CUTTING SWITCH PROVES A VERY PROFITABLE MOVE
Switching his business from
general farm work to a
specialist grass and hedge
cutting service was the
best decision we have ever
made, says Norfolk
contractor Brian MacHaye.
Mike Williams reports
BRIAN MacHaye has been running his own contracting business since he left school in the 1950s and offered to do some ploughing for local farmers. There was plenty of work available and the business expanded as he bought more equipment, offered additional services and established a reputation for reliability.
He was soon running three big tractors to look after the ploughing, subsoiling and mole drainage work, and he was one of the first contractors in his area to run a self-propelled six-row sugar beet harvester. In the 1980s Brians son Stephen joined the business, which is based at Bridge Farm, Forncett St Peter, Norwich, and during the 1990s their business was expanding again when they signed a number of stubble-to-stubble contracts.
The 1990s also brought new problems. Increased price cutting in their area affected the profitability of some of the services the MacHayes were offering and their work load fluctuated when they lost some of their stubble-to-stubble contracts following farm amalgamations or ownership changes.
The MacHayes decided it was time to take a close look at the way their business was developing after a policy change by one of their clients cost them a 280ha (700-acre) whole farm contract. That was in 1999 and the result of their business review was a complete change of policy, phasing out virtually all of the agricultural contracting and replacing it with amenity work.
The decision was helped by the fact that they had already done some verge mowing for Norfolk County Council and Brian MacHaye was confident more of this type of work would be available. They already owned the two hedgecutters previously used in their farm contracting work.
By the end of 1999 the last of their agricultural contracts had been completed and they were building up the grass and hedgecutting work. As well as Brian and Stephen, the business also employs one person full-time plus occasional part-time help. Their biggest jobs now are local authority roadside verge mowing plus tree and bush cutting beside railway tracks. Contracts for verge mowing totalled more than 800 miles last year and the trimming work beside railway tracks covers much of East Anglia. They have also bought a 23cm (9in) Bearcat tractor-powered woodchipper to deal with larger material from the railway work and they already have an outlet for the chippings.
Another service they are building up is general grass cutting for local councils and on small areas such as paddocks and orchards. This work is handled by a John Deere 855 compact tractor with either a mid-mounted deck or a trailed flail mower. A recent addition is a trial run with a grass mowing contract on selected sites owned by a large chain of roadside restaurants.
The only agricultural work they have retained is hedgecutting on local farms and one of the two Bomford B58T cutters they used previously has been retained for the farm work, mounted on a Renault tractor. The other B58T was sold and was replaced by two new Bomford B70Ts, which are more suitable for verge and bank work and are both mounted on JCB Fastracs.
"I bought my first Bomford hedgecutter soon after I started the business and I have stayed with the same make ever since," said Brian MacHaye. "They do a very good job, but we also get an excellent parts and service back-up and that is essential for the sort of work we are doing.
"We use Fastracs for the two B70Ts because the machines are working over a big area and the extra speed of the Fastracs means there are very few occasions when the drivers are not able to travel home in the evenings. There is a possibility we may buy an additional cutting unit next year and, if we do, it will almost certainly be a Bomford and it will probably be mounted on a Fastrac," he says.
Like his father, Stephen MacHaye is also pleased with the success of the business switch. Instead of handling a full range of arable farming jobs, they have become specialists in a narrow range of amenity work and this helps them provide their customers with a more efficient service.
They can also keep on top of their cashflow more effectively because they know in advance when invoices for the verge mowing and railway work will be paid.
"We also think there is less stress in this type of work because it is not affected by the weather," he explains. "With farming just a few wet days can really disrupt the work schedule for jobs such as harvesting or spraying and that is when the stress starts, but the work we are doing is not affected by rain in the same way and we lose very few working days in the year because of bad weather." *