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What to Look For When Buying a Used Combine | A Farmer’s Guide

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A combine harvester is a long-term capital investment and is typically the most expensive machine on any farm. When buying a secondhand combine, it’s critical to understand what to look for, and missing essential details could mean getting less value than you initially expected. Choosing the wrong combine or header for your needs could be a costly waste of resources and significantly affect your annual yield. 

Many farm owners and managers opt to buy a used combine rather than a new model due to the significant cost savings. Although purchasing a new machine has clear benefits, acquiring a used one can save you a lot of money without compromising performance. But to ensure you still get the results you need at harvest time, choosing the right used combine is essential. 

A thorough inspection and due diligence prior to purchase will ensure you’re getting your money’s worth on a major machinery purchase. Before inspecting any specific model, have a good idea of precisely what you need from a new machine, so you always have a benchmark for comparison. You’ll want to thoroughly review the service and maintenance history of the harvester and perform a detailed inspection of its physical condition.

Buying a used combine is a lot easier when you know what you’re looking for. This article covers the major features to consider when you’re out inspecting a used combine.

1. Choose the Right Brand and Model For Your Needs

It’s best to check out several brands and models of harvester before you settle on one – and when you decide to give them a look, it should ideally be in person.  Some problems aren’t evident until you see the machine in person or hear the engine running. If you’re unable to inspect yourself, have a trusted person evaluate the machine on your behalf or ensure you’re buying from a trustworthy used machinery dealership.

You can opt to purchase the complete package together or source front and header separately, depending on what is available on the secondhand market. Keeping your options open during the search maximises your options without relying on finding a local seller with an identical set-up to your own. 

When choosing the right brand and model, allow plenty of research time. Consider things such as local dealership availability, reliability and support services, as you’ll want to have your combine serviced regularly. Opt for tried and tested brands and think about whether you can easily access replacement parts if you need them. 

With a limited budget or financing challenges to work with, it can be tempting to aim for the lowest price point. Still, you should always consider whether the features and capacity will tick all the boxes for long-term efficiency. 

This is where it is helpful to have clear targets and establish a benchmark to guide your machinery investment. If it won’t satisfy your farming needs, even if the price is right, that machine is no bargain. Will it be suitable for your crop and terrain?  If you’re growing corn or soybeans, an incompatible header will impact what kind of value you’re getting from an otherwise lucrative deal. Is it compatible with your current machinery or precision ag equipment, and will you be able to make any upgrades you’re planning? What other changes will you need to make to utilise a new header type, and is the bigger picture still delivering cost savings?

2. Is It the Right Size, Rate and Capacity?

Although farming is all about profitability, you can only accomplish this with efficiency and productivity. Optimal work organisation and machine utilisation will help you reduce costs. That’s why having the correct sized equipment for your farm’s needs is essential – not so large that running costs are excessive, and not too small to suit your requirements in a few years.  

A combine’s class can be deceiving – a higher class does mean more horsepower but doesn’t necessarily represent the level of performance you can expect. Is your secondhand harvester a good investment if out-of-date features will undermine grain quality or production? On the other hand, many older machines will offer fantastic performance or can be retrofitted for less than the cost of a new combine. 

A large high-volume combine can even be a disadvantage if it’s not the correct fit for your crop. A smaller machine that can comfortably handle an average crop load can often be better than an oversized combine. Fuel efficiency and GPS guidance systems are also significant factors that influence how cost-effective a harvester is to run long-term.  

A machine’s capacity should also never be more than what the front can process. And what is its unloading rate? All of these factors should be considered when looking at any potential used combine purchase. When you have a good understanding of your harvest logistics, these considerations should guide your investment.

Be sure to check the serial number of any used combine you’re interested in and do your research. Firstly, this ensures you’re working with accurate details, as it’s not unheard of for a seller to make a mistake when listing a machine for sale. This tactic also allows you to compare market prices for used harvesters and find reviews and recommendations.

3. Service History and Maintenance Log

When you are looking to buy a used combine, make sure to check its service history or that the seller provides you with a reliable maintenance log. Maintenance directly impacts the life expectancy of any equipment, and once you’ve purchased a new piece of machinery, you inherit any neglect or shoddy maintenance performed by the previous owner.  

Work orders, inspection lists and other supporting documents should also be readily available – and if an owner is reluctant to produce them, that’s worthy of some more intense questioning. These documents can give you valuable insight into how often a combine has been serviced and what type of repairs have been done.

For instance, what are the oil change intervals for this machine? Are the lubricants used synthetic or petroleum? Has the previous owner used OEM lubricants or the incorrect variety altogether? Are any replacement parts OEM or aftermarket, and who carried out the repair? 

Pay close attention to whether any repairs have been made proactively (eg. the replacement of wear parts) or whether the machine is never looked over until something has broken down. Ideally, you’ll want to see signs of proactive maintenance and upkeep. 

Knowing this information will also help you anticipate the problems you may encounter if you commit to buying that machine. A vague maintenance history may not be a reason to skip the purchase altogether, but it may affect the price you’re willing to pay.

4. Verify Machine Hours

When buying a used combine harvester, you should also check its operational records. For example, how many hours has that specific unit clocked, and does it match the verbal history the owner has given? 

Although sellers should immediately relay this information to clients, some don’t volunteer the details themselves. Making a point to ask the seller these questions is vital when deciding to make a major equipment purchase. 

There’s no exact number that is ‘too many hours’ on a used combine – the main factors are how well it’s been maintained, the conditions it’s stored under and the way it’s been used throughout its lifetime. Even a low-hour combine can be poor value if it’s been heavily abused and ill-maintained, while high-hour machines carefully maintained and upgraded as needed may have plenty more to give. 

Varying soil conditions and crops have a major impact on a combine’s lifespan, so it is critical to ask for the machine’s full backstory and verify information on how (and where) it’s been used. A key goal of the thorough physical inspection is to gauge whether the seller’s story holds water or if the physical signs tell a different story from what they’re giving you. 

Also compared the combine’s engine hours and separator hours. The ratio between them can indicate how the machine has been used (and whether the seller has been honest about it). If the combine is always used without a grain cart or has clocked plenty of road time, the numbers on a dual hour meter will be further apart. 

If engine hours are much higher, you’ll want to look more closely at parts like the drive train and other components that have faced more lifetime wear and tear. 

If a machine has been significantly refurbished or had many parts replaced, a higher number of engine hours may not accurately reflect the condition or remaining lifespan of the harvester, so balancing this factor with the maintenance history gives a broader picture.

5. Inspect the Harvester’s Exterior

Before getting into the more detailed inspection, take a good look at the combine’s exterior first. If the previous owner(s) neglected to care for that unit, the condition of the paintwork and visible components can be a dead giveaway. 

If you have been farming for some time, you can probably tell a good machine from a bad one just by looking at the exterior. However, if you’re not an experienced buyer, consider bringing someone who’s an old hand with used machinery to get a second opinion. In fact, two pairs of eyes are usually better than one and maximise your chances of catching any concerns early. 

An in-person inspection becomes crucial at this point; having pictures of the combine may help, but seeing it up close and in person is always better. 

To check the exterior, go around the unit and see if there is any damage or rust. Do the same with the belts, chains and sprockets. What’s the paint condition like? Are there visible leaks or damage? A new coat of paint can hide many sins at first glance, so inspecting components more closely can indicate whether there are issues hidden below the surface.

6. Check Inside the Cab

When you’re done checking the exterior, it’s time to inspect the inside of your target unit. Like the exterior inspection, you can get a feel for the combine’s condition just by sitting in the cab.

How does it look? If it’s generally clean with little to no damage, you can assume the machine has been well-maintained. A few worn areas are fine for a used combine, as long as it doesn’t impact the function or safety. 

