The J.G. Boswell Co., the largest farming company in the U.S., does things on a massive scale in California's San Joaquin Valley but still shares concerns of other farmers when it comes to operating tractors and implements for the greatest efficiency.

Speaking at the 12th Italian Farm Machinery Convention held recently at Monterey, John P. Rodrigues, Boswell's Corcoran-based manager of equipment and harvest, discussed how his organization keep hundreds of pieces of equipment running for the best effect.

The company emphasizes row crops, with 100,000 acres in Kings County and 40,000 acres in Kern County. Pima cotton is the primary crop, but it also grows processing tomatoes, seed alfalfa, alfalfa for hay, fresh-market onions, and some wheat as rotation crops. The holdings are 100 percent irrigated, using flood, sprinkler, and drip systems supplied by project water and deep wells.

The vertically integrated Boswell organization runs gins and oil mills for cotton, packs and ships its onion production, and processes a portion of its tomatoes. It owns the PhytoGen cotton-seed plant breeding operation, and it farms 60,000 acres of cotton and rotation crops in New South Wales, Australia.

“As farmers,” Rodrigues said, “our No. 1 goal is to squeeze the most yield out of every crop. To that end, we must create the best growth environments possible for our plants. While we cannot control some variables, like the weather, we can take complete control over others, such as the type of machinery we use in our fields.”

Total utilization required

To accomplish that with the machinery Boswell uses, they look first at its ability to get the job done. Total utilization of mechanical assets, reliability, and sound and effective dealers for the equipment are high on the list.

Cost is important but not the primary concern, Rodrigues said, and equipment has to be simple to operate and maintain and preferably not be a custom-made design.

“We are still running tractors purchased in the 1980s along with tractors just purchased. We run something just as long as it is economically feasible to operate. It's a matter of dollars and cents.” For disking, the basic land preparation, they are still using equipment bought in the early 1960s.

“The goal is to run as much as we can, as fast as we can, and with as few people as we can,” he continued.

For example, they once operated three-row, 60-inch mulchers for preparing tomato fields. Then the company went to its own design of six-row, 60-inch mulchers. In hay balers, it has evolved from standard units with speeds of 6 miles per hour, to 8 mph, and on to the present “big bale” units that move at 10 mph.

The result of the total crop mix is a near 12-month operation for ground preparation that has put a strain on the equipment shop and demanded keeping a close eye on what is used where and how.

Belt or track

Belt, or tracked, tractors are generally the first choice, but Rodrigues said wheeled tractors still have a place, particularly in tomato harvesting, where the belt tractors slip in the crop residue but wheeled units give traction.

“We prefer belt tractors because we can really put the power to the ground. We've gone from 80,000-pound, 400-horsepower tractors, to 50,000-pound, 500-horsepower tractors. For the past 20 years, we've sought a weight ratio of 1 horsepower per 100 pounds, and we've pretty well got it.”

This evolution to less weight and more horsepower has been especially important for planting cotton on moist ground, he added.

Compaction is a constant hazard on their drained lake-bottom soils, and much care is given to selecting a tractor, either belt or wheeled, to best distribute equipment axle loads over the ground while fitting the job to the pulling power of the tractor. Rodrigues said they match the tractor to the job to make it “float” on the ground as much as possible.

Equipment is not assigned to a particular ranch but is drawn from a pool at the Corcoran headquarters as needed for six divisions. It is further staged at two ranches, which have five districts between them, to be readily available.

Too organized

“Our mission is to conveniently deliver any request anywhere on the ranch. Our equipment must always be ready. We've lost more opportunity, and therefore money, by trying to be too organized in our operating strategy.”

The 100 workers at the Corcoran shop support a fleet of 300 vehicles, 150 mobile power units and 250 pumping units (for irrigation), 100 harvesters, and another 1,000 prime implements.

The shop is fully equipped and staffed for complete repair and maintenance on all harvesters, and the goal is to service them in the field rather than send them out to a dealer. Response time for a repair is kept within one hour to avoid as much downtime as possible. Records of shop work and daily fuel consumption are kept for every piece of equipment.

Air quality control regulations figure prominently in the selection of equipment and how it is used. Boswell, like other large farming operations in California, is investigating new methods for reducing passes across the field, but Rodriques said although their research continues, they have not yet found systems that are economical.

Diesel-engine emissions are another issue, and the company is preparing for anticipated new air quality control regulations calling for smaller horsepower engines in the next couple of years. “When we go to the next lower tier of engines, we will actually consume more fuel in order to reduce emissions. We still think we need more horsepower,” Rodrigues said.

A companion development coming “just around the corner,” he added, is central-site monitoring of equipment to help operators learn to use the equipment more efficiently.

“This goes along with GPS and other technology, but the important thing about this is it must be simple to operate. We have great people in our workforce, but they are not educated,” he said.