19 May 1995

An upturn in drainage

Evidence that the demand for land drainage by farmers is on the increase was to be found at the Land Drainage Contractors Association event last week. Harry Hope reports

"LAND drainage is alive and well," is the heartening message from the recent Land Drainage Contractors Association event. Held on a site provided by the Rockingham Castle Estate, Market Harborough, Leics, the event attracted an audience of over 2500.

The upturn in land drainage business is put down to three factors: Two successive wet years, the working window provided by set-aside, and an improvement in farm profits and confidence.

Head of ADAS Land Development, Chris Stansfield estimates £2bn has been invested in draining 1.7m hectares (4.2m acres) over the past 22 years, and insists it makes sense to protect this investment.

"Work peaked at over 100,000ha a year in the mid-1980s but declined steeply during three dry years when grants were also withdrawn. But the job is picking up again and I reckon that current activity is about 22,000ha a year for the UK as a whole."

Music to the ears

This was music to the ears of contractors, who survived the past 10 years by diversifying into a wide range of civil engineering and amenity sports field and golf course jobs. Many also report a positive upturn for their first love – draining land for farmer customers.

Derek Hesketh, Hesketh Plant Hire, Minshull Vernon, Cheshire, is one of the few contractors who can claim "farm drainage is 99.9% of my business".

"We tried diversification, including dirty water jobs, and we now operate one drainage gang compared with two in earlier years. But we never stopped draining farm land and the job is definitely turning up – to the extent that 1995 could be a good year.

"Yes, weve drained football fields and golf courses, but give me farmer customers any day compared to subcontracting for civil engineering companies.

"You know where you stand with farmers. Provided they are confident and making a pound, they are prepared to spend 75p of it improving the property."

A work upturn was confirmed by Andrew Wright, manager with Miles Drainage, Great Ashfield, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. His company ran four drainage machines 10 years ago and is now down to two gangs, but farm drainage increased from 20 to 30% of the order book three to four years ago, to 60-70% last year.

"Two wettish years, improved farm profits and the opportunity to drain on set-aside land have helped. My only concern is that if set-aside was scrapped and we hit another two dry years, the job might turn down once again," explained Mr Wright.

Making kit last

Few new drainage machines have been sold over the past decade, and many contractors are still repairing and nursing-along some vintage tackle.

Typical of many is C F Rawlinson, Burgh-le-Marsh, Skegness, Lincs, who still runs an admittedly robust and minimum-maintenance 10-year-old Mastenbroek 25 20 V-Plough.

"This machine does 25% of our work and is ideal for Holbeach and Boston Marsh silt country where permeable backfill is not required," explained manager Peter Jackson.

"The V-plough principle causes minimal surface disturbance combined with an excellent subsoil shatter. This suits intensive arable farmers who are now geared to contract vegetable crops. Every day is critical to these arable farmers and our ability to drain up to 40 acres a day with the V-plough suits them fine.

"The drainage job has definitely bounced back and our order book is full for 1995. Set-aside has helped, farmers have a bit more money to spare and when they have it they are always prepared to improve their holdings – and that starts with land drainage."

Only one contractor – John Cleaver of Isle of Wight Land Drainage – claimed to be missing out on the drainage upturn.

"The news hasnt filtered through to the Isle of Wight," said Mr Cleaver, who also farms 120ha (300 acres) under arable crops.

Mr Cleaver also has mixed feelings about the current enthusiasm for planting trees.

"Im all for it, but farmers must be careful that indiscriminate planting does not upset their existing drainage systems. Old ADAS advice was to keep the tree canopy spread well away from the drains – aggressive species, such as willows, can soon upset the system."

New machines at the LDCA event included Dutch manufacturer Interdrains latest 2028HT trencher, costing £69,000. Special features include the ability to offset the digging chain and also work vertically to 6m depth for well-pointing.

Other variations with this machine, which is powered by a 350hp Volvo engine and 200-500hp options, include the ability to trench from a permeable backfill-saving 15cm width up to a maximum width of 60cm. Drive is fully hydrostatic.

Another machine making its debut at the drainage event was JCBs 803LR Mini Excavator. Features include a 23.1kW Perkins power unit, 3000kg operating weight, 500mm wide tracks and 0.18kg/sq cm ground pressure.

The 803LR follows the equally compact JCB 803 which is now the top seller in its field, claimed Howard McCallum, managing director with JCB Hydrapower. He says the highly versatile 803 LR, costing around £35,000 depending on specifications, is essentially a contractors machine and ideal for working in tight corners, inaccessible to larger machines.