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International Harvester enthusiast stays in the black by using decades-old red iron

LeRoy and Rosemary Helbling of Mandan, North Dakota, farm with International Harvester equipment that is mostly 30 to 40 years old, kept in pristine condition. They raise crops primarily as feed for their Hereford herd of cows.

A man in a faded red jacket stands in a shop, flanked by decades-old red International Harvester farm equipment.
LeRoy Helbling, 61, of Mandan, North Dakota, farms with a collection of vintage, red International Harvester equipment he’s collected since he graduated from Mandan High School in 1980 and joined the family’s farm that was established by Germans from Russia in 1914. Photo taken Oct. 15, 2022, Mandan, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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MANDAN, N.D. — Inflation and the cost of new farm equipment is a common complaint of farmers today, but LeRoy Helbling, stays “in the black" by farming with experienced red equipment.

LeRoy and Rosemary Helbling are quintessentially conservative — raising oats, corn and alfalfa, exclusively for cattle feed. Besides their red equipment, they specialize in red-and-white Hereford cattle. Even dog “Axel” is a reddish-brown Border collie.

An IH logo is on an old, red farm truck, while an old tractor packs chopped corn into a hillside trench silo.
The International Harvester IH logo adorns one of the farm trucks on the LeRoy and Rosemary Helbling farm at Mandan, North Dakota, used to dump corn that was chopped on Oct. 15, 2022. Neighbor Jim Unkenholz is packing it into a trench silo. Photo taken Oct. 15, 2022, Mandan, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“You do your best and let Mother Nature try her best, I guess. Some years it works, some years it don’t,” LeRoy said. He said his vintage equipment parts are susceptible to inflation, but he isn’t worried about sticker prices for anything new.

Agweek rode along when LeRoy when he was planting oats on May 24, 2022, using a 986-model IH tractor, which his family bought new in 1978. He was using the same tractor with a pull-behind corn chopper on Oct. 15, 2022.

A fall operation of packing chopped corn into a trench silo in the foreground is dwarfed by the broad prairie pasture landscape beyond.
LeRoy Helbling’s farm-ranch includes a hillside trench silo packed with an International Harvester Hydro 86 tractor. The area can raise a decent corn crop with 8 inches to 10 inches of growing season precipitation, but not if it gets excessively hot, Helbling says. Photo taken Oct. 15, 2022, Mandan, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Mandan had significant hail on June 20, 2022, and then again on July 21, 2022, so the oats were flattened and the corn impaired.

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“It really set us back, so this year of course it’s all going into the silage pile,” LeRoy said of the corn.

Despite the weather, he expects a sufficient crop to feed the cattle through the winter.

A man laughs in a farm cap and faded red jacket, flanked by an unusual "Super H" 1954 red tractor.
Farming and maintaining vintage International Harvester farm vehicles and equipment –- including his “parade model” Super H at right -- makes LeRoy Helbling, 61, a happy farmer/rancher. Photo taken Oct. 15, 2022, Mandan, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Much of LeRoy’s equipment is 1978 or earlier. He estimates machinery costs for putting in a crop are about one-third of what they were if he were buying new equipment. He’s heard a rule-of-thumb that new tractors run about $1,000 per horsepower. ($100,000 for a 100 hp tractor.) That’s gone up, he thinks.

A farmer works on a 1978-vintage corn chopper, between loads during the 2022 harvest. A church yard is in the backgrond.
LeRoy Helbling on Oct. 15, 2022, checks on his 1978-vintage International Harvester tractor and corn chopper of the same year. The field surrounds the Rural Union Association Methodist Cemetery, about 16 miles southwest of Mandan, North Dakota. Photo taken Oct. 15, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

To Helbling, using the old stuff is both practical of pride and fun. He recognizes the benefits of new electronics and precision equipment but is unwilling to pay the costs.

Yes, a fellow has to “pay attention” when he’s seeding, he said.

“You don’t read a book, you know, while you’re seeding or anything like that,” he said. “You try to make the rows nice and straight.”

A man makes a quick weld on a plate on his corn chopper in the middle of the 2022 corn harvest.
LeRoy Helbling on Oct. 15, 2022, at his Mandan, North Dakota farm, welds a temporary fix on plate protecting the blower housing on an 1978 International Harvester corn chopper.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

And yes, there’s maintenance, but he can fix it himself.

“The newer stuff breaks down, too,” he said. “Fix as I go, of course, and in the fall of the year everything gets a good cleaning and going through. If there’s anything major it goes into the shop for the winter."

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He’s had a heated shop for about 15 years.

Helbings since 1914

LeRoy, 61, grew up helping his parents, Jacob (“Jack”) and Rose on the farm. His grandfather, Peter V. Helbling, established the farm in 1914. The family is of Germans from Russia stock. After graduating from Mandan High School in 1980, LeRoy joined his parents on the farm. He and Rosemary were married in 1986.

A farmer walks back to the tractor after adjusting the corn planter and Hydro-dump silage wagon.
LeRoy Helbling strides back to the tractor after maintaining his 1970s vintage corn chopper at the farm/ranch in Morton County, North Dakota. Photo taken Oct. 15, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Helbling family were loyal to Minneapolis-Moline tractors until the company was acquired by White in 1963. White dropped the brand in 1974. AGCO purchased White in 1991.

Helblings switched over to "red" International tractors in about 1978. (IH merged with Case in 1986. Case-IH merged with New Holland in 1999. It all merged under under CNH Industrial N.V. in 2013.)

Corn at right is surprisingly resilient after being beaten down by a June and July hail. The red Hydro-Dump wagon is disappearing over the hill at left.
A red International Harvester silage Hy-dump wagon disappears over the horizon on the LeRoy Helbling farm southwest of Mandan, North Dakota, on Oct. 15, 2022, as it chews its way through a corn crop that survived despite two bouts with hail.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

And LeRoy simply stuck with the IH equipment.

“It was economical to run, easy to work on, LeRoy said. “No computers of any kind, because it’s 1978 and older. Everything is self-explanatory when it breaks down.”

In his 20s, LeRoy collected toy farm equipment — all International, of course — but eventually became a collector of the "real thing."

LeRoy’s farm equipment starts with his 1954 “Super H” tractor, which he uses at times for farming. Primarily, though, it’s a “parade” piece used in “tractor treks.” “The last one made,” as far as he knows. They called it “super," he said, because it has 36 horsepower and could travel 7 mph, instead of the 26 horsepower with the “straight H,” which went 5 mph.

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A tractor packs corn silage into a trench silo, and is perched atop the pile.
Jim Unkenholz, a neighbor to farmer/rancher LeRoy Helbling of rural Mandan, North Dakota, on Oct. 15, 2022, uses a tractor to pack chopped corn into a bunker for winter feeding.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

LeRoy has a lot of '78-model tractors and trucks and pickups from 1959 to 1979.

“I like to keep stuff that I can work on myself,” LeRoy said. “I’m not too ‘electric’ oriented. I like the mechanical part — turning wrenches, having stuff that doesn’t have the electric solenoids to run one thing or another.”

The tractor lineup includes a 384, 584, 986, a 1086, He has a Hydro 86 tractor and a 3488 Hydro, both so-named because they transmit energy using hydraulic fluid.

A vintage red pickup tractor climbs a hill of chopped corn, which is saved for cattle feed.
Jim Unkenholz on Oct. 15, 2022, packs chopped corn into a storage bunker using a International Harvester Hydro 86 tractor on the LeRoy and Rosemary Helbling farm and ranch, in Morton County, North Dakota, southwest of Mandan.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Red all the way

LeRoy plants with a 6200 IH drill that dates back to 1978. He has a 770 IH plow, packer and drill implement, dating to 1978. He uses a 5400 no-till grain-soybean “special” drill.

