Big Bud tractors, the white articulated tractors with huge tires that can plant sizeable acres of crops, are coming back.
Ron Harmon, owner of Big Equipment Co., LLC in Havre, Mont., and the builder of the largest tractor in the world, the Big Bud 16V-747, said he would be custom building the new Big Bud tractors for farmers with his partner, Rome Plow Company of Cedartown, Ga.
“We at Big Equipment, along with our partners, Rome Plow Co., in Cedartown, Ga., are going to be building the first new Big Bud tractors since 1991,” Harmon said.
The Big Bud 700 was unveiled at the CON/AGG 2023 construction trade show in Las Vegas. It will have all Caterpillar drive parts and that is why Caterpillar wanted it introduced at the show.
Big Equipment Co. has led the ag industry in rebuilding and custom-building older tractors for farmers, many of them Big Buds. Without computerized systems, these tractors work the fields, pulling drills and planting acres of farmland for decades after they were manufactured.
Rome Plow Co., a builder of ag and construction equipment, has been well-known as a leader in setting rugged quality standards for large tillage equipment for more than 90 years.
Big Equipment and Rome will install powerful transmissions and other components that the mining industry uses in its big machinery into the new Big Bud tractors, which means that the tractors will last a long time.
“The new Big Bud is going to have a Cat (Caterpillar) engine, Cat transmission, Cat axle, and we are going to use the heaviest axles used in the farm industry ever, including heavier than the 747,” Harmon said. “They are axles out of a 988 loader, so we are using really heavy-duty components that have been used about 20,000 hours.”
The control systems and components are not only heavy-duty enough to work in trucks and machines used in the mining industry, but they are also accessible to every farmer and repair shop – not just the manufacturers and dealers.
“Rome is involved for the same reasons I am involved – we’re going to finally go back and build an ag tractor with parts available worldwide,” Harmon said. “If you take an 18-liter Cat engine today, there are a lot of suppliers that make parts for that 18-liter engine. Who else is doing that in the ag industry? Absolutely nobody.”
The new Big Buds will have a heavy-duty 1.5-inch steel frame, stronger than any tractor on the market. The frame is built first and the components slide in, not the other way around.
That is different from how most tractors are made today.
Farm machinery manufacturers today often plan what axles, engine, transmission and other components they want to use in a new tractor.
“The last thing they do is build a frame around those particular selected components,” Harmon said, adding the components are tied into the frame and can’t be easily be moved to be repaired.
Typically, after farm manufacturers build a tractor, they will only test it for a limited amount of time before the tractor is produced, according to Harmon.
“By the time a tractor has 10,000 hours on it, most tractors today are considered ‘on their last legs’ in the ag industry,” he said, noting that there are Big Buds out there that have 30,000-40,000 hours on them.
The new Big Buds will also have cabs that fold back hydraulically like a cab over a truck, so the components will be easy to remove. That way, when a part goes out, farmers will be able to remove it and take it to their repair shop in town or find a replacement part and put it in themselves on the farm.
Harmon believes the power to repair the tractor should be in the hands of the farmers themselves because he grew up on a farm located between Havre and Chinook, Mont., and he knows the realities of farming and what farmers need.
Growing up on a farm
“I was a farm kid originally back in the 1950s, and then, my dad moved to town and built a truck stop,” Harmon said.
His uncle was as service station operator and felt there needed to be a truck stop in Havre.
“He was right; there needed to be one, so our family bought six acres on the corner of Highway 2 and Highway 87 back in 1958, and built a truck stop,” he said.
In 1961, William Hensler of Havre purchased two acres of land from Harmon’s dad, and built Wagner Inc., in order to build the first articulated (the bend in the middle meant there could be equal-sized tires in the front and rear to turn the corners with) tractor, called Wagner tractors.
“I was kind of involved back in those days because when we were working on trucks at my dad’s truck stop, our support for mechanic needs was at Wagner, Inc. Wagner used a lot of the same engines and transmissions that over-the-road trucks use,” he said.
