10 May 1996

Diverse range of services keeps the customers happy

This week a Cumbrian business joins our five-strong Contractors Comment team. Andrew Faulkner reports

FARMERS perception of contractors is changing. And changing fast.

Our new contractor in the north-west, John Horsley of Horsleys of Abbeytown, says he has noticed a significant shift in attitude over the past 10 years. Rising labour and machinery costs in Cumbria, as in the rest of the UK, have forced farmers to make greater use of contractors, with few farms now able to claim a complete no-contractor policy.

"Farmers are definitely using contractors more now than they were," Mr Horsley says.

"Seven years ago, we were sowing about 1500 acres of corn and running just the one self-propelled forage harvester. Today we run two harvesters and drill up to 3500-4000 acres."

Split in two

Based at Abbeytown, near Carlisle, the Horsley contracting business is split in two – arable and grassland – to service what is predominantly a specialist dairying area. A typical dairy farming customer uses the firm to make silage as well as to carry out all arable operations on whatever surplus land the unit may have. This can range from 20ha to 240ha (50-600 acres).

"Even though were providing a complete arable/grassland service to many of our customers, were not involved in specific whole-farm contracting agreements. Farms in this area tend to be owner-occupied family businesses, not the property of absentee landlords. Were paid per job – the traditional contracting way," Mr Horsley says.

Despite there being no whole-farm commitments, Horsleys of Abbeytown has built up a strong client base over its 34-year life, with several original customers still with the firm.

"Its one of the benefits of offering a wide range of services. If a farmer uses a contractor for a number of operations and gets a good service, hes likely to stick with that firm unless it lets him down," Mr Horsley says.

The diverse workload keeps Mr Horsley, his brother/business partner, Kevin, and three other full-time staff busy for the full 12 months.

Their working year kicks off in January with limespreading onto grassland using two Land Drive spreaders. The spreaders are kept on the move by a JCB Fastrac 155-65/15t Fraser trailer combination, which ferries lime to the field from a central store at Silloth. Two mobile ramps enable the high-speed trailer to tip directly into the limespreaders, and a similar system is used for loading the firms two Amazone ZA-M fertiliser spreaders.

Lime, fertiliser and spraying work occupy the Horsleys through to mid-May when the 2400ha (6000-acre) silage operation rolls into action.

Based around two 220hp Claas self-propelleds, an 800 and 682, the two gangs are manned by full-time staff along with extra self-employed labour who operate ferrying trailers and the firms two front-mounted buckrakes. Mowing is carried out by the Fastrac, kitted up with a 5.8m (19ft) wide front/rear Kuhn combination.

"This year we looked at moving to one 400hp+ forager and operating just the one gang," Mr Horsley says.

"In the end, we decided against the switch to retain flexibility. If one machine breaks down we can still keep going with the other, and the back-up operations are also perfectly matched to the two 220hp machines."

Nightmare scenario for the Horsleys comes in a late second-cut season when foraging can clash with rapidly ripening winter barleys. A logistical juggling act follows, with the airborne balls played by the two foragers and the firms four Claas combines.

Bottleneck

The other potential bottleneck is at the end of the summer when harvesting winter wheats can coincide with third and fourth cuts of grass as well as the establishment of 2500-3000 acres of winter cereals.

"Were fortunate in that we have good regular casual staff, who can operate all the main machines, so we can juggle things around."

The weather, and the Cumbrian variety in particular, can never be relied upon to do the right thing, as Mr Horsley well knows. To further extend the firms post-drilling workload, he invested £36,000 in an umbilical slurry spreading system last October to cope with the regions wet winter months – months when stock farmers usually cannot get their tankers out on the ground. The seemingly direct result of this purchase was the driest Cumbrian winter in living memory and farmers tankers working like they have never worked before.

"That, as they say, is Sods Law," Mr Horsley concedes. &#42


BUSINESS DATA


&#8226 Base: Old Junction Yard, Abbeytown, Carlisle (016973-61762).

&#8226 Work undertaken: All arable operations, grass silage making, lime-spreading, hedge-trimming and slurry-spreading with umbilical system.

&#8226 Machinery fleet: Seven tractors (predominantly New Holland), two Claas self-propelled foragers, four Claas combines, three 3m (10ft) power harrow drill combinations, two Hardi mounted sprayers, and 5.8m (19ft) wide Kuhn mowing outfit.

&#8226 Labour: John and Kevin Horsley and three full-time staff.

Cumbrian brothers John (right) and Kevin Horsley run the 34-year-old family contracting business, Horsleys of Abbeytown.