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October 2011 - Posts - Mud Hound

Mud Hound

The life of a Land Drainage Contractor

October 2011 - Posts



I have appointment to visit a site near Bromsgrove at half past two, so I take a quick look at the map to remind me of the route and print out a plan of where I think the site is; sometimes it is not always obvious. I also load up the electric plans to see if there are any cables in the location, best to be forewarned. The car is loaded up with the laser levels and the GPS device. I’m almost out of fuel so I drive up the yard to fill up.



It should take around thirty to thirty five minutes to get there which means I need to leave at one forty five, forty five minutes before I’m supposed to be there. As a contractor, who is trying to sell something, avoiding being late is important. I’m sure everyone will agree that hanging around, wasting time, waiting for someone to turn up is very annoying. It is not a good idea to irritate potential customers. I arrive early which means I have time to kill, but it gives me a chance to check the site access, making sure there are no low bridges and weight restrictions and to wander around the site itself, which is good preparation.



The job is small but straight forward, the client is one we have worked for successfully before and very little, if any, selling or explanation is needed. The field has an obvious fall across it and a brook at the bottom providing a perfect outlet, I take a couple of levels near the outlet just to make sure but the meeting is over quickly. The only unusual request is to get the estimate back to the client before the end of the week, meaning I have only two days, not a hassle but I will have to call the aggregate suppliers today.



I go back via Kenilworth as we have a small gang working on a water supply job, they have just about finished when I turn up and other than a reminder about tidying up and leave the site as clean as possible there is nothing to do. It’s an easy afternoon.



Back at the office and start to call aggregate companies to get the cheapest stone price for the job at Bromsgrove. I call five companies and the conversation is almost exactly the same with each of them. Two give me a price straight away, two say they will call back and I leave an answer machine message with the other. I call another of our gangs and check whether or not they need gravel for tomorrow, and then make the arrangements. In the office we have a quick conversation about tomorrow’s team sheet, which is almost the same as today. After that is sorted the office quietens down and I start to look at producing a proposal plan for the Bromsgrove job.



It’s normally around six or half past that I call it a day and start packing up and switching off the computers, photocopiers, etc. I only live around a fifteen minute drive from the office, so my commute is thankfully short. I know a number of people who travel to Birmingham or London to work, I don’t know they put up with such a long and dull commute.






Driving around at this time of year, you can’t help but feel nature changing, the leaves are turning and the first, admittedly gentle, frosts have hit. This is also the time when brown fields give sway to green blankets of new growth. Except in some place the brown still remains, and I can’t help but wonder if the reason of this variable growth are drainage issues. I know in many parts of the country it has been very dry and other reasons may be involved as well, but I’m willing to bet that drainage would help many fields. It also makes me wonder if now is the perfect time to access ground conditions as the bare patches are so obvious.






A day in the life of a drainage contractor



I’m in the office just after eight, it depends on traffic and how sleepy I feel, sometimes its five past sometimes it quarter past. Our drainage teams meet, in the yard, at half seven - most have left before I turn up but sometimes I pass them on the way in if they have had to load up with materials or something like that. The office is quiet and I switch on the lights and my computer, check the answer machine and wonder why I left my desk so messy last tonight. I check my e-mail which means deleting spam and check the headlines on the BBC website.



If possible I like to start the day with a job which can be completed, for example writing a blog entry but it all depends what’s going on. Today I try to finish off an estimate I started yesterday, in the end I seek out some advice from the boss (my dad) as the job is not a standard drainage job. I’m more confident then my father on how easy the job will be, but as he is the boss so I end up adjusting the estimate and adding extra to the price. Everything is a discussion, but at the end of the day the boss is the boss!




Next I try to sort out some rather dull admin, chasing credit notes, approving invoices and sorting out the vehicle tax on one of cars. I get it done as quickly as possible, it’s a dull job, but another item on my ‘to do’ list is crossed off.




At eleven I have a cup of coffee and move into the drawing office to work on a completion plan which I measured up yesterday. In the old days this was done by hand and this room still houses thousands of Ordinance Survey plans on A1 sheets. The reason why I move is that computer in the drawing room is the one set up for CAD. I download the data I collected and match that up to the Ordnance Survey mapping which I request via e-mail. We have a standard template and although they’re quite a large number of steps, once you had done it a couple of times, its child’s play.




Throughout the day the telephone or mobile calls, the guys on site might have a problem or a question, suppliers chase and, hopefully, clients call asking for estimates. The telephone drags me away from the completion plan on a couple of occasions but nothing to serious, thankfully the junk sales calls are screened by Lin, our secretary/booker keep/office manager/blog proof reader.




I print off the plan and take back to my office to sort out the invoice, usually this is when I realise that I have made some tiny mistake and I have to make an adjustment and print it off again. I start the invoice but my stomach rubbles and its timing is spot on: lunch time.




As this post seems to be expanding beyond my original expectation I think I will split it in two, not much of a cliff hanger I’m afraid.....






Pictured below is the latest addition to the fleet. For years we operated Ford Transit Vans but we have over time decided that we are better off with 4x4 pick-up trucks. Whilst the transit vans were cheaper and we were able to carry more kit in the back, they would also have to be left on the road side or else run the risk of getting struck or losing the exhaust crossing the often soft ground conditions. Any kit needed would have to be carried to where the machines were working which could be the other side of a 50 acre field. The other advantage is that the 4x4 can fit four blokes in easily, five if they squeeze up a bit, if we would to opt for another transit the extra line of seats is a significant extra cost and would reduce the space at the back. We suspect that being able to fit more people in one vehicle, is a greater advantage than the additional space - if we need more space we can also hitch up a trailer.



Unfortunately this post is not just about a new vehicle, it’s also about our misfortune on the road this year. Accidents happen and there’s not a great deal we can do about them, by definition no one tries to cause a crash. This summer has been the worst I can remember for accidents, thankfully no one was hurt, but we have had two vehicles written off and another crash which caused considerable damage to one of our tractors. I’m convinced it is just bad luck, in two of the incidents our driver was not to blame and there is nothing different with our plant maintenance, nor are we working longer or harder hours than last than last year, yet accidents have increased. It’s just bad luck.



Regardless of the reasons why, the cost and hassle is something we could do without. Accidents and the cost of insurance are just another overhead of running a business, you just have to accept it but I think I might cry if we suffer another!






The heat of early October has cooled and it seems like the weather has stopped fooling us in to thinking that high summer is going to last forever. Last week I was out on site and the wind was blowing hard, I opened the car boot and put on my coat within a thought. Only later did I realise that was the first time this Autumn/Winter I had put on my coat due to the temperature.



After a month of desperately trying to get contracts finished so that crops can be planted, most of our work at the moment is not on such a tight time scale, we have time to breath. It is definitely autumn now and our contracts reflect that, we have begun laying a water main through the road and we have another contract installing a cable for fibre optics in a footpath. These are jobs we have scheduled to do at this time of the year as normally the weather is starting to turn. However this year the ground is still very dry, perhaps some of those jobs left for next year could have been done this year. An unpredictable beast the British weather.






One question which I have not touched on, even once, in the Mudhound is how do you know land needs draining?



Well virtually all ground in this small island will benefit from land drainage, it is important to remember that drainage only removes excess water, means that no harm can be done if drainage is install. Also I will not need to remind people that it rains a hell of a lot in the UK - okay maybe not as much as usual this year but normally the UK does have more than it’s fair share of rain.



Some signs of poor drainage are very obvious; pools of standing water which seem to evaporate rather than drain away are a pretty clear cut sign which should never happen on productive land. Deep ruts any time the tractor drives over the ground in Spring or Autumn are another. Runoff is higher on poorly drained soils, therefore any signs of excessive erosion can be an indication of a drainage requirement, especially on ground which is relative flat.



Generally speaking soils should be consistent in colour and texture, if the ground has blotches or a mottling it could be a symptom of poor drainage. These blotches can vary in colour from orange to grey and are caused by reduced forms of manganese and iron, often there is a lack of oxygen in the soils. These conditions hamper crop development and growth.



Of course the most important sign is the crop itself. Most people in the UK live in an extremely fertile part of the world and if an area or field seems to be underperforming yield-wise it could be due to drainage. Bare patches in the crop are often causes by poor drainage and can be solved very easily.