Tractors And The Right To Repair: It’s Going Global

For more than a few years now, we’ve been covering the saga of tractors from the larger manufacturers on which all components are locked down by software to the extent that they can only be replaced by officially sanctioned dealers. We’re thus pleased to see a couple of moments when the story has broken out of the field of a few farmers and right-to-repair geeks and into the mainstream. First up:  a segment on the subject from NPR is worth a listen, as the US public radio station interviews a Montana farmer hit by a $5k fuel sensor on his John Deere as a hook form which to examine the issue. Then there is a blog post from the National Farmers Union, the body representing UK farmers, in which they too lay out the situation and also highlight the data-grabbing aspects of these machines.

(At publication we incorrectly attributed the blog post to the British NFU, when in fact it came from the American organisation of the same name. Thanks commenters for pointing it out.)

The last piece is particularly interesting, as not only does it break the story out of the USA, but also because the NFU are the largest farmers’ body in the UK and represent farmers across the whole range of British agriculture. Their leverage as a political pressure group is not inconsequential, so if this is a subject they’ve taken up, it could result in it being heard in the corridors of power.

Most of the coverage of this has centred upon John Deere tractors, but it extends beyond the familiar green and yellow machines. At its root is the vast majority of larger-scale tractor manufacturing lying with a very small number of multi-national companies who are each pursuing similar problematic software-based paths. Legislation to curb their extent is one route out of the problem, but perhaps another is for it to become an opportunity for a market entrant to seize an edge. An acquaintance of Hackaday in the fork lift industry recounted the tale of a Far Eastern manufacturer who gained market share by using similar ease of parts replacement as a selling point, perhaps it’s time for the same to happen in the field of agriculture. If it takes one of the more recent breed of large Chinese tractors arriving in a field in Kansas to catch Deere or Agco napping, they will have only themselves to blame.

Read some of our past coverage, on the soaring price of older machines without DRM, and an attempt to curb the practice in Nebraska.

Header image: AGCO-Fendt, CC BY-SA 4.0.

65 thoughts on “Tractors And The Right To Repair: It’s Going Global

    1. Aftermarket ECUs are available, but then you’re really heavily modifying your car.
      In general people choose to not replace the ECU, but to reprogram the existing one to make it work exactly the way you want. But it is getting harder to do so, and the security protocols always have to be cracked by some shady russian hacker group.

    2. I believe that in the U.K., replacing an ECU, whilst possible, will generally cause a fail at the annual MOT check, as aftermarket ECUs are unlikely to pass emissions tests.

    3. How long do you plan on using your BMW? 4-5 Years? 10 Years, maybe? Farms of this nature use these tractors 30,40, even 50 years, they are going to break, and they don’t want to be locked into an overpriced MFG that will eventually obsolete a part and make it so that you HAVE to buy a new tractor.

      1. They don’t use THESE tractors that long. Your talking about the small family farmer which is an animal nearly extinct in the US and many other places. These tractors are purchased for use on corporate farms and used for as long as they have value left after depreciation, after which they are replaced.

    4. There are are a number of race ECUs out there that plug into factory BMW harnesses for some models – I personally designed some components for two of them. The real challenge, though, is getting them to comply with emissions standards for road use.

    5. No, but the capability and interest to replace that ECU, or most any other part, is beyond the typical BMW owner. Do they repair their own tires? I don’t mean taking it to the dealer to have the tire repaired. As opposed to the typical farmer, hard pressed and up against a hard deadline because of weather and market to have to call a technician and work by his busy schedule. Most farmers are fully capable of nearly any repairs to their equipment. Most medium and above sized farms have shops and equipment to do most anything. Except when parts are “locked down” by software, and the manufacturer won’t even offer courses and equipment to them to be able to change that part. Yes, there is a world of difference between the average farmer and the average BMW owner.

