Crops > Machinery > Custom Operations

Grain Harvesting Equipment and Labor in Iowa

File A3-16
Written February, 2008

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Iowa farmers have hundreds of thousands of dollars tied up in equipment for harvesting and hauling corn and soybeans. In February 2007, as a supplement to the annual Iowa Farm Custom Rate Survey carried out by Iowa State University Extension, a survey of the types, sizes and number of equipment items used for harvesting was included. The following information is based on the 125 responses received. The authors are grateful to the farmers and custom operators who participated in the survey. The respondents are not necessarily a representative sample of all Iowa harvesters, so the results should not be considered indicative of all Iowa farms.


The combine is the most expensive equipment item and the key to an efficient and successful harvest.

Combines were separated into five categories, based on engine horsepower. While new combines are no longer available in the smaller horsepower categories, there are still many 15-year and 20-year old combines operating (Table 1a). There was a strong correlation between the size of the combine and its age, confirming that newer purchases are for everlarger and more expensive models.

The larger, newer combines tended to be used for more hours during the harvesting season and, naturally, covered more acres (Table 1b). Machines in the 300 to 375 horsepower class harvested an average of 2,823 acres in 2006. The average dollars spent on repair costs per combine in 2006, including the value of the operator’s time, decreased slightly with size. This probably can be attributed to the larger models being newer. The repair cost per acre decreased dramatically as combine size increased.

Table 1. Combines

The average number of acres harvested per hour was calculated by dividing the total acres of corn, soybeans and small grains harvested by each combine by the total engine hours it was used. Thus, it includes time spend idling or moving from farm to farm, as well as harvesting. Most of the corn harvesting heads were of the six-row or eight-row variety. The size of the soybean harvesting heads was more variable, with the largest percentage falling into the 17 to 22 foot wide category.

Table 2. Harvesting heads.

Grain Carts

Grain carts have become increasingly popular, to speed up harvesting by allowing the combine to be unloaded without stopping it. Two-thirds of the survey respondents owned a grain cart, and 18 percent owned more than one. The capacity of the carts varied from around 400 bushels to over 1,000 bushels. The larger carts tended to be newer, but had higher repair costs (Table 3).

Table 3. Grain carts

Grain Wagons Survey respondents owned an average of 2.7 grain wagons each (Table 4). The average age of all the wagons was over 14 years, with the smaller wagons being the oldest. Repair costs, including tires, were modest, averaging only $68 per wagon in 2006.

Table 4. Grain wagons

Grain Trucks

More and more grain is being hauled in trucks rather than wagons, sometimes for long distances. Trucks were divided into straight trucks (single rear axle), tandem axle straight trucks, and semi-trailer trucks. Many grain trucks have had considerable years of service. The average ages for the straight trucks and tandem axle trucks were 30 years and 27 years, respectively! Sixty-two percent of the trucks reported were semi-trailer trucks, and they had an average of over half a million miles on their odometers. However, the average number of miles they were driven in 2006 was only about 11,000, which indicates that many of them may have been used as over the road vehicles by their original owners. Truck owners spent an average of $1,247 on repairs in 2006. Repair costs per mile were considerably lower for semi-trailer trucks than for the other types.

Table 5. Grain trucks.


The final section of the survey dealt with the number of people involved in harvesting, transporting, drying and storing grain. Just over two full-time people and another two part-time people were engaged in harvesting, on average. Assuming that the part-time people worked half-time, on average, just over 3 full-time labor equivalents were used per harvesting operation. When the total number of acres harvested was considered, the median number of FTEs per 1,000 acres was 2.44, or, conversely, the median number of acres harvested per FTE was 410.

Table 6. Labor.


Harvesting grain is a complex operation involving multiple workers and units of equipment. Today’s managers are challenged to find the proper set of resources that will allow for efficient and timely collection, transportation and storage of the crop at a reasonable cost.


William Edwards, retired economist. Questions?