A cab should also be comfortable since harvesting will require you to be sitting in it for long periods. If it’s not, check to see if you’re able to make improvements – even minor annoyances can become big frustrations with time. 

While sitting in the cab, test the controls and instrumentation to ensure everything is in working order. You should also check other features such as the receiver, displays, cameras, and any other technology installed. Are they still working correctly? These accessories are costly to replace, so you don’t want them included in the asking price if something isn’t working. Make sure any feature you’re paying for is actually included. 

Many used combines include factory-installed or aftermarket electronic systems. It’s a good idea to do your research on any precision ag equipment or guidance systems bundled with your combine, especially as older systems might not be usable or kept up to date.

If they are installed but no longer supported by the manufacturer, it can be an enormous pain point for years to come. Verify with the seller and manufacturer that what you have in your target unit is still supported, can be upgraded or is suitable for retrofit.

7. Check the Header

When purchasing secondhand harvesting machinery, you may buy a full package, header-only or combine only. A used combine can also be sold with a generic pick-up header and it will be up to you to source something specific independently – so compatibility will be a major question if buying combine or front attachment separately. 

When inspecting a used combine, confirm the header’s year, model, make, and size using the serial number. Always verify these numbers with the manufacturer’s website, as even minor errors in advertising a header’s capacity can put a buyer on the wrong track. 

Do your research and thoroughly evaluate the header’s suitability for your application. Can it handle a wide range of field conditions? Is it suitable for rocky or uneven ground? Will it capture the right capacity and work efficiently, without grain damage or excessive waste? 

Also, check the physical condition of the header and do a thorough visual inspection. Look whether the head is sprung or misaligned, and assess the condition of all the drive mechanisms. How about the state of the hookup, auger, belts, hoses and other attachments? Make sure that no shields or other components are missing.

8. Check the Tyres or Tracks

Tyres have a heavy burden to bear during harvest, so they’re an essential item to inspect on a used combine. The steep cost of replacement tyres means overlooking this one can come back to bite you – if the tyres or tracks are no longer in good condition, you’ll want to deduct that expense from your price. 

When the combine runs on rubber tyres or tracks, look for the thread’s make, size, and quality. The rims should have no cracks or damage, and the tracks should have no tears or missing rubber. 

Also, check for excessive wear of the rollers and drive sprockets. Like the cab’s accessories, these parts are also costly to replace, and they will need to be changed before the combine is used. You may also want to see if there are leaks or stress points in the undercarriage.

With the load they carry, tyres can cause severe field compaction when their capacity is incorrect. That’s why you should also check on the unit’s carrying capacity, the tyre’s traction, mobility and stubble wear resistance.

9. Check the Engine and Transmission

Like when buying a used car, it’s essential to inspect a combine’s engine before purchasing. The combine’s transmission should operate smoothly for the unit to run effectively, and any minor issues can escalate quickly once you’ve handed over a cheque. 

When you’re checking a used combine’s performance, start it up and drive it forward and backwards, at the minimum. Listen for any unusual sounds, such as grinding and knocking. These noises can indicate something’s amiss – whether that’s a minor maintenance issue or a major fault. 

When you turn the machine off, remove and check the filter. If it has been replaced regularly, the filter should appear clean – so if it’s seriously clogged, something may not be quite right with the service history. The operator’s manual should specify what the manufacturer’s recommendation is about proper replacement intervals. 

Inside the engine compartment, inspect connections closely and look for any leaks from the hoses, hydraulics and the engine. Is the radiator clean? What about the level and odour of the oil? Are there any worn out or cracked hydraulic, coolant and fuel lines? If the machine is in good working order, none of these issues should be present. 

You can also verify the unit specifications using the engine plate. While Australia has no current emissions standards on non-road diesel engines, there are plenty of reasons beyond the law to consider environmental impact, including air quality concerns.

