12 November 1999

EASTONTRACTORTRIOHITPAINFULREPAIRCOSTS…

Its been another busy

autumn for the tractor trio

at farmers weeklys Easton

Lodge arable and pig unit.

Peter Hill reports on how the

machines are faring – and

what they are costing to run

IT had all been going so well. A trio of tractors, each with its own particular role, promising top-line performance and reliability.

A 115hp Fendt 395GTA "systems" tractor, kitted out to earn its keep tilling, drilling and spraying; a 120hp Fendt 312LSA as the workhorse, performing a myriad of roles to good effect; and a no-frills 85hp Ford 6610 doing all the running around tasks and costing little each year to maintain.

In terms of the work they do and way they do it, nothing has changed. Its just that a couple of unwelcome repair bills threaten to spoil the supposed life-time cost advantages of paying more to buy reliability.

The loss of two of the Fendt 312s individual head gaskets prompted precautionary replacement of all six. Ring up £1000 on the repairs and maintenance cash register.

Bearing replacements

More painful was the need to replace two rear wheel bearings on the 395GTA. Total cost – £1761.

Both items, plus a succession of air conditioning repairs and cab fan failures costing between £150 and £300 a time to put right, have hiked annual repair and servicing costs by 70% for the 312, by 80% for the 395.

So is FW Farms manager John Lambkin having second thoughts about his tractor buying policy?

"When youve had two big hits in one year like this, and at a time when we can ill-afford it, I am bound to wonder about how things will work out in the long-run," he says. "The theory is that we should make up in lack of repair costs and ultimate resale value what we invest initially through purchase price and servicing costs. But with these two incidents, we are suffering the worst of both worlds."

Despite never reportedly running hot or short of water, the Fendt 312 started blowing and spitting while busy ploughing after sugar beet last December. But a "cooked engine" was the diagnosis for head gasket failure on two cylinders.

"The MWM engine has individual cylinder gaskets so it would have been possible to replace just the two failed ones," says Mr Lambkin. "But we decided to do all six as a precaution."

Different roles

Clocking up an average 890hr/year since arriving on the farm as a second-hand unit on 1700hrs, the 312 performs many different roles through the year. Specific tasks include P&K top dressing and spraying in the autumn, ploughing, discing and subsoiling, topping set-aside and, when it is not needed elsewhere, doing a share of the manure stack-piling and slurry spreading from the Easton Lodge pig unit.

A 1000hr service at the end of 1998 but which falls into the 1999 accounts makes the latters service and repair cost figure appear worse than perhaps it should. But a replacement fuel pump, repairs to correct a charging fault and a new battery (having won a credit on one of the two replaced) does not help either.

Nor does the cost of replacing the tractors thread-stripped top link, re-glazing the rear window – a student drivers fault that one, not the tractors – and several puncture repairs caused, it appears, by debris from the internal casing of the Pirelli radials chafing the tube.

"The tyres are not quite ready for replacement so I think well live with the problem for this season and look forward to a new set early next year," says Mr Lambkin.

Air conditioning repairs have been even more frequent, featuring three times each in the service and repair history of both tractors; which is three times each too many, according to Mr Lambkin.

Irritating

"Its very irritating to have to stand down a tractