International Harvester enthusiast stays in the black by using decades-old red iron
LeRoy and Rosemary Helbling of Mandan, North Dakota, farm with International Harvester equipment that is mostly 30 to 40 years old, kept in pristine condition. They raise crops primarily as feed for their Hereford herd of cows.
MANDAN, N.D. — Inflation and the cost of new farm equipment is a common complaint of farmers today, but LeRoy Helbling, stays “in the black" by farming with experienced red equipment.
LeRoy and Rosemary Helbling are quintessentially conservative — raising oats, corn and alfalfa, exclusively for cattle feed. Besides their red equipment, they specialize in red-and-white Hereford cattle. Even dog “Axel” is a reddish-brown Border collie.
“You do your best and let Mother Nature try her best, I guess. Some years it works, some years it don’t,” LeRoy said. He said his vintage equipment parts are susceptible to inflation, but he isn’t worried about sticker prices for anything new.
Agweek rode along when LeRoy when he was planting oats on May 24, 2022, using a 986-model IH tractor, which his family bought new in 1978. He was using the same tractor with a pull-behind corn chopper on Oct. 15, 2022.
Mandan had significant hail on June 20, 2022, and then again on July 21, 2022, so the oats were flattened and the corn impaired.
“It really set us back, so this year of course it’s all going into the silage pile,” LeRoy said of the corn.
Despite the weather, he expects a sufficient crop to feed the cattle through the winter.
Much of LeRoy’s equipment is 1978 or earlier. He estimates machinery costs for putting in a crop are about one-third of what they were if he were buying new equipment. He’s heard a rule-of-thumb that new tractors run about $1,000 per horsepower. ($100,000 for a 100 hp tractor.) That’s gone up, he thinks.
To Helbling, using the old stuff is both practical of pride and fun. He recognizes the benefits of new electronics and precision equipment but is unwilling to pay the costs.
Yes, a fellow has to “pay attention” when he’s seeding, he said.
“You don’t read a book, you know, while you’re seeding or anything like that,” he said. “You try to make the rows nice and straight.”
And yes, there’s maintenance, but he can fix it himself.
“The newer stuff breaks down, too,” he said. “Fix as I go, of course, and in the fall of the year everything gets a good cleaning and going through. If there’s anything major it goes into the shop for the winter."
He’s had a heated shop for about 15 years.
Helbings since 1914
LeRoy, 61, grew up helping his parents, Jacob (“Jack”) and Rose on the farm. His grandfather, Peter V. Helbling, established the farm in 1914. The family is of Germans from Russia stock. After graduating from Mandan High School in 1980, LeRoy joined his parents on the farm. He and Rosemary were married in 1986.
The Helbling family were loyal to Minneapolis-Moline tractors until the company was acquired by White in 1963. White dropped the brand in 1974. AGCO purchased White in 1991.
Helblings switched over to "red" International tractors in about 1978. (IH merged with Case in 1986. Case-IH merged with New Holland in 1999. It all merged under under CNH Industrial N.V. in 2013.)
And LeRoy simply stuck with the IH equipment.
“It was economical to run, easy to work on, LeRoy said. “No computers of any kind, because it’s 1978 and older. Everything is self-explanatory when it breaks down.”
In his 20s, LeRoy collected toy farm equipment — all International, of course — but eventually became a collector of the "real thing."
LeRoy’s farm equipment starts with his 1954 “Super H” tractor, which he uses at times for farming. Primarily, though, it’s a “parade” piece used in “tractor treks.” “The last one made,” as far as he knows. They called it “super," he said, because it has 36 horsepower and could travel 7 mph, instead of the 26 horsepower with the “straight H,” which went 5 mph.
LeRoy has a lot of '78-model tractors and trucks and pickups from 1959 to 1979.
“I like to keep stuff that I can work on myself,” LeRoy said. “I’m not too ‘electric’ oriented. I like the mechanical part — turning wrenches, having stuff that doesn’t have the electric solenoids to run one thing or another.”
The tractor lineup includes a 384, 584, 986, a 1086, He has a Hydro 86 tractor and a 3488 Hydro, both so-named because they transmit energy using hydraulic fluid.
Red all the way
LeRoy plants with a 6200 IH drill that dates back to 1978. He has a 770 IH plow, packer and drill implement, dating to 1978. He uses a 5400 no-till grain-soybean “special” drill.
To spray, he has a small International sprayer he puts behind an IH 384 tractor. The three-point IH sprayer holds 150 gallons of water with a 42-foot boom.
“I’ve never seen another one around like it,” he said. IH dealers are skeptical it’s an International, but he shows them the tag and serial number.
The 986 IH tractor pulls a 720 IH corn cutter, followed by a Hy-Dump (hydraulic) wagon.The tractor has power steering and live hydraulics — high-speed 7 mph fourth gear.
For other harvest tasks harvest, LeRoy has an IH potato digger, hay rakes and mowers. He has a Case-IH round baler from the mid-1980s. His combine is a 914 pull-type — also a 1978 model. In the wings is a 660 Case-IH axial flow combine, which was new in 1994, with a pickup head attachment.
The Helblings are also traditional in the cattle. Their cows are “purebred” but without registration papers. The bulls are registered Herefords. The breed established beef cattle in the U.S. in the early 1900s, but Angus became dominant after the 1970s.
“Herefords are great — easy-keeping, good-doing,” he said, “Herefords, for the most part, are a pretty docile breed.”
Back to the future
The Association of Equipment Manufacturers members, in a survey released Sept. 29, 2022, said its manufacturer members are dealing with supply chain, inflation and interest cost issues.
Agricultural equipment companies are positive after “growth” in “whole goods” more than the “parts segment” the past 12 months, the survey said. But AEM said many members expect to face “headwinds.” Chiefly, more than half expect “normal or above-normal growth” in manufacturing in 2023. Half think supply chain issues will subside at the end of 2023, and the rest expect complications beyond that.
Hearing this, Helbling thinks his future is in the machines of the past.
Price hikes for parts seem “insane,” but he feels relatively protected from inflation by using old equipment. It hasn’t been hard to find parts for the equipment.
“No, it seems like the older it gets, the easier it is to find parts,” he said, noting the local CNH Industrial is helpful. “Once in awhile we get something from a salvage yard, but not very often.”
For the 1954 Super H, for example, he can get pretty much anything.
“I suppose they keep making parts for the guys who are collectors and fix them up, and so on,” he said.
“I feel it’s better for the bottom line, you know,” he said. “I’m not a big operation. I take the time, fix it, and keep it going. I don’t need a combine with a 40-foot header.”
LeRoy said he knows of a few others in Morton County and elsewhere that use smaller equipment of the same vintage, but he’s the only full-time operation he knows of operating with vintage equipment.
“Most everything is big nowadays — big horsepower, big seeders," LeRoy said. “I always felt, ‘Do as much as you can, by yourself, and stop there.’”
He wouldn’t judge anyone who wants the new, though.
“Everybody’s got their own opinion.”