19 September 1998

BITTEN BY THE AUCTION BUG

Machinery auctions are an essential part of the farming scene. Michael Bird discovers how to tell the smart buys from the white elephants.

AUCTION lines are rarely paved with gold. Hidden traps, pitfalls and hazards can lurk among the lots, turning a perceived good buy into a quick goodbye, fit only for filling a gap in a hedge. The Latin expression caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) could have been coined specifically as a maxim for the auction-goer.

Despite the misgivings that many have about parting with cash for an unknown, untried piece of equipment, it is fact that many auctions do provide an excellent opportunity for a bargain to be snapped up at a knock-down price.

In Britain, there are two principal types of auction: the traditional farm sale where tackle – all or most of it from the host farm – is under the hammer due to retirement, and a farm dispersal or a change in farming policy. The second is the collective tractor and machinery sale organised on a regular basis by specialist auctioneers. These attract lots from anywhere in the country and are a magnet for trade buyers from the UK and overseas.

Apart from the surroundings, there are likely to be significant differences in the volume and condition of individual machines offered for sale at a farm sale and a collective auction. A farm auction may include four or five tractors of generally similar age and hours, with their previous drivers on hand to advise on past history and usage. Matters remain uncomplicated, with the presence of one or two combines, a sprayer, fertiliser spreader, drill and various well-known items of cultivation equipment.

On the other hand, a collective auction can feature more than 100 tractors revealing wide variations in age, hours and condition, accompanied by a vast array of materials handlers, four-wheel-drive vehicles and other farm machines of little known origin and history, with and without instruction books or maintenance records.

Prior to any auction, there is unlikely to be any opportunity for a favoured machine to be tested under actual operating conditions, with most items being auctioned "as seen". In reality, a farmer-buyer gets just one chance at auction to make a sound purchasing decision. If an error of judgement is made and the machine proves to be defective, there is little chance to put the matter right, unless the specific item was sold "in working order".

However, a trade buyer who visits many auctions during the year is better able to take the rough with the smooth, eliminating the loss made on a machine found later to be unsaleable with the profit realised on a high-demand item secured at a bargain price.

"For these reasons, farmers wishing to buy at auction need to be well prepared," stresses David Gregory, sales director with Oxfordshire-based tractor and farm machinery dealer and exporter Farol Ltd. "Always check out the second-hand value of any machine for which one could be bidding and set a maximum price to be paid for a specific item.

"It is all too easy to get carried away by the excitement of an auction. I have watched two farmers bidding against one another for a piece of equipment which was eventually sold for almost £1,000 more than a similar reconditioned machine back in our yard."

Mr Gregory points out it pays to get to an auction early for viewing and close inspection of machines which catch the eye.

Unless their history is known, two specific used machines that Mr Gregory recommends avoiding at auction are power harrows and big square balers. "They are likely to have done a lot of hard work since new and have expensive components which cannot be easily accessed and checked at an auction site," he said. "The gear train, bearings and seals on a power harrow can be very costly to renew while a big baler has a large number of moving parts which, if needing to be replaced, can add hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds, to the price paid."

In both cases, Mr Gregory advises farmers to choose a model which has been thoroughly inspected and serviced by an authorised dealer or specialist engineer. The inclusion of a limited period warranty will provide a further level of protection and peace of mind.

Risk factor

Similar advice applies to equipment with sophisticated internal workings, advanced electronic circuitry and complex drives and transmission systems. "Such items will certainly include tractors, combines, materials handlers and self-propelled sprayers manufactured during the past eight to 10 years," he points out. "It all comes down to the price one is prepared to pay and the importance of the machine to the farm.

"Anyone looking for a general runabout or haulage tractor can usually pick up a low price, high hours model at auction capable of giving several years good service. It is a different matter when dealing with a main cultivations tractor, a combine harvester or self-propelled crop sprayer where performance and reliability are vital. Unless its full history is known and there are service records available, one is taking a major risk."

