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Meyers Tractor Salvage of South Dakota rides market cycles in salvage parts and scrap

Meyers Tractor Salvage of Aberdeen, South Dakota, is the largest enterprise of its type in the region. The family sells recycled parts and also does its own scrap iron work. Many farms in the region have bought parts from them or sold them rough and fire-damaged tractors, combines and other implements.

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Paul Meyers, 68, is flanked by sons David, left, 36, and James, 42 – the managing partners in Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC, of Aberdeen, South Dakota. The family started the business in 1973.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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ABERDEEN, South Dakota — The Meyers family of Aberdeen has grown to be one of the upper Midwest’s major recyclers of agricultural tractor and combines, and other equipment. Their parts business is especially important in times of supply disruptions.

Paul R. Meyers, 68, and his wife, Wendy, are co-owners of Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC, based five miles north of Aberdeen, in north central South Dakota. Paul started the business in 1973. Today, they are partners with two sons — James, 42, and Dave, 36, — and have about 20 employees.

A large billboard emblazoned with "Meyers Tractor Salvage" greets motorists arriving from the east into Aberdeen, South Dakota, on U.S. Highway 12.
Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC, of Aberdeen, South Dakota, employs about 20 people and includes about 100-acre inventory yard, five miles north of town, and a machine shop and metal scrap rail loading facility four miles to the east of town.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Meyer Tractor Salvage started on Paul’s parents’ farmstead, which today is the center of a salvage yard that encompasses more than 100 acres. At the middle is an office, a disassembly shop and three large parts warehouses. The family owns some of the farmsteads around, which makes for better neighbor relations.

To the untrained eye, the salvage yard with its aging iron can seem chaotic, but it’s actually very organized: rows of tires and cabs, carcasses of red, green, blue and yellow machines, each grouped with their own ilk and era.

A lineup of late-model Case-IH combines stand in a row, waiting for parts recycling. The two in the foreground at left were damaged by fire.
A group of Case-IH combines are arranged in a line at Meyers Tractor Salvage. The two at left were damaged in fires. Paul Meyers said emissions controls requirements in the past ten years have increased temperatures that have led to fires.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Meyers crews remove certain parts from farm tractors and combines. Excess steel and other metals go into position to be sent into scrap metal markets. The company sells up to 15,000 tons of scrap iron a year. About 30% goes out on trucks, and 70% goes through their separate rail-loading spur facility about eight miles away. The scrap can be sent to smelters, mills and foundries nationwide.

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A man in a blue coverall squats near a yellow engine he is taking apart to be used for recycled parts and to go for scrap. Another employee works on another machine in the background.
Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC employee Travis Hampton tears apart a motor in the company shop north of Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The salvage yard buzzes all day. Employees whiz by on four-wheelers, completing parts or scrap iron tasks. Some are operating large wheeled shears, tearing implements apart with giant shears or with sophisticated materials handlers, placing scrap into semi-trailers.

Backwards factory

A smiling man in a blue sweatshirt layered over other blue shirts sits in front of a crowded bookcase of manuals and binders. Above the bookcase on the wall is a deer head mount and a sticker of an American flag.
Paul Meyers started Meyers Tractor Salvage while still farming but eventually transitioned to running the salvage business near Aberdeen, South Dakota, full time. Photo take Feb. 14, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“We’re just a backwards factory,” Paul Meyers said, in oft-repeated summary of the process. “Instead of putting it together piece by piece, we take it apart piece by piece.

They’re not afraid of work.

Crankshafts removed from farm equipment are piled in a workshop, waiting for recycling as parts or for sorting into scrap.
A pile of crankshafts have been removed from machines in the shop at Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC, north of Aberdeen, South Dakota. Some will be resold for parts, others for scrap.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Paul was the youngest of five children on a farm operated by his parents, Ivan and Cecelia Meyers. Both sides of the family came to the area to farm in the early 1900s.

Paul grew up helping on his dad’s farm and working for his older brother, George, who in 1962 started a separate business — Meyers Auto, an auto parts recycling business. (George died in October 2021. His son, LaVern, continues to run the business.)

In 1970, Paul graduated from high school. He joined his father’s farm and cattle operation. In 1973, Paul started buying some farm machinery to recycle. In 1974, Paul married Wendy, who became the company’s “master bookkeeper,” he said. By the early 1980s, they pivoted to more combines and hay machinery. Working six to seven days a week, Paul eventually rented out the farmland and focused on the salvage business.

