With the Farmers Weekly farm inventions competition into its third week, Mike Williams looked at how the ideas from two past winners had fared.
The three-point hitch Harry Ferguson developed more than 70 years ago was a major milestone in tractor design, making its inventor a multi-millionaire.
But these days the prospects of equalling Ferguson’s financial success are small, says 1991 winner, Mike Stable.
“The number of farmers is shrinking, making it harder for new ideas to achieve the sales that produce big royalty cheques. If you want to make a lot of money, invent something like a new vacuum cleaner that could sell in millions.
“Farm machinery inventions are not in that league, but they can earn a good financial return and there may be other benefits as well,” says Mr Stable who milks 220 cows at Bolton Manor Farm, Little Urswick, Ulverston, Cumbria.
Mike Stable’s story
Mike Stable’s award-winning invention was a footbath that cuts the amount of liquid needed to treat foot ailments of cattle and sheep.
At that time, he says, a form of dermatitis affecting the feet of cows was a serious problem on many farms. It was controlled by a special antibiotic in a footbath, but the chemical was expensive.
His new footbath halved the amount of antibiotic needed, saving up to £200 per filling. It was based on a moulded tray and a 2in layer of plastic foam with a butyl rubber sheet covering the foam and containing the antibiotic solution.
Pressure under the cow’s feet pushed the sheet down, compressing the foam to form dents that filled with the solution, adding almost 2in to the depth around each hoof.
Production continued until 2006, notching up sales worth more than £1 million on which Mr Stable earned royalties.
The extra income was welcome, he says, but the footbath’s success also brought a visit to the United States to help launch it there, the £1000 first prize in a DEFRA competition plus silver medal presentations at both the Highland and Royal Shows.
John Heath’s story
John Heath’s 1992 Farmers Weekly competition win was for his Bale Chaser that streamlines big square bale handling from field to stack.
Big bales were already popular in the early 1990s, but handling methods had not kept pace and John Heath realised there was a need for a one-man, one-tractor system.
An attachment on the front of the tractor nudges each bale through 90 deg into the sideways-on position ready for the loading attachment on the trailer.
The loading arm picks up each bale, stacking them two high, while hydraulic pressure moves each pair of bales rearwards to fill the trailer.
The fully loaded trailer is backed-up to allow the tipping mechanism to drop the load vertically against the stack.
The award-winning version carried 10 of the biggest Hesston bales, but later models held 12 bales.
There are versions that handle different sized big bales, and the latest development is a new tri-axle model that will be available next year with the load capacity increased to 14 Hesston bales.
A bigger load improves transport efficiency and, more significantly, it increases the stack height from 6 to 7 bales, reducing the number of bales exposed to the weather in the top layer.
Instead of a royalty deal with a manufacturer, Mr Heath decided to build the Bale Chasers himself but handed the marketing over to a specialist company, Big Bale North.
Bale Chaser production adds a third section to the Heath businesses, which are the family farm at Blackwell, Shipston on Stour, Warks and the HG Heath and Sons contracting business that includes six balers with a 4000ha (10,000-acre) workload this year.
“Building the Bale Chasers fits in well with our other activities, as the work is in the winter when contracting has a slack period. So far we have built more than 160 Bale Chasers, which probably makes it the most popular big bale system,” says Mr Heath.
“It’s an expanding business. We have added a big bale grab to our product range and I think contractors will like our new tri-axle model.”
How do you enter the competition?
The principles haven’t changed. If you have designed a machine or piece of equipment that saves you time, money or hassle then it’s probably eligible.
As in previous years, we’re dividing the entries into three categories.
* Simple – machines that took less than half a day to put together.
* Intermediate – those that are more complicated and may have some form of simple hydraulics or electrics on them.
* Complex – machines that may have taken several days to design and manufacture and could involve an engine or some sophisticated electrics or hydraulics.
Who’s the competition open to?
Farmers, contractors, farm managers and workers are all welcome.
What do I need to provide?
Just post or email us a brief description of the invention and how it helps your farm or contracting business. Include any photographs or diagrams that will help us understand how it works, plus your phone number so we can contact you for further details.
* The address to send it to is: Farmers Weekly Farm Inventions Competition, Farmers Weekly, Quadrant House, The Quadrant, Sutton, Surrey SM2 5AS.
* Alternatively you can email David Cousins.
How long have I got?
The competition closes on Friday, 21 September 2007.
What if I’ve entered my design in other inventions competitions in the past?
Don’t worry – that won’t exclude you from this competition.
What about patents?
If you think you may want to patent the device, put your information and pictures in an inner envelope marked “Patent application likely” inside the main one.
Or write the same words clearly at the top of your email.
What are the prizes?
* The winner of each category gets £400, while the runner-up receives £100.
* The invention that most appeals to the judges will also win a three-day trip to the giant Agritechnica farm machinery show at Hanover, Germany on 12-14 November.
* Worth more than £500, the trip will include flights, accommodation, VIP reception and event entry for two people.
Agritechnica takes place from 11-17 November at Hanover, Germany.
With more than 1900 exhibitors spread over a 28ha site, it is the world’s biggest indoor farm machinery show. One entire hall will be devoted to bioenergy.
To find out how to visit the show, contact the UK travel partner on 01636 705 612, email or see the Agritechnica website.