10. Check the Combine Body

Since a combine has many working parts, each should be checked for visible wear and tear. The feeder house is the first port of call – scan for chain wear and determine the condition of hydraulics surrounding it. Afterwards, the main body shields need to be removed to check on the sieves, concaves, hydraulic hoses, and pumps. 

You should also examine the condition of the grain tank – look at grain tank extensions if there are any and take note of their type. Some combine units also feature aftermarket or power-folding extensions, and they should also be scrutinised before buying the machine.

Attachments are a key area to inspect as high-quality attachments will increase the market value significantly. 

Check rear attachments next – what type of chopper is included?  Ensure that there are no missing blades or you will have to replace them. The condition of spreaders is another area you should inspect closely.  These key components should all be in good working condition, without visible issues – else, you should revise the price you’re willing to pay if imminent repairs are needed. 

The next step is to inspect side attachments like unloading augers. Check their length is suitable for your standard harvesting set-up and ensure they don’t interfere with the header – especially if not purchasing combine and front together. Does the auger have the reach you need or will you need an auger extension? Also, are the tubing and spout still in good condition? Consider these during your inspection.

11.  Search For Outstanding Finance

When purchasing a used combine, be sure to verify whether the unit is still under finance before signing any documents. If the combine has not yet been paid off, it still belongs to the company or individual financing it. Taking this precaution will protect you from buying someone else’s debt.

If your potential combine has been registered on the National Equipment Register, you can quickly check if it has an outstanding balance by doing a PIN Code check. This PIN check can also help you identify whether the machinery has ever been registered as stolen. This registration is voluntary, so not all vehicles will be on the register. 

You can also check the Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR) with a $2 search. The PPSR is a government-run database of security interests and will indicate whether anyone else has legal possession of the machine you plan to buy. You’ll need the VIN, chassis number or manufacturer’s number to check the registry. This search will also tell you if the machinery in question has ever been registered as stolen or written off.

12. Dealership vs Private Sale of a Used Combine

Buying a used combine through a dealership offers you a range of benefits and can make a big difference to the level of risk involved in purchasing a secondhand harvester. 

Dealerships are generally licensed resellers of branded machinery and often have their own service departments. If you have questions about your secondhand combine – including availability of parts, whether technology is supported and retrofit compatibility – a dealership can provide thorough and reliable answers.

They also have greater knowledge of combines and can recommend the model types suitable for your agricultural needs. Since a dealership’s reputation relies on trust and quality, used machinery is thoroughly inspected and valued by an expert mechanic. 

Dealerships will often accept equipment trade-ins towards purchasing a larger or more up-to-date model, making the upgrade process much more seamless. And where a private seller is less likely to go out of their way to answer questions and help you get acclimated with your new combine, this kind of customer service is one of the key benefits of buying from a reliable dealership.


Related Questions

How Many Hours Does a Combine Last?

The total number of hours a combine may last will depend on the type of crop, terrain and soil, acreage and how well the machine is maintained. A combine can potentially run for 4,000-5,000 engine hours and 2,500-3,000 separator hours and still work, while others may reach their capacity at 3,000 engine hours and 2,000 separator hours under harsh conditions. Regular maintenance and replacing worn components can also extend a harvester’s lifespan beyond the norm. 

How Much Is a Used Combine in 2021?

With such a range of combine classes and sizes, the price of a used combine in 2021 varies significantly from one brand to another. Ranging from as little as $10,000 to the $500,000 mark, the average market price of a secondhand harvester is under $200,000, though highly featured models and low-hour machines can attract higher prices. 

In general, recent and top-of-the-line models may become more expensive as they can have larger grain tanks, greater horsepower and bigger header capacity. Other factors that may affect the price include the accessories, attachments and other add-ons, including sought-after spreaders and choppers, and any guidance systems already installed.

Ben Boekeman

Ben Boekeman

Ben Boekeman is head of Sales & Precision Farming at Boekeman Machinery and a third-generation member of the Boekeman family. Working out of our Wongan Hills branch, Ben is passionate about the agricultural industry and the future of precision agriculture.

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