17 November 2000

BEET IS BEST VALUE FOR

CUSTOMERS…

Few contract services give

better customer value-for-

money than beet harvesting.

Peter Hill finds out how

Ten years ago, the Moreau self-propelled sugar beet harvester that Suffolk contractor Andrew Flatt used to operate cost him around £100,000. This years new Agrifac Big 6 cost nearer £240,000. Yet charges for contract beet harvesting have barely shifted in the intervening period.

"Were seeing no great increase return on a much bigger investment and longer working hours," Mr Flatt points out. "Yet the modern harvester gives growers significant improvements in harvesting quality, lower root losses and reduced soil compaction."

Ironically, it is the need to keep upping the area harvested to make the job pay that keeps charges in check. Competition is rife as contractors vie for work, knowing there are big finance bills to pay.

"With the Moreau, we were lifting 1000 acres in a season; now we are looking at doing between 2200 and 2500 acres with one machine," notes Mr Flatt. "Improvements in design mean they can do it; but it makes the logistics more difficult, especially early in the season when you need to lift on a just in time basis and work in close co-operation with hauliers."

In Shropshire, Robert Pinches faces the same dilemma, trying to balance workload, quality of service, and what customers are prepared to pay.

"I would far rather put the emphasis on quality of service – being well organised, arriving on farm as scheduled, and lifting beet with minimal losses – than on having to stretch the team to the limit and compete on price alone," he says. "That means charging accordingly, of course, but with growers constantly being urged to cut costs in all directions, many tend to look at the bare charge without necessarily giving full consideration to value-for-money."

The two Vervaet tanker harvesters bought new for this season were scheduled to lift between 1200 and 1500 acres apiece, Mr Pinches says he would prefer to earn an extra £5/acre and operate at the lower end of that range to keep well on top of the job. With growers earning lower returns from beet, that is pretty unlikely; as it is, some customers have been lost to contractors charging less.

"Equally, we have gained work from growers dissatisfied with the service theyve been getting and have been prepared to pay our rate," he adds.

Better value

Mr Flatt agrees that growers are getting better value for money from contractors that continue to invest in more capable machines; let alone the fact that rates have barely (if at all) kept pace with a steady improvement in yields, which ultimately results in fewer acres being grown.

Would charging by the tonne be a better bet to take account of variations in yields from field to field as well as the general upward trend?

"On the face of it I suppose it would be fairer, because there is clearly a difference between harvesting beet at 15t/acre and 30t/acre," he says. "But it introduces an unknown; with an acreage charge, customers know how much their beet harvest is going to cost, and I know how much were going to earn."

Contractors, of course, have contributed to the progressive rise in the amount of beet delivered to the sugar factories by reducing field losses, partly by investing in better machinery, partly by ensuring operators are equipped to get the best from them.

"We are regularly assessed as part of a British Sugar study group and, in good conditions, we get down to less than 1t/ha – well inside British Sugars 2t/ha target," Mr Flatt points out.

Robert Pinches also aims for below average losses from his two Vervaet harvesters, the latest versions of which are further improved and better suited to UK crop and lifting conditions, he says.

"They cope better with the abrasive sandy soils in this area and have spring-loaded walking shares that can ride over large stones," he explains. "Hydraulic row-width adjustment is a real boon; it makes changing between 45cm and 50cm rows a quicker task than the four-man, three to four hour operation it took with the manual design."

The big tank and large flotation tyres of this and other modern harvesters, put lifting techniques way ahead of other root crops, he adds.

"When field conditions get really bad we can confine trailers to headlands or even keep them on the road and run the harvester to the gate," Mr Pinches points out. "Either way, it means we can look after the ground and help growers get a good crop of wheat out of the field the following year."

Soil-care

It was for its soil-care qualities that Andrew Flatt opted for the Agrifac Big 6 harvester this year; the 6 refers not only to its six-row lifting system but also to its six wheels, each of which carries a big flotation tyre.

"The four at the front are spaced apart, as usual, to leave room for the cleaning turbines, but the back two – which steer the harvester – are positioned next to each other," he explains. "That way, the weight is spread across the full 3m width of the machine, and it leaves a level surface. Customers say fields have ploughed up better than before."

A drop in second-hand values, as demand eases for harvesters with two or three seasons under their belts eases, could lead to contractors replacing machines less frequently.

"Its all a question of balancing depreciation against the cost of replacing worn parts," Robert Pinches points out. "At current values, machines are depreciating by around £35,000 in the first year, £30,000 in the second, before tailing off at a rate of about £2000 a year thereafter. In that situation, it pays to replace machines before you have to spend between £5000 and £6000 on replacement parts. But if depreciation increases, it will be better to hang on and keep machines going longer."

Fuel, meanwhile, is adding to daily running costs, notes Andrew Flatt.

"Were using about a 1000 litres a day on the harvester and haulage tractor, so were now looking at fuel costs of £240 a day against about £110 last year," he points out. "Because farmers are already having to cope with the increase in fuel they use themselves, were simply absorbing that extra cost at present." &#42

Andrew Flatts Agrifac Big 6 harvester. Six-wheel flotation tyres help to reduce soil damage – the machines weight is spread across its 3m width.

Robert Pinches operates two Vervet tanker harvesters.