    6. That is a complicated answer. You probably can, IE Vi-PEC, MOTON, VEMS etc. However due to CANBUS, K-BUS etc, other things may not work. On another similiar note, I installed an S54 from a 2006 E46 M3 into My 1991 E30 325i. The easy part was the install and wiring. It took a group to get a leaked A2L Damos file (think the map of the OS to names/functions/values) and transpose that to a “moving” map like how our world continents move. IE the Ignition timing may have moved between software versions, and the table size may or may be different and differerent byte lenghts IE BYTE to WORD. Anyway, got it working, but had to turn off functions that really only the dealer SOMETIMES might be able to turn off to get it out of limp mode. From there we had someone make a CAN BUS emulator to get the MK60 ABS to work and AC to work. Now that guys is gone….no one else has made an AC solution. You can google my “name” to find out more, but it was sure an adventure, even if I had to bribe someone to let it pass smog, even though it burned cleaner than when new….

    1. Yes, the phrase “A farmer might spend thousands of dollars on a simple adjustment” was a little jarring on what purports to be a UK blog, and dilutes their message somewhat.

  1. It has already happened… One friend has a small green farm and is producing at a village scale, and he recently bought a cheap chinese tractor…

    It is very small and convenient, and is aftermarket from rice culture in China… the simplicity and low price means unexpensive part swap and repair : he made changing the command system with a set of joysticks for 45€ without any hassle…

    This kind of ease is surely already there with bigger tractors in China, and this is only a question of months until they figure out here in Europe that they would have better service with Chinese stuff…

    1. Exactly, the Chinese small tractors have turned out to be pretty good and also fixable. I’ve never been up close with any of the bigger ones that you’d expect to see on larger farms, but if they can preserve that then someone is going to make a fortune importing them.

        1. Well there’s still the EU, which generally does better when it comes to consumer rights. But then all the competitors doing this may band together and pull a Viasat complaining about “unfair competition” and block importation.

          1. Yep, “We need government protection for our product! The Chinese are selling reasonable-quality tractors that can be repaired by anyone with the knowledge! We want consumers to buy our overpriced tractors that can only be fixed at an exorbitant price! WAAAAAHHH!”

          2. The main leverage against Chinese tractors and farm equipment is the regulations, because they are after all built on rather crude technology – so the governments play protectionism by installing all sorts of arbitrary emissions regulations that requires EGR systems and special filters and catalysts and software that you’re not allowed to override.

        2. I had the same thought before, but its not only the green stuff. For the small ultility tractor market I can see the infux of chinese machinery, but larger equipment like a combine that rivals the cost of purchasing a house will be still be dominated by the large ag equipment manufacturers.

          1. Well the support infrastructure is as important as the equipment itself. Especially something that can’t easily be hauled down to the shop. Others could do this, and probably have since farming is a global affair. The thing is, have the incumbents created enough of a hassle to justify a jump to someone else. Are their enough dissatisfied to maintain an alternative?

          2. The cost of certain expensive sensors, parts shortages, and the recent DEF shortages seem to driven the demand for tier 4 defeat/delete kits in my neck of the woods.

        1. Like eveything, there are good Chinese manufacturers and bad ones. I’m sure their better tractors would stack up well against ones made in Europe/USA.

          Don’t forget, we’re talking about this because Deeres etc. break down a lot can can’t easily be fixed.

          1. zetor tractors

            not everything made in the “glorious red tractor factory” is heavy duty!!

            same with Lada 4WD’s, taking apart a Niva gearbox was horrible, the oil looked like metal flake paint

    2. That is unless those large tractor companies bribe/ use their lobbying power to “work with EPA’s” of countries to “improve” regulations that “benefit” the environment. In order to make it so that if a farmer is using a Chinese tractor and it either is or becomes subject to emissions checks, that the Chinese tractor ends up not meeting standards but the big major brands do pass emissions tests with a majority of their products with minimal tweaking to the systems.

    3. The usual suspects are difficult to deal with anyhow, since they’ve built their businesses around long retail chains starting from the OEM to the wholesale distributor, to the local franchises, each adding their price on top of the sale. Then when something breaks, you go to the local dealer, who takes it up the distributor, who takes it up the OEM… if you have a part that needs replacing, and it’s not in stock somewhere near you, you may have to go chasing the supply chain backwards all across the EU and calling people who don’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs. Last time I had to deal with farm stuff, I had to learn Italian fast.

      The Chinese sell directly to the end user. You need a part, you place an order, and it arrives in the mail. Even if it is a bit “Lucky strong happy part model n. 2928383” sometimes.

