Co Down agri contractors share their experience at meeting

The contractors panel faced a few testing questions
The contractors panel faced a few testing questions

The November 2016 meeting of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers (IAgrE) was based on a discussion forum about agricultural contract work when two generations of three Co. Down families kindly agreed to share their knowledge and experience of the subject.

The participants were Mr John Dan O’Hare and his sons Danny and Mark (Katesbridge), Mr Roy Townley and his son James (Ballygowan), Mr. Francis Newell and his son David (Kilkeel).

The discussions were based around the following topics:-

Slurry work

All of the panel participants are involved in slurry spreading. Tank mixing, at the end of the housing period, is a high risk venture because of the amount of poisonous gas given off during the process.

All three groups, aware of the need to follow strict safety guidelines for this work, told of the procedures followed for the range of buildings involved. It was noted that around 30% of the cattle buildings do not have outside mixing points. Some customers carry out the mixing themselves leaving the contractor to draw off the tank contents for field spreading. Although the system of the tanker carrying its load for spreading in the field is still common other methods are also now available to suit a wider range of conditions.

The service now often involves the transport tankers staying on the road to transfer their loads to a field tanker on flotation tyres. To minimise nutrient loss, many customers also now favour full-width, low-level applications from a folding boom on the tanker. The Townley family now also include the option of using an umbilical system. This involves pumping either directly from the farm yard tanks, or a mobile reception tank, through a trailing hose to the tractor-mounted spreading boom in the field.

Field spreading was previously allowed over a longer season, when land and weather conditions were favourable, but environmental regulations now restrict this to the main growing seasons with the closed season from 15th October to 31st January. The sharp cut off has increased pressure on contractors to carry out intensive work over extended hours. This seasonal concentration now has implications for staffing with overwork at times changing quickly to lay offs.

Hedge cutting

This operation is also seasonal for environmental reasons. The contract services offered include both flail trimming and circular saw work for heavier growth. The O’Hare family are the only members of the panel currently also running a tractor mounted saw. One of the I Agr E members also described the service which he provides with a saw mounted on a tracked excavator.

There was some discussion around clearing debris on roadways after the flail machines and it was agreed that a rotary brush collector was the most effective tool for this job. The option of a fan system is less effective, especially in wet conditions.

Grass work

This is a significant operation with all of the three families running high capacity self-propelled forage harvester teams. Their season runs from mid May to late autumn.

The trend is now to field wilt, for higher dry matter silage, with around 40% of customers choosing this option. Previously it was common practice to mow and group two rows into one in for the harvester.

It was interesting to hear that although tractor powered mower combinations are still in use, all of the panel members were enthusiastic about their self-propelled mower combinations (Krone Big Ms and a reverse-drive Claas Xerion) because of their performance and manoeuverability in fields of all shapes and sizes. Wind rower widths of up to 15m are used.

In response to a question about trailer control and stability on hills in the Co Down drumlin countryside, the point was made that not only does gathering from a wide row minimise the amount of travel by the harvester and trailers but it also allows the safest routes to be chosen.

The latest forage harvesters offer more technical features to save fuel by engine speed management and ongoing refinements for servicing and adjustment. The preferred chop length is around 40mm, or shorter for material going to an anaerobic digester. A camera on the discharge spout is an impressive aid for the driver to control accurate trailer filling and the most recent harvester models can use these images for automatic spout control. Some harvesters can measure DM and forage yield on the move.

Although, in theory, this could form the basis of charging per tonne rather than per acre panel members were agreed that their customers were not ready for that yet! Wrapped round-bale silage is also well established in the area. One of the panel members also bales high density square packs for wrapping for haylage as favoured by equestrian customers.

The silage trailers used are from local manufacturers and there was some discussion around the suspension systems and load sensing to improve braking on field surfaces. Longer trailers require more tipping clearance and the group were well aware of the need to check for hazards, like overhead power cables, around yards.

All of the panel provide forage maize harvesting services and were happy to report that the dry late autumn weather had made field conditions better than usual. They find that the area of maize planted each year is influenced by the customers’ experiences of the previous year’s crop.

Cultivation and planting work

All of the panel are involved with cultivation work involving establishment of crops both for customers and their own enterprises. The Newell family grow potatoes with extensive experience of destoning, planting and two-row harvesting systems. The amount and size range of stones in Co Down soils is always a challenge and the meeting discussed local innovative ideas for dealing with the conditions.

Crop spraying

Apart from reference to the current requirements for operator training and sprayer testing this topic was not discussed in detail.

Cereal harvesting

Barley, wheat and oats are the main combinable crops in the area with the latest combines capable of harvesting up to 800 acres during a good season. There is also positive experience of successfully harvesting field beans but peas are more difficult.

Hillside versions of new combines are popular to minimise grain losses. The Townley family, now run a combine on tracks and report good performance and smooth travel on both field and road surfaces at up to 40kph.

Associated services such as grain drying, rolling or crimping are also provided.

Machine choice, service and replacement policies

Between them, the panel have a lot of capital invested in up-to-date machinery. The range of main brands represented are market leaders with local dealership support.

Front line harvesting equipment tended to be replaced after several years depending on reliability, hours on the clock and trade in values. These values are influenced by factors like the exchange rate, price of new machinery and export demand for used equipment. Hire purchase is still favoured over leasing. The opportunity to observe new models and techniques in field demonstrations, and other visits, is a valued way of keeping up to date and planning new purchases.

A good dealer was considered to be one who strongly supported the product with up-to-date knowledge and technician skills, quick and efficient resolution of updates/warranty issues as well as comprehensive spares and service access. Round the clock contact availability during busy harvest periods is now considered essential. It was agreed that whilst up-to-date electronic machine fault diagnostics are now a vital part of service back-up there is still no substitute for an experienced technician who has “seen it all before”.

Some manufacturers and dealers now actively promote packaged service deals with extended warranties. However, whilst the panel accepted this as desirable they felt that, at this stage, the limited warranty hour limits are too low for contractors and the need for 100% dealer servicing would increase overall costs. All of the panel have their own workshop facilities to undertake basic running repairs and fabrication.

Each were asked to nominate their favourite workshop tool and the following were listed: Welders (Arc or MiG), heavy duty jack, air compressor and cutting gear to remove difficult components.

Dealing with customers

Providing field operations for customers on time in an unpredictable climate where weather, ground conditions and cropping dates vary from year to year is often a challenge. In dealing with decisions on who comes first it was obvious that all of the panel had retained their customers over a long time and that good customer relations are well established.

An understanding of the cropping system on each farm has meant that the same basic order of field works has been maintained from year to year. It was felt that media sourced weather information is now generally more reliable as a guide for organising field work and that the weekly Countryfile forecast is not to be missed!

Cash flow on farms can vary due to the seasonal nature of some farm incomes and, in the past, this has influenced how contractors have received payment for their work. Although factors, like the timing of the Basic Payment to farms, are important to customers a contractor’s costs continue throughout the year and regular payment methods are important. As well as the usual cheques, on-line bank transfers and agreed regular monthly direct debit payments are also now in use.

Tractor technology

The main tractor manufacturers ranges all now offer an impressive range of similar technical features. The panel considered that, in their experiences, the following developments have been significant milestones in tractor performance and efficiency.

Enclosed quiet air-conditioned safety cabs.

Introduction of four-wheel-drive by the main tractor manufacturers across their ranges. Four wheel drive tractors had only previously been available from specialist conversion manufacturers.

Until the mid 1970s the number of gears in most tractor transmissions were limited and change on the move was difficult. Since then, synchronised changes, power shuttle, auto multiple power shifts and now stepless transmissions have become common place.

Increased rear lift capacities and front linkage/PTO to make better use of tractors in combined field operations.

GPS auto-guidance/steering and field mapping to make some jobs easier.

The Northern Ireland Branch of I Agr E are most grateful to the three families for taking the time to share their experiences during such an informative and enjoyable evening.