19 August 1997

BREAKDOWNS ARE HIS BUSINESS

For the latest in her series looking at a typical day in the life of those involved in farming and its ancillary industries. Helen Lewis went out on the road with Powys mobile mechanic Den Rees

FROM ancient Little Grey Fergies to 1990s high-tech, all-electronic wonders, tractor mechanic Den Rees mobile workshop has seen them all.

8.30am. By the time I arrive, Dens trusty Toyota pick-up is filled to the brim with around half a tonne of tools and spares and we set off for the first call of the morning.

Trevor Price of Tyrosser Farm Llanafan Fawr in Powys called Den out the previous day after noticing his tractor making a disturbing noise while cutting silage. Today we return to replace some worn bushes.

"Finding the cause of the problem is the biggest job. Fixing it is the easy bit," explained Den whilst fitting the new drive flange bushes on the hydraulic pump shaft. "Whereas this tractors fault was easy to spot, sometimes I have to go through a lengthy process of elimination first."

After leaving school at sixteen, Den underwent a four-year apprenticeship with what was then a David Brown dealer. After a further two years, he left to extend his skills with a farming and building construction business maintaining everything from lawnmower to plant machinery; lorries, tractors, farm implements and even a few cars.

Eighteen months later he took the plunge and became self-employed. Now, sixteen years on, Den has more work than he can cope with servicing farms within a 40-mile radius of his home, an eleven acre smallholding near Llandrindod Wells in Mid Wales. Although he has considered expanding the business, Den admits trained mechanics are hard to come by.

"There are fewer young people entering this trade because of the unsociable hours and few companies offer apprenticeships because of the high training costs."

10.30am. With the radiator, hoses, numerous belts, guards and nuts and bolts reinstated, Mr Prices tractor is back in working order and we leave for nearby Rhysgog Farm to repair a broken spray lance. A new part will need ordering. However, two minutes of nifty improvisation involving a hacksaw and a rubber washer and farmer Alun Jones can at least carry on spraying until the new piece arrives:

"Farmers know if they use me I will strip down the machine first, find the fault and only then order whatever parts are needed to put it right," insisted Den. "I also have a range of older tractors in the yard which I break for spares too.

"The large dealerships must find it a nightmare to keep everything in stock. I dont even try. The only new spares I store are very fast moving ones such as tractor clutches, filters, power steering pumps, hydraulic pumps, steering joints and hydraulic hoses and fittings. I simply cannot afford to have expensive items of machinery sitting on the shelf for months at a time."

10.50am. Were back on the road, heading for Dens supplier to pick up a new PTO clutch cable for a David Brown tractor when the mobile phone rings.

Brian Eckley, thirty miles away at Closcedi Farm near Brecon has broken the shaft on his slurry stirrer and is desperate to empty the lagoon before starting second cut silage.

Without an explanation, Den executes a hasty three point turn and we are aiming for Brecon and the slurry stirrer. I tentatively enquire about the broken PTO clutch cable:

"I have to juggle which breakdown is the most urgent. The David Brown can operate without the clutch cable but Brians machine is out of action so well see him first.

"The biggest asset here is the mobile phone, this job would be near impossible without it because I am constantly on the move."

11.30am. On arrival at Closcedi we find the splined stub shaft which attaches to the PTO unit on the slurry stirrer has sheared off the main shaft. Den sets about grinding off the broken piece, drills it out of the main shaft and welds a new one in place. It sounds simple in theory but took over an hour in practice. At this point Brian appears with a tray of coffee and biscuits giving me the opportunity to ask why he uses Den rather than a conventional dealer.

"If it is urgent, Den will come out anytime including evenings and weekends. Also he will work here rather than me having the hassle and expense in taking the machine to a dealer," he replied.

1pm. Once coffee is finished, Den takes the tractor and slurry stirrer out to the lagoon to test his repair work, the stirrer works fine but the Fords clutch pedal needs adjusting:

"As the clutch plate wears down the pedal linkage tightens until there is no free-play when the pedal is depressed. Without this free-play the plate inside will come under constant pressure and soon burn out. It only takes a couple of minutes to adjust and saves a lot of unnecessary expense."

While tinkering with the Ford, Mr Eckley fetches a four-wheel-drive David Brown 996 in the hope Den will have a quick look at something amiss with the front axle. On closer inspection, the centre trunnion pin housing holding the front axle on to the tractor is found to be worn and has caused a bolt to break.

The long term solution is a new pin, housing and bushes but until the new parts arrive, Den repairs the old one in order to keep the tractor operational. The front end is jacked up to take the pressure off the axle, the pin re-aligned with the bolt holes and refitted:

"The difference between me and the average garage mechanic today is, hes trained to fit new parts whereas I try to repair something first before replacing it. It is quite a responsibility maintaining expensive machinery and ensuring it is safe to operate," Den added.

What are farmers themselves like on the machinery maintenance side, I wondered? "Some are excellent but others are, well, lets just say others are excellent stockmen," he replies.

Strange as it may seem, when agriculture was in recession in the early nineties, Dens Business thrived. Rather than replacing tractors and implements, farmers kept their old ones going which led to an increase in the amount of repairs. In recent years, a more buoyant agricultural climate has given farmers the confidence to change their tractors and implements with more frequency. As a result, Den diversified into buying and selling machinery as a sideline and, he insists, his only hobby:

"I started dealing in new and used machinery simply because farmers kept asking my opinion on what to buy and where to get the best deal. It was an obvious step especially with the number of tractors and implements on farms increasing.

"On the whole, modern machinery is very reliable but it is becoming increasingly complex and needs far more servicing. Although the summer harvest is still the busiest season for breakdowns there is more winter repair work now stock feeding has become mechanised – gone are the days of forking silage and shaking small bales of hay around which is good news for my business."

4pm. We finally leave Closcedi and make a dash for the supplier to collect a delivery of parts before they shut at 5pm. Den still has the PTO clutch cable to replace, a mower requiring new knife carriers and a set of brake shoes to fit on a tractor.

And who knows when the phone might ring again with yet another breakdown?

Left Den Rees workshop, complete with selection of tractors and ride-on mower. Below: Replacing the drive flange bushes on a John Deere.

Cutting off the broken shaft of a pto-powered slurry stirrer urgently needed by a farmer 30 miles away.

Front-axle repairs on a David Brown 996. Mr Rees says wherever possible he always tries repairing parts first before resorting to replacement.

Brian Eckley, Closcedi Farm, Brecon (left) and Den Rees take a quick coffee break. Breakdowns have to be juggled according to which is the most urgent, says Mr Rees. A mobile phone is an invaluable aid, he points out.

"On the whole modern machinery is very reliable, but it is becoming increasingly complex and sometimes needs more servicing," says Mr Rees.

Above left: Den Rees pick-up, complete with 1/2t of tools and spares. Above right: Clutch adjustment done, Den Rees tops up the power steering oil.