  2. here in Oz a certain “reach truck” manufacturer had a whole batch of brand new machines ship with a faulty hydraulic pump, which failed within a few tens of hours operation
    we are talking a few hundred shiny new machines, still under warranty
    the pump was $5k to replace
    they “graciously” offered owners a new pump at cost, to be fitted at the owners expense

    Consumer Affairs was less than impressed

    1. A few years ago, Caterpillar removed the anti-shudder additive from the heavy equipment hydraulic oil put in the systems at the factory. They claimed they hadn’t changed the formulation – but if the hydraulics in your shiny new CAT backhoe or bulldozer were jerking and shuddering like they were about to fall apart, they’d be happy to sell you bottles of additive.

      One construction equipment dealer proved they’d changed the oil by draining the oil from a new machine and one he still had in stock from before they removed the additive. Put the oil from the older machine into the newer one and it was fine. After flushing the hydraulics on the older machine he put the oil in from the newer machine and it rattled and banged just like the newer one.

      Deliberately leaving out vital oil additives just to upsell on the additive that should be included is a downright dirty tactic.

      Imagine if Chevron decided to have their corporate stations sell the raw gasoline without their additive package, and if you wanted the purported benefits of the additive package you had to pay extra.

      All gasoline in the USA starts out identical in composition, in two grades. The gasoline base at any station could come from anyone’s refinery. What makes the difference is the additives pumped into the tanker trucks at pipeline terminals.

      1. “Deliberately leaving out vital oil additives just to upsell on the additive that should be included is a downright dirty tactic.”

        Sort of like (during the 1970s) Ford putting bottom of the line options in the F-100’s and selling what had been the F-100 as “Heavy Duty Half-Ton” F-150’s.

      1. kinda, sorta

        the one I was operating had a bucket for cleaning out poultry shed litter

        best bit was it could “dump” the bucket into a tipper by extending the boom

        the differential steering was great!

        I’ve operated articulated loaders and gotten “stuck” next to walls, really hard situation to get out of

        with the manitou you just flick over to the “other” steering mode and you can sorta drive sideways

        looks weird, feels very strange when driving it that way

    1. Nooooo! Now Bill Gates will Build harvesters that put micro machines in corn to control us all!

      I hope the irony was almost palpable ;-)
      But srsly, please don’t offer more facts where idiots can spin even more conspiracy theories.

    1. I worked on a farm in Central Maryland and we went up to Lancaster PA to purchase hay preservatives(propionic acid) by the tote from an Amish farm supply store colocated on a family farm. They were super-nice people and gave me a tour of their dairy facility(and fed me!). Their equipment – from tractors to the dairy parlor – was top-notch and modern; an order of magnitude more advanced than the equipment and facilities on our farm. It was like grinding mental gears to see a horse-drawn buggy in use beside a brand-new half-million dollar tractor.

      While the Amish are generally painted with the brush of some kind of anti-technology Luddite cult, when it comes to their farming they are every bit technophiles as the big midwestern corporate farms. At least that is the case with all of the Amish families I have dealt with.

      1. The Amish see tools as tools, but they also reject “the evil grid”, (i.e. electrical power supplied by utilities) because it could affect their independence. I think they will see DRM for the “evil” it is.

  3. Tesla is also going down the same route. Despite their claim to be the greener car because it’s electric, their stranglehold on spare parts and even deciding if a car is allowed to be fixed or not means that they effectively negate any ecological benefits. If they brick your car after a repairable prang and tell you to buy a new one, the emissions over the life of the car, due to the manufacturing emissions, goes through the roof. All of a sudden, that old thirsty V8 starts to look rather planet friendly indeed.

    1. Worse once your warranty expires you are closed off from Tesla parts and service. And there is no shop manual available like there is for any other ICE vehicle.

      Parts? Unless you can find a scrapped Tesla you are out of luck.

      1. And even if you find the part on a scrapped Tesla, if it is anything other than purely mechanical (i.e. not on the CAN bus), there’s a good chance you’ll still be out of luck.

    2. Speaking of repairs, don’t you have to be a licensed electrician to operate anything above 50 or 60 Volts?

      In other words, the usual garages are literally not allowed to fix a Tesla anyways.

      1. If you want to put it that way, no mechanic would be able to fix any spark ignition car due to the kilovolt range that the secondary of the ignition circuit runs at.

        I was talking to my friend, who runs his own auto repair business, about what happens if a hybrid comes in. He said that he can repair anything except the high voltage electrical parts as they need special precautions and that work he would send it to an Auto Electrician anyway. Toyota didn’t care if he worked on a Prius, as long as he was a qualified mechanic and didn’t touch the EV parts. All other mechanical repairs and replacements were fine.

    3. Rich Rebuilds and the Electrified Garage on YouTube are building an LS V8 powered Tesla. Sort of a protest against how Tesla treated Rich, despite all the good stuff he’d said about the company and its vehicles. He also didn’t pull any punches, and he was one of the first to rebuild a flood damaged Model S. They canceled his referral code, remotely disabled Supercharging and DC fast charging on his Model S, and sent him a nastygram saying he wasn’t “acting in good faith”.

      Sort of like how Nintendo went after anyone who dared to post anything less than 100% positive reviews of their games.

  4. I love my 1948 Ford 8N tractor. Many parts are NLA, but the aftermarket support is overwhelming. I can make my own parts for it if I need to and buy the rest online or from TSC. I know it’s not the same as owning a large complex tractor, but the principles of it still apply. If I had to choose between a modern comparable tractor and my 8N, I’d take the 8N in a heartbeat because I can fix it cheaply and that is enough justification to put up with its nuances.

  5. An interesting article. As I read the earlier articles, I was aghast.
    Then I started thinking more broadly about the issue. It left me wondering if the “DRM” issue only exists through warranty or for the life of the product. (I apologize if I missed that fact.)

    I am firmly against most DRM schemes – warranty or not, but also know that customers break and miss-use things.

    If John Deere is paying for the part and the repair is under warranty, there is no issue.
    Aside from the invidious aspects, the continuous monitoring process really avoids down time during field work seasons by proactively working to keep problems from growing.

    Once the vendor is no longer financially responsible – then disabling the link and the DRM should be possible if the customer wants.

    I use HP cartridges until the printer warranty expires (No quibbling about issues with Support) and then do what I want.
    I obey the nagging service recommendations on my cars because the warranty contract requires periodic service
    (And I want that service in my records!). Both situations bug me a bit.

    BTW… I managed 250 printers at work, and had a lot of trouble with most “remanufactured” carts. I finally required the 3d party cart guys to do a side by side with a genuine HP part in order to get my business. (Toner transfer and smears from paperclips, for example.) Their problem not HP’s. All replacement parts are not the same, even when it comes to tractors.

    If the risk is yours, you should be able to do as you wish.
    But, It’s unreasonable to expect any vendor to fix secondary issues caused by bad parts or un-approved procedures.

    1. I farm, so did my dad and his dad.they made 15 to 25 bu/ac corn. Maybe 50 if the stars lined up.thanks to the All evil monsanto and all the other high tech ag companies, I make 250 to 300 don’t you just hate technology.

      1. Adapt, I guess. By using a generic driver maybe. (I’m old enough to have a lot of gear that won’t work on Windows 10, or recent copies of MACOS, or any modern OS. I still run Windows XP on one computer, but I don’t allow it to connect to the Internet and don’t install much software anymore.)

        I’d have to do some adaptation on my vehicles if fossil fuel goes away.

        I think the DRM issue is more about being forced to use a particular part, rather than having no parts at all. I can still get parts for my 1948 John Deere. It’s just not smart enough to make me buy them from an authorized dealer.

        When I farmed, 110 bu wheat was considered to be great. The cousin I sold the land to gets the 250.
        I plowed my 200 acres in about three weeks. He plows it in a day with his big red tractor (AC and Internet in the cab too!) He has thousands of acres in production – Big equipment required for a one man operation.

  6. Right-to-repair is just the tip of the Evil iceberg built by greedy MBAs. Today, total-cost-of-ownership (TCO) is driven by recurring maintenance and licensing fees. For example – buy a Cisco router for $5K, after the first year you will be forced to pay hundreds of dollars a year (likely more) in maintenance and license subscription fees. No pay = no support & no security updates. If you stop paying and need support, you will first need to pay for many back-years of missed payments as a penalty. The whole thing is just a protection racket.

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