Picture this: It’s 5 p.m. on a Friday, your hay is cut and lined up in windrows, and torrential rain is expected Saturday morning. You’re prepared to work through the night if necessary to get your crop off the ground and into the shed before the rain comes – but your equipment has other plans. The tractor won’t start, your baler needs a part to function, and your bale wagon is out of commission. As with this example, the true cost of equipment breakdowns is often far higher than the dollars spent on parts to get up and running again.

Wilder brett
Area Extension Educator – Farm Business Management / University of Idaho

Causes of equipment breakdowns

When a piece of machinery or equipment breaks down, it generally falls into one of three major categories: normal wear and tear, operator error or catastrophic failure – not associated with normal wear and tear.

1. Normal wear and tear is to be expected

Operators can reduce downtime by taking care to perform routine maintenance before starting into large tasks. While each individual’s maintenance plan will differ based on machine use, general best practices are to ensure you’re greasing all lube points; checking engine oil and other fluids; regularly checking fuel filters, chains, gearboxes, belts, etc., for excessive wear; and replacing worn parts as needed.
If we keep up with regular maintenance and can avoid major mishaps, repair costs are fairly straightforward to estimate – and you can do so using a good machinery cost calculator. The American Society of Agricultural and Biologic Engineers publishes estimates based on average costs to real producers – the most recently reported annual repair factors ranged from around 0.29% to 8.80% of the original machine cost – with most equipment falling in the 2% to 4% range (Table 1).

2. Operator error

Operator error is a highly technical term for breakdowns that occur from avoidable mistakes. These are mistakes that happen on every farm at some point or another, generally from failure to read the manual, improper maintenance, improper storage, ignoring warning signals, overrunning machines, untrained operators, impatience or distractions.

3. Catastrophic failure 

Catastrophic failure is used to describe unexpected and unavoidable breakdowns that happen from mechanical or electronic failures. In addition to the equipment you drive, mechanical and electrical failures can (and do) occur in irrigation equipment, boilers, furnaces, refrigerants and other stationary pieces of equipment.


The bad news: With technological advancements and newer models of machinery, electrical and mechanical failures are far more common. More gadgets, features and tools mean more points where failure is possible.

The good news: Many insurance companies offer an “equipment breakdown endorsement” that can cover direct physical losses, loss of income and/or extra expenses that occur as a result of this type of breakdown. Talking to a local insurance agent, this type of coverage is commonly utilized where sophisticated irrigation systems are in place or in livestock operations, especially dairies, where many mechanical water and cooling systems are employed.

Added costs of equipment breakdowns

Regardless of why equipment breaks down, downtime adds additional costs to your operation. These costs will vary greatly by timing, crop and severity, but are all frustrating and can add up quickly. The big areas to watch out for are as follows.

1. Delayed planting

Breakdowns that cause your crop to get in the ground late and miss out on crucial growing degree days can have a significant impact on both crop yield and quality. A study out of Ontario, Canada, showed that, for their region, every day delayed past the optimum seeding day for winter wheat resulted in a 1.1 bushel per acre loss in yield. At $7 per bushel, that’s a loss of $7.70 per acre per day or $53.90 per acre per week before accounting for any loss in premium from the impact to quality.

2. Delayed harvest

Late-season breakdowns can be even more devastating – as the saying goes, “Timing is everything.” Even a 12-hour breakdown can allow time for a rainstorm and force you to wait multiple additional days for harvest or put your crop through a mechanical drying process – both of which are expensive options.

3. Extra man hours

Whether it’s your own time or a hired operator, someone was at the farm to run that equipment when it broke down, and the clock is still ticking. Additional time spent running to town (or sometimes across multiple state lines) for the right part adds up in a hurry. The more specialized the equipment and the more severe the breakdown, the more expensive this category will be.

4. For custom operators – loss of income and reputation

When you’re counting on running equipment for someone else and you have a breakdown, the impact can be even more severe. Not only has that breakdown impacted a customer, but you’re not getting paid while your equipment sits idle. Worse, you can lose the business to a competitor and, even if breakdowns are unavoidable, you can develop a reputation as unreliable when it matters and see loss of revenues for your custom hire business in the form of lost business to your peers.