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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”