Grit Meets Gravel

Tasked with ensuring the local economy keeps rolling, the New Madrid County Highway Department hits the grindstone in Missouri

motor grader next to New Madrid water tower

Nestled down in the muggy bootheel of Missouri is the welcoming town of New Madrid. Most famous for the earthquakes of 1811 and 1812, when chimneys hundreds of miles away toppled and the Mississippi River ran backward, the area is characterized by those events still today. The topography created lends itself perfectly to irrigation, and one can find nearly any crop imaginable along New Madrid County’s 600+ miles of road.

I would estimate that 90 percent of our economic base is agriculture and agricultural jobs,” explains Donnie Brown, Highway Engineer for the New Madrid County Highway Department. “And all of those crops aren’t worth anything if the farmers can’t get them out of the field and somewhere to sell them, so it’s very important for us to keep our roads and bridges maintained.” Economic pressures aside, maintaining several hundred miles of road is no small task. Add in the fact that the department went from 35 employees to 20, from seven motor graders to five, and over 90 percent of the roads are gravel, and the importance of working smarter and harder becomes all the more palpable.

“We’ve got some great employees who bring great ideas to the table. We give them good equipment to work with and use our budget smartly.”

Donnie Brown
Highway Engineer, New Madrid County Highway Department

Doing More With Less

“Losing 15 people is a lot. And the expectations for keeping the roads maintained have not just stayed the same, they’re higher now. So there are many fewer workers with a lot more work to do. Finding ways to do that is tough on a tight budget.” So how does the department manage to get it done? “We’ve got some great employees who bring great ideas to the table. We give them good equipment to work with and use our budget smartly. We’re lucky to have all three of those components to take care of our roads and our farming community.”

In addition to three John Deere excavators and three motor graders, the department just added two new 770GP Graders to its fleet. Featuring state-of-the-art armrest-mounted fingertip controls, a steering wheel included as standard equipment, and cabs loaded with creature comforts, these graders are designed to make any operator more effective. It’s 95 deg. out today with 100-percent humidity — when you get in the seat and the first thing you do is start sweating, it’s not long before the quality of work suffers. But with these machines — the nice cab, comfortable seats, good air conditioner — these guys are going just as hard at the end of a 10-hour day as they were at the beginning.”

Comfortable Operator, Quality Work

Having driven motor graders for over 12 years, operator Cedric Wood is appreciative of the updates to the 770GP. “There was a learning curve going from the levers to the fingertip controls, but they definitely make my day easier. Everything I need is right there —  I can just sit back and do my job.” And it’s not just Wood’s on-the-clock duties that benefit from this ease of operation. “It used to be I’d go home and have to sit  in the recliner all night to recover. With this new machine I have the energy to keep moving and spend more time with my family. Can’t complain there.”

The operator-friendly features include improved serviceability as well. “Even right down to filling it up with diesel or checking the oil — you used to have to climb on the machine, and any time you’re climbing around, there’s the chance for someone to get injured,” explains Brown. “But everything now is down at ground level, so maintenance isn’t only faster, it’s safer, too.”

Making the Grade

When it comes to choosing its equipment, the department doesn’t have it quite as easy as “point and purchase” and has learned a thing or two from experience. “As a government entity we have to undergo a bidding process. Over the years we’ve owned nearly every brand of equipment out there, and what we’ve found is that you get what you pay for. You may save $20,000 upfront on a machine, but end up spending $50,000 servicing it and replacing different parts.

“We think John Deere builds graders knowing that we may have the machine 15 years from now and that we will still need it to be reliable. That reliability is the biggest selling factor for me — downtime means our roads are deteriorating. Knowing I can get on the phone and someone from Deere will take care of us within a few hours is critical. One thing that keeps us coming back is Erb Equipment’s service department — they’re second to none. Customer service is excellent, as far as I’m concerned.”

The New Madrid County Highway Department is serviced by Erb Equipment of Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

New Madrid County Highway Department does more with less to keep the highways in working order.