After Wagner Inc.’s ag tractor business was sold to John Deere, Hensler and Bud Nelson renamed the business Northern Manufacturing Co., and they started manufacturing Big Bud tractors in 1969.
Nelson was the designer of the Big Bud tractors, but he was really a mechanic. He built the Big Bud HN250 like a mechanic would, which is why the tractors have easy access to the parts to maintain and repair.
“Bud Nelson put the radiator, the engine, and the transmission on a skid system so the components would slide out easily. And he also did something that only we do today: he made the cab fold back hydraulically like a cab over truck. You could jack the cab back over the rear frame,” Harmon said. “You were totally unrestricted on fixing or repairing the tractor.”
In the 1960s, Harmon joined the military, and when he returned, he went back to helping his dad at the truck stop. He was collecting fuel bills.
“One of them was a guy that owned a motorcycle shop in town. And in part, he traded his equity out of the cycle shop to help pay my dad’s bill. I ended up being in the motorcycle business, which was just up the road from the truck stop,” Harmon said.
In 1974, Harmon sold his cycle business and bought out Hensler and Nelson, who needed to sell.
Harmon renamed the company Big Bud Tractor’s and continued building Big Buds until 1984.
“That’s what put me in the tractor business. Hensler and Nelson had built around 20 tractors at that point and were just selling them locally,” he said.
Tulare Farm Show
Harmon knew the key to a successful business was to sell more widely – even nationally and internationally. He decided to take one of the Big Buds down to a worldwide farm show, the Tulare Farm Show in Tulare, Calif.
“I took a Big Bud HN250 down there – just trying to figure out the market for these tractors,” Harmon said.
As a new vendor not knowing the territory, Harmon didn’t get a choice spot. Well-known farm equipment manufacturers were placed closer to the center of the show, while Harmon was stuck way out in a plowed field with a bunch of extra equipment.
“I was out there and I’m thinking, ‘Oh geez, nobody is going to come out here.’ It had been expensive to come down here and be at the show,” he said.
In those days before the internet, not many farmers outside the region where they were built knew what Big Buds were and what they could do.
“But a few people showed up that morning and stopped by the tractor. The big deal for them was they didn’t know if I partially tore the cab off because the cab was folded back over the rear frame,” he said. “When they asked, ‘What happened to your cab?’ I said, “Well, the cab actually folds back.”
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Farmers liked that idea, and by the end of the day, all of the 500 brochures about the tractor were gone. The second day, Harmon had 1,000 brochures printed out, and by the end of that day and half of the next, those were gone. He had 2,000 more printed out and it got him through most of the show.
“I came back from that show a little overwhelmed, I have to say,” Harmon said. “After that, I started increasing production.”
Harmon started flying around in his small plane and selling Big Buds to farmers with a lot of acres to plant. He even sold a Big Bud to a big cattle rancher in Australia.
As a result of one of the California farm shows, the Rossi brothers, big cotton farmers in California, asked Harmon if he would custom-build them a Big Bud with a lot of horsepower – more than on the market at that time – and one that was capable of deep ripping all their ground every year.
“The Rossi brothers were ripping a third of their ground every year, but they wanted a tractor that could rip all of it every year. The ground was irrigated and it would become compacted. If it wasn’t ripped, it wouldn’t get good production,” Harmon said.
Building Big Bud 747
Along the way of building the Rossi brothers the Big Bud 16V-747, Harmon learned a lot about tractors.
Nelson gave him some good advice, telling him, “Most manufacturers only want to use their own components in their tractors, so those components can only be purchased and repaired at their shops or approved shops.”
Harmon did not want to own the components and felt they should be able to be purchased anywhere.
Nelson also told him, “The tractor should weigh a hundred pounds per horsepower, so you might as well build the weight into it.”
“In building the minimum basic weight into the tractor when we make it, it gives us more options to build it better,” Harmon said.
At present, the 747 has LSW 1400 tires, which are approximately 50 inches wide on 46-inch wheels that are mounted on the same axles found in a mining industry’s loader, 85,000-pound Clark axles.
