Flashing red lights in the rear-view mirror are enough to make anyone cringe. For custom operators, however, getting pulled over isn't necessarily a matter of breaking the law. It could be a misinterpretation of it.

Road regulations regarding vehicle size and ag vs. commercial use are ambiguous and outdated, say Chris Hartleben, a custom harvester, and Dana Cook, a custom manure hauler.

Some such regulations are interpreted by state troopers one way one day and another way the next, they add. Both are working to update Wisconsin Department of Transportation regulations concerning implements used by farmers, custom harvesters and nutrient applicators.

“The rules were written back when it was a John Deere B going down the road with a 4' mower,” says Hartleben, from Wittenberg, WI. “The regs need to be updated and changed.”

Some of those rules have to do with vehicle weight and size — both of which have increased in ag equipment over the last 20-30 years, says Cook. He runs Cook's Countryside Trucking, North Freedom, WI, and is president of Professional Nutrient Applicators of Wisconsin.

“In Wisconsin, maximum vehicle weight is 80,000 lbs, weighing tractor and implement together,” he says. “You take your tractor with a grain cart or a dump wagon behind it, and you've probably got 40,000 lbs. So you'll only be able to legally haul half a load.”

Cook hauls manure, not only in Wisconsin, but across state borders, into and from Illinois and Minnesota. He says Wisconsin isn't the only state with antiquated, confusing regulations. In fact, he's been stopped, not only for implement weight or size issues, but also for operating a commercial motor vehicle instead of an “implement of husbandry.”

Implements of husbandry usually are considered “equipment or machinery designed for agricultural purposes, used exclusively in the conduct of agricultural operations and used principally off the highway,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Hartleben, who also cash crops, is between the proverbial rock and a hard place. “When am I a custom operator and when am I a farmer? When I haul feed for my farm, I'm a farmer; but if I haul for the guy across the road, I'm a commercial operator.

“I'm spending $3,000 per truck per year for a commercial license and half the time I'm doing my own farm work,” he adds. “Is that a commercial vehicle or an implement of husbandry?”

Hartleben stresses that he doesn't want to get out of paying his fair share. He'd just like some consistent regulations so there are no misinterpretations between custom operators and troopers.

The same goes for paying tax on road fuel — farmers don't pay the tax because their implements, for the most part, are driven off-road. But how much fuel tax should someone like Hartleben — who estimates his machinery runs off-road 60% of the time — pay?

“We need every city and county in the state to look at regulations in the same way,” he says. “Consistency is the key here.”

That's what Cook's organization has been working for the past few years. A recent administration change has slowed the process. But Cook is optimistic that the state legislature will take action, now that his group has joined forces with Wisconsin Custom Operators, Inc., and Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.

Both men hope for an implement of husbandry license plate and a regulation that defines what such an implement really is.