Radiators stand on shelves in a warehouse.
Three warehouse buildings at Meyers Tractor Salvage of Aberdeen, South Dakota, are chock-full of carefully categorized parts that have been removed from ag machines, including these reconditioned radiators.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Paul doesn’t know for sure, but he guesses that maybe perhaps half of the farmers in the region may have sourced parts with his company or sold him scrap.

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Some customers drive hundreds of miles for a part. The Meyers’ parts go nationwide — occasionally worldwide. The salvage yard grounds are visited several times a day by FedEx, UPS and and truck freight carriers.

Worldwide parts

Paul said his father, Ivan, had said there are three types of farm customers. There’s “the little guy” who gets by cheaply and needs used parts. There’s the “middle guy” who may buy equipment up to ten years old. Then there are the larger operators, many of whom work in the “brand new” equipment.

“The last few years, the middle guy has kind of shrunk out — he’s hard to find,” Paul said. ”The little guy is still there, and the big guy is still there.”

Meyer Tractor Salvage tends to purchase five- to ten-year-old machines, but even those up to 30 years.

Rusting tire rims in the foreground are flanked by salvage ag machines covering more than 100 acres.
Looked at across the windrows of machines, the outdoor inventory at Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC of Aberdeen, S.D., can look chaotic. Viewed from above the organization is apparent. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, Aberdeen, S.D.
Mikkel Pates

“The new stuff we buy, it may sit here for 10 or 15 years (before it sells) … because either it hasn’t worn down yet, or people using that quality of machinery are using brand new yet,” Paul said. Some equipment has a two- or three-year warranty. It may sell for “a long time,” or it may not sell for three to five years after they get it. He likens it to purchasing a certificate-of-deposit in a bank.

A lineup of late-model John Deere combines stand, waiting for peers in the field to break down or go off warranty, when recycled parts will go into demand.
Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC tends to buy combines and tractors that are five to 30 years old. It might be ten or 15 years before the used parts from the machines hit peak demand, after the same models in the field wear out or fall out of warranty.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Today to the 1920s

Meyers Tractor Salvage advertises to sell “new” after-market and “used” parts for all brands and types of farm machinery — tractors, combines, silage choppers, sickle mowers, balers, swathers and planting equipment, among them. Their warehouses are filled with rows and rows of crankshafts, reconditioned radiators, complete engines, complete cabs, swathers and combine headers, and others. They have starters, generators — new and rebuilt. Rims and tires. They sell some antique tractor parts, dating to the 1920s.

The company recycles as many parts as possible, to go back to machines still in the field.

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A yellow, tracked "shear" machine chews up a 1970s-era John Deere combine in a matter of minutes.
David Meyers, an owner of Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC, of Aberdeen, S.D., uses an orange “mobile shear” to tear apart a John Deere 6600 combine – a machine from the 1970s – has been stripped of parts. The shear weighs about 60,000 pounds and the shearing head can cut off a 3-inch solid bar of steel to process it for recycling. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, Aberdeen, S.D.
Mikkel Pates

The rest goes to be processed for making into new products. Some other yards take agricultural machines and recycle it for the metals, but not the parts.

The task has changed over the years.

In the late 1970s, Meyers Tractor Salvage would “cut up” (disassemble and put away parts for) six tractors in a day. Today, they do about two, because of the size of the equipment and because the equipment is more complicated.

 A green German-made materials mover picks up scrap iron to be placed in a truck. The cab has bulletproof glass and can be lowered or raised, hydraulically from about 10 feet to 18 feet, with 360-degree movement.
Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC moves scrap iron with the German-made Sennebogen 818E materials handler. The company’s “green line” model features a hydraulic “Maxcab” operator’s cab that elevates more than 8 feet to an eye-level of about 18 feet, so the operator can see into the truck. The cab has a bulletproof windshield, skylight and 360-degree visibility, and fuel efficiency. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, Aberdeen, S.D.
Mikkel Pates

There is demand for some parts that are not economical. For example there’s a worldwide market for “doorknobs and cables” but it doesn’t work, financially.

“You can’t put that $25 an hour employee out to work (removing) a $10 part,” Paul said. ”It would be nice to do, but you can’t do it.”

Paul and Dave Meyers, two of the partners in Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC, are dwarfed by piles of agricultural machinery, including disks at left, awaiting shipping in the company's scrap metal enterprise.
Paul Meyers (left-center) confers in the scrap yard with his son, David, one of his partners in Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC. The scrap yard north of Aberdeen, S.D. The price of scrap iron was almost nothing in 2009 but now lately has been at record-highs, accounting for up to 30% of the company’s revenues. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, Aberdeen, S.D.
Mikkel Pates

Paul said there’s also a trend toward fire-damaged machines.

A decade ago, the government started requiring combines to run with catalytic converters to reduce air pollution. But the converters become “horribly hot” if there is any chaff or dust, and that leads to more fires.

The Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC rail spur leads to a car-loading facility, surrounded by a wall, where a backhoe places scrap iron into rail cars. At right is a machine shop that prepares recycled parts for shipping.
In about 2013, Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC, of Aberdeen, S.D., put about $2 million into a rail siding, scrap loading and machine shop, about four miles east of town, along the BNSF Railway line. The Meyerses can load up to six boxcars with scrap. Their “clean” machine shop reconditions recycled ag parts before they ship to customers, nationwide. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, Aberdeen, S.D.
Mikkel Pates

Scrappy scrap

About three-quarters of the Meyers’ tonnage won’t have value as parts and will go into the scrap market.

The scrap metal market had been poor for the past six years. Everybody was “sold down” in inventory. The value went to almost nothing in 2009, during the financial crisis, but now has recovered to record all-time highs. It accounts for about 20% to 30% of the company’s revenue.

A BNSF rail box car (right) is being loaded by a backhoe and platform (center) with the scrap metal at left.
XAlan Jensen, a long-time employee of Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC, on Feb. 14, 2022, loads train scrap iron into box cars at the company’s BNSF siding, four miles east of Aberdeen, S.D. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, Aberdeen, S.D.
Mikkel Pates

On one afternoon in late March, David Meyers used an orange “mobile shear” that he manipulated like a toy, tearing apart a John Deere 6600 combine carcass — a machine from the 1970s that has been stripped of parts. The shear weighs about 60,000 pounds and the shearing head can cut off a 3-inch thick solid bar of steel to process it for recycling, David said.

The “dirty” parts will go to a shredder to get separated. The “clean” parts will go straight to a steel mill. They have a baler for crushing dirty scrap, cars and appliances into bale-like bundles.

A wall of crushed, "bundles" of grain bin panels await recycling from Meyers Tractor Salvage in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Besides tractors, combines and other ag machines, Meyers Tractor Salvage also collects other metals, including these former grain elevator bins, which they tear apart and put into “bundles” for sending to recyclers.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Some parts, like cast-iron pulleys that are broken, will go to a foundry for making things like new brake rotors and possibly engine blocks or gear box housings. Other parts will be cut into three-foot pieces to go off to a steel mill to make into cast iron, or products like fence posts or angle iron and rebar.

Some of the steel being recycled is from grain bins. A large number of the corrugated bin parts from an area elevator stood in a kind of wall, waiting to be shipped to a buyer.

A long semi-trailer lifts up from left to dump crushed ag parts and other recyclable scrap metals to be loaded onto rail cars.
Paul Meyers off-loads scrap iron at Meyers Tractor Salvage’s rail siding facility, four miles east of Aberdeen, South Dakota. The company’s machine shop is in the upper right.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

In 2013, the Meyers family put more than $2 million into a machine shop and a scrap rail loading in a siding on the BNSF line, about four miles east of Aberdeen. They acquired some of the equipment assets from a machine shop in Aberdeen that was closing.

Employees in the “clean” machine shop do things like rebuild cylinder heads, blocks and crankshafts that Meyers will sell. They also do custom machine work.

The long game

A young man uses a large, red machining tool to recondition crankshafts that are sold into a used parts market.
Lee Brixey, an employee with Meyers Tractor Salvage LLC, on Feb. 14, 2022, grinds crankshafts in the company’s “clean” machine shop, four miles east of Aberdeen, South Dakota. The location also includes a rail siding where the company loads boxcars with scrap iron for recycling.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Paul has concerns about the future, including the workforce and what he perceives as a decline of available workers and work ethic. He also worries about “just-in-time” supply chain economics that are good for corporations when things go smoothly, but leave the economy vulnerable in market shocks and trade disruptions.

A machine that moves rail cars is at left. A large backhoe loader on a rail siding loads boxcars with scrap iron from agricultural equipment.
Meyers Tractor Salvage has seen its scrap iron increase to record-high values after seeing market lows in about 2009. Employee Lee Brixey on Feb. 14, 2022, loads boxcars that will take the material to eastern markets for recycling.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

But he and his sons generally are optimistic about the future for their business and for their family.

“There’s always going to be machines,” David said. “Machines always get wrecked, they’re always going to get broken. As long as the world still needs food, people are going to need equipment to grow it, spray it, harvest it, till it. As long as they keep breaking things, we’ll supply the parts that we can.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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