“The tires were interesting. I needed eight tires to get the horsepower to the ground. I went to tire companies and they said they needed to know how many tires I would need because they had to make the molds. I said, ‘Right now, I only need eight,’ and they wanted me to pay for the molds,” Harmon said, adding that would have been cost prohibitive. “I called United Tire in Canada and they saved my bacon. I said, ‘I’m building this big tractor and I need eight of your tires, but I need ag lugs on them.’”
The tires were 8 feet tall and 37.5 inches wide and lasted more than 18,000 hours.
In the end, United Tire gave him a deal and he paid $25,000 for a quarter cost of the molds to get the set of tires, and they put the name of the tire company on the tires as advertisement.
When United Tire sold out, Titan became their new tire company.
Visiting the mining industry
When building the Big Bud 747, Harmon, who had grown up around farm machinery and trucks, went to the mining industry to see how they kept mining trucks in operation decades after they were initially built. He made an appointment at the mine.
“I told the equipment manager at the mine that I needed to build a 1,000 horsepower tractor, and he was very nice about it. I asked, ‘What do you got around here that is around a 1,000 horsepower?’”
The manager pointed Harmon to an old rock mining truck that rolled by that was an IH truck from the Payloader Division Mining Division of International Harvester.
“He told me that those trucks have 16V92 Detroit engines in them,” Harmon said.
He noticed all the mining trucks had powerful components in them, and even though they might not look new on the outside, they ran just as powerfully decades after they were built.
A Detroit engine is the engine Harmon decided to put into the 747.
“I decided to buy a 16V92 engine and a twin 2610 transmission and 85,000-pound Clark axles for the 747, because I don’t have to be a rocket scientist nor an engineer to know that they’re going to work just fine for many thousands of hours,” he said. “These were all the components that are in these mining trucks that keep lasting forever, so we’re going to take the same components and put them in a tractor and it’s going to last forever because all components are readily rebuildable.”
After the Rossi brothers bought and used the Big Bud 747, they told Harmon the tractor paid for itself in one year.
After Harmon stopped manufacturing Big Bud tractors, he renamed the business Big Equipment. Big Equipment’s skilled staff and Harmon turned to custom rebuilding older tractors and making them new again for farmers.
“Here at Big Equipment, we build big equipment for farms. We custom-build tractors and rebuild tractors that keep ordinary farmers in business, the kind of tractors people liked to buy 30 years ago,” Harmon said.
Brand new for the ag industry
In 2023, Harmon and Rome Industries want the new Big Buds to have a new lasting legacy for farmers.
They are building the Big Buds with sturdy components and a strong frame to last a long time.
“We’re using old technology in the mining industry, but it’s going to be brand new for the ag industry,” he said.
The components will be readily replaceable, especially the engine.
“I can go from Detroit to Caterpillar to Cummings to a diesel engine in Germany, because all engines fit,” he said. The same can be said for the transmission, the axles, and all the components. “We can use any engine because we aren’t building the frame around the engine. The frame is built first.”
Both farmers and construction companies will be able to use the new Big Bud tractors.
Harmon will spread the weight of the tractor, which can be upwards of 70,000 pounds, from the back to the front of the tractor, distributing it evenly. It works like an equalizer trailer hitch, and this will primarily be for scrapers and construction. Most tractors have the weight just in the back.
“It’s something that we’ve been aware of for a long time, but that hasn’t ever really been put on a tractor. But we want to put it on our new Big Buds as an option,” Harmon said.
Big Equipment Co. and Rome Industries will be fulfilling some farmers’ dreams. They will be custom-building some very special Big Buds that will offer components that no other tractors do today, and they will last a mighty long time.
“If the manufacturer is wanting to control the parts and service business, then build the tractor the way they are currently being built,” he said. “If you want to put the farmer in control of the parts service business, then Big Bud is building the tractors correctly.
“I think the end of the story is the beginning of a brand-new story here,” Harmon concluded.