As a minimum precaution before bidding for any powered machine, extract and inspect the engine oil dipstick. If the oil looks milky or foamy, it is probably contaminated with coolant which indicates a crack in the water jacket or a damaged cylinder head gasket. Examine tyres for wear, cuts and abrasion and look for oil leaks around the engine crankcase, the axles and transmission housings.

If possible, run the engine, checking for excessive exhaust smoke and engine noise. With the engine still running, remove the dipstick again. If oil is blown out of the engine, it is likely that the crankcase is becoming pressurised due to worn piston rings. Excessive pressure within the sump area can also displace crankshaft oil seals, leading to lubricant leaks at the front and rear of the engine.

Engage forward and reverse gears and shunt backwards and forwards, listening for unusual transmission noises. To check the condition of the clutch, engage a high-ish gear, increase engine speed and apply the brakes while releasing the clutch pedal. If the engine stalls, it is likely the clutch is satisfactory.

Full payment for auction purchases is normally required on the day of the sale. Because it may not always be possible to remove the machine until transport has been arranged, David Gregory recommends that pins, control boxes, PTO shafts, instruction books and other loose items be removed by the buyer for safekeeping.

So, which equipment does David Gregory reckon makes a good buy at auction? "Most cultivations machinery, grain drills, fertiliser spreaders and similar items without major internal or hidden components, enabling a quick and easy visual and physical check of condition to be made."

Starting with ploughs, Mr Gregory advises farmers to begin with the headstock and to work their way towards the rear of the implement. "Look for cracks, bends and welds which would not have been produced during manufacture," he said. "Grasp the headstock and rock it in all directions, watching for excess wear in bushes and bearings."

Alignment

The simplest way to check beam and leg alignment is to look along the length of the bodies for any points which are out of true. These can then be examined more closely to see whether the deviation is due to poor adjustment or distortion of the main beam or leg.

Mouldboards, shares and plough body components can be examined easily for wear. Although the purchase and fitting of replacement parts is straightforward in most cases, beware of excessive wear on mounting points which can lead to early and costly failure of the complete assembly. This advice applies equally to cultivator tines. A reversible point is of little use if its mounting hole is almost completely worn away, preventing sound location of retaining nuts, bolts and washers.

Auctions can be happy hunting grounds for those seeking a simple, straightforward non-powered cultivator or subsoiler. As with the plough, the complete frame needs to be checked for cracks and bends as does the A frame and tractor linkage mountings.

Look carefully for missing parts or repairs to the frame. Attempts to strengthen or modify cultivation equipment can actually lead to a weakening of the implement due to excessive heat or stress being applied to a critical area. Examine moving parts such as wheels, rollers and packers, looking particularly for wear in bearings and shafts. Castings and forgings are particularly prone to impact damage from hard objects. Most disc harrows are of rugged, heavy-duty construction designed to withstand extremely tough working conditions. Nevertheless, excessive wear to discs, scrapers, bearings and shafts can produce a hefty bill for replacement parts, adding considerably to the price paid at auction.

Question why?

"It is always worth asking why a particular machine or piece of equipment is being sold at an auction, rather than being disposed of privately or used as a part-exchange," suggests David Gregory. "Do not be taken in by sparkling paintwork or little apparent wear to working or moving components. If the machine is not well known or has sold in limited numbers, it may prove difficult or costly to get replacement parts.

"Enquire of the auctioneer whether the item has a history. Damaged equipment can and does appear at auction sales but often remains undetected until the buyer has taken it home. By then, there is very little chance of recovering ones money."

Air-assisted grain drills can prove a good auction buy, often selling for 25% or less of their new price. Important areas to check are the seed metering assembly, the coulter beam and coulter tubes. Ensure that the tramlining coulter cut-offs match the bout widths of existing sprayers and spreaders on the farm and that the electronic controls are complete and in good order. A replacement control box can cost £300 or more. Always ask the auctioneer if an operators manual with calibration guide is available.

Similar advice applies to conventional grain drills and pneumatic or mechanical delivery fertiliser spreaders. "Apart from checking for obvious wear, damage and corrosion, it is most important to ensure that the machine is complete," stressed Mr Gregory.