A farmer pours oats into a planter.
LeRoy Helbling uses a bucket to hand-pour oat seed into his planter, from an International Harvester B-150 truck that his father bought new in 1959. Helbling, 61, has an early 1990s self-propelled combine, but the rest of his equipment is from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Photo taken May 24, 2022, Mandan, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

To spray, he has a small International sprayer he puts behind an IH 384 tractor. The three-point IH sprayer holds 150 gallons of water with a 42-foot boom.

“I’ve never seen another one around like it,” he said. IH dealers are skeptical it’s an International, but he shows them the tag and serial number.

The 986 IH tractor pulls a 720 IH corn cutter, followed by a Hy-Dump (hydraulic) wagon.The tractor has power steering and live hydraulics — high-speed 7 mph fourth gear.

A farmer's hand in glove smooths oats in a planter box.
LeRoy Helbling on May 24, 2022, uses his gloved hand to level oat seed in a planter at his Mandan, North Dakota, farm/ranch. The seed germinated but the crop was flattened by hail. Most of it was baled.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

For other harvest tasks harvest, LeRoy has an IH potato digger, hay rakes and mowers. He has a Case-IH round baler from the mid-1980s. His combine is a 914 pull-type — also a 1978 model. In the wings is a 660 Case-IH axial flow combine, which was new in 1994, with a pickup head attachment.

A planter moves across a large field, seeding oats.
LeRoy Helbling plants oats south of Mandan, North Dakota, on May 24, 2022, with his vintage International Harvester tractor and planter. The oats started out with moisture from an April blizzard and then 3.5 inches of rain but fell victim to two hail storms in June and July.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Helblings are also traditional in the cattle. Their cows are “purebred” but without registration papers. The bulls are registered Herefords. The breed established beef cattle in the U.S. in the early 1900s, but Angus became dominant after the 1970s.

“Herefords are great — easy-keeping, good-doing,” he said, “Herefords, for the most part, are a pretty docile breed.”

Back to the future

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers members, in a survey released Sept. 29, 2022, said its manufacturer members are dealing with supply chain, inflation and interest cost issues.

Agricultural equipment companies are positive after “growth” in “whole goods” more than the “parts segment” the past 12 months, the survey said. But AEM said many members expect to face “headwinds.” Chiefly, more than half expect “normal or above-normal growth” in manufacturing in 2023. Half think supply chain issues will subside at the end of 2023, and the rest expect complications beyond that.

Hearing this, Helbling thinks his future is in the machines of the past.

A man stands besides a vintage farm truck, dating 44 years back.
LeRoy Helbling, 61, a farmer-rancher from Mandan, North Dakota, has a half-dozen International Harvester farm trucks he uses regularly, including this LoadStar 1700, a 1978 model. Photo taken Oct. 15, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Price hikes for parts seem “insane,” but he feels relatively protected from inflation by using old equipment. It hasn’t been hard to find parts for the equipment.

“No, it seems like the older it gets, the easier it is to find parts,” he said, noting the local CNH Industrial is helpful. “Once in awhile we get something from a salvage yard, but not very often.”

For the 1954 Super H, for example, he can get pretty much anything.

“I suppose they keep making parts for the guys who are collectors and fix them up, and so on,” he said.

A farmer shows an International Harvester refrigerator, still standing and working in his garage. It was made in 1951, and the family got it when rural electrification came to the farm.
LeRoy Helbling’s family bought this International Harvester refrigerator in 1951, the year Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative brought electricity to to the farm. The machine (and another 1954 model on the place) still work and have never needed an extra charge of freon. Photo taken Oct. 15, 2022, Mandan, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“I feel it’s better for the bottom line, you know,” he said. “I’m not a big operation. I take the time, fix it, and keep it going. I don’t need a combine with a 40-foot header.”

LeRoy said he knows of a few others in Morton County and elsewhere that use smaller equipment of the same vintage, but he’s the only full-time operation he knows of operating with vintage equipment.

“Most everything is big nowadays — big horsepower, big seeders," LeRoy said. “I always felt, ‘Do as much as you can, by yourself, and stop there.’”

He wouldn’t judge anyone who wants the new, though.

“Everybody’s got their own opinion.”

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