago corn head. So, when his MachineryLink lease ran out, he bought a 480-hp, Class VIII combine and negotiated a three-year warranty for it. “I do all the day-to-day maintenance, grease and change the oil. At the end of the season, the dealer goes completely through it and brings it back ready to go,” he says.

The two 1,000-bu. grain carts Brelsford had used were traded for a single 1,500-bu. cart with the ability to unload in two to three minutes. “With larger flotation tires, it actually reduced field compaction from 21 lbs./sq. ft. to 18 lbs./sq. ft.,” he says.

When the grain cart is full, Brelsford needs two empty semis waiting at the field's edge, or the system doesn't work. “The cart fills one and a half trucks, so if there aren't two trucks waiting, either the tractor driver has to wait, or he has to drive back to me with the cart half full,” Brelsford says.

So, Brelsford calculated how many trucks it would take to keep the grain cart moving from their farthest field. And, he looked for efficiencies to make that number as small as possible.

“At our main grain site, the scale wasn't long enough for a semi, which meant our drivers had to double weigh full and then twice again empty. So, we lengthened the scale and programmed the software with the truck's empty weight. We weigh the full load and the scale automatically figures the tare. Now we only have to weigh once each load,” he says.

“It works because we have four identical semis that all weigh the same. We weigh once in the morning and once in the afternoon to compensate for fuel load. The trucks have 80-gal. tanks, so we're not off by that many bushels,” he says.

The scale modifications save Brelsford about 10 minutes' time each load. “That's 10 miles down the road,” he says.

Any grain that needs to be dried is hauled to Brelsford's bin site in Bouton, IA. He purchased the small elevator from a grain company for just dimes on the dollar. “It was too small for them to be efficient. But, it's better than I would build because it was a commercial elevator and meets all the OSHA requirements,” he says. “The site originally had 260,000 bu. of storage. We added another 160,000 bu. and a continuous-flow dryer. With a 40,000-bu. wet bin, we have the capacity to harvest and dry 40,000 bu./day.”

DEPENDING ON GRAIN condition and location, drivers also can haul Brelsford's harvest to the 100,000-bu.-capacity grain site on his home farm or the 150,000-bu.-capacity grain site he rents on an annual basis. The farthest he hauls grain is 25 miles.

Even with big equipment, it's small details — like handling truck tarps — that can add efficiency at harvest. “It takes a guy five minutes to roll the tarp manually, so I bought electric tarp systems. When the truck is full, the driver heads out of the field and hits the switch. But the time he's at the road, the load is covered,” Brelsford says. “It saves five minutes — the same as five miles.”

Brelsford admits he's pushing the limits of his equipment. “We could probably handle more acres at planting, but we'd have to analyze the harvest system closely before we added any more acres. If we added any acres, we might have to rent another machine,” he says. “Right now we're just skin and bone, but we're getting the job done. It's cheaper to run longer hours and double shifts to eliminate a second piece of equipment.”

The downside to a bare-bones line of equipment is if a machine goes down, the system bottlenecks in a hurry, according to Brelsford. To minimize that chance, he intends to maintain new equipment with extended warranties.

At $80/acre for machinery and labor, Brelsford's costs are at least $10/acre below the average for Russell's clients. “The average is $93, with a range from $60 to $200/acre,” Russell says. “We've had it too good in agriculture and guys bought equipment for convenience. What Mike's doing is probably a glimpse at the future of ag.”