“A tractor is never rubbish”

Published on 02 January 2019

As you probably know, ARN takes care of recycling cars in the Netherlands. But what happens to all the other vehicles for work and transport when they’ve reached the end of their useful lives? Where do boats, aircrafts and bicycles go? That’s the question we’ll be answering in the ‘Recycled goods’ series. In this edition: tractors.


Tekst ARN Redactie

A modern agricultural business is often extremely well-equipped: from potato lifters to combines and from choppers to feed mixers. They’re all accounted for, and yet the most iconic is the tractor. Starting at the dawn of the twentieth century, this motorised powerhouse has made plough horses obsolete, and since World War II in particular, the tractor has become indispensable to the agrarian sector. Whereas in the past, you might have had a Lamborghini or Porsche on the farm — these sports car manufacturers were once genuine specialists in agricultural equipment — these days, it’s most likely a tractor made by the brand New Holland, John Deere or Fendt. This trio of market leaders supply tractors to more than 55% of all Dutch agricultural businesses.

A tractor made by one of these brands can easily last over fifteen years. Yet the ING Economic Research office has set the useful lifespan of a tractor at seven to eight years. After that, a tractor is fully depreciated according to our Western European accounting standards — despite its purchase price of a few hundred grand. The ING Economic Research office emphasises that this doesn’t mean that the majority of tractors disappear from the farm after eight years or so. “The average term of use tends to be much longer,” the bank says. Many times these old tractors still run fine, even if the fuel and maintenance costs increase. Crop and cattle farmers especially tend to keep their old tractors around for a good many years, even if it’s only a back-up for the newer model. This is somewhat less common among contract farm workers. What’s more: with tractors, it’s primarily the number of hours in operation each year that counts. Use is quite a bit more important than age in determining the longevity of such (practically indestructible) machines. A contractor might easily operate a tractor for 1250 hours in a year, while a single farm will rarely exceed 600 hours annually. A dairy farm, for instance, will use the tractor even less.

Second Life

Goitzen Meindertsma, who (together with his brother Mark) owns Meindertsma Agri-Parts – the Dutch market leader for used tractor and telescopic handler parts – therefore sees models over eight years old being traded in the used-tractor sector. “On average, Dutch farmers will trade in their tractors every ten to fifteen years,” he says. On occasion, tractors make their way to Meindertsma’s company when they are only one year old. As a dismantling business, Agri-Parts specialises not in complete tractors but in their parts. Sometimes, the usable parts are from a virtually new tractor or telescopic handler that’s been partially destroyed by fire, for instance, and sometimes the components come from a much older, broken-down model. The parts Meindertsma stores in his warehouse and sells worldwide date back to 1995. “Any older than that and they become classics,” jokes the entrepreneur. Yet there is plenty of demand for really old agricultural equipment. Meindertsma occasionally sees complete tractors from the 1970s being shipped off to other continents. Usually, though, the machines in question are a bit newer.

“A twenty-year-old tractor still has solid resale value. They go to Eastern Europe or Africa, for instance, and have a whole second life there.”

“A twenty-year-old tractor still has solid resale value. They go to Eastern Europe or Africa, for instance, and have a whole second life there. Newer secondhand models, less than fifteen years old, are even sent to North America.” While Meindertsma ships parts all around the globe, too — after all, most of the world’s new tractors are sold in India, China and the US — the majority remain in Europe. Agri-Parts focuses primarily on the less-commonly available parts, as these are often impossible to find on the regular aftermarket, or only with long terms of delivery. While Agri-Parts, with its 11,000 m2 of stored parts, is a major player, the Dutch company is not without its competitors. There are dismantling companies in France, Denmark, Poland and England that also specialise in the sale of used tractor parts. Beyond Europe, there is competition from the US, Canada and South Africa as well, although the focus in those countries lies on different tractor models than here.

Mechanical mules

Proof that tractors can sometimes last forever is on full display when you visit the world-famous monthly auction of farm equipment in Cambridgeshire, in the east of England. Every month, over 35,000 prospective buyers from at least one hundred countries bid on equipment including tractors. At least 2,000 pieces of farm machinery are arranged across an area the size of forty football pitches, making this auction the largest of its kind. Here, you can find tractors of every type and size — and age. The models from Massey Ferguson’s 135 and 165 series, however, steal the show. Hundreds of thousands of these Canadian tractors rolled off the assembly lines in the 1960s, which means there are still plenty of them around. They are particularly popular among African bidders. Fifty years old or not, these tractors are reliable, affordable (with prices starting around 2,250 euros) and, due to their simple technical design, easy to maintain. Many times, they’re not being used for complex tasks. Sometimes their only purpose is fetching water — which nonetheless makes them essential to the community. The ‘mechanical mules’, as they are fondly referred to by buyers, are also being used to cultivate smaller plots of land. The average agricultural plot in Africa is less than one hectare, whereas the average size in the Netherlands is 6.2 hectares (per Statistics Netherlands, 2008) and in the US, nearly 180 hectares. In terms of operating hours, this means there’s still plenty of ‘juice’ left in them. At the same time, the relative scarcity of tractors in Africa makes them incredibly vital. In the sub-Saharan region, the number of tractors on hand plummets to an average of 1.4 per square kilometre. By comparison, countries like Brazil are home to 116 tractors on a comparable bit of land. The aged tractors are disassembled and packed in containers for shipping, which saves space and allows up to fourteen tractors per container. After that, once they’ve been reassembled, they have years of productivity ahead of them in Africa.

Recycling

According to some experts, tractors like the indestructible Massey Ferguson models of the 1960s can last a century if they are cared for properly. And even after celebrating its centennial, a tractor still isn’t worthless. Or, as Goitzen Meindertsma puts it: “A tractor is never rubbish.” Meindertsma points out that until ten or fifteen years ago, tractors were made entirely from metal. Even as scrap iron, that metal has residual value and is reused. These days, tractors are partially made from plastic as well. Parts like the fuel tank, for example, are 100% polyester.

Until ten or fifteen years ago, tractors were made entirely from metal. Even as scrap iron, that metal has residual value and is reused.

Even though — in light of their long lifespan — not as much attention is paid to recycling tractors as other vehicles, it’s still possible, of course. Tractor manufacturer New Holland claims that its products are 80% recyclable. In America, they (like other competitors) practice “remanufacturing”, i.e. dismantling old or broken tractor parts and then combining these with new, functional parts to give them a second lease on life. Virtually all moving parts are eligible for this kind of thorough rebuild — engines, powertrains, transmissions, hydraulics and electronics — so that these mechanical mules on which farmers depend can keep on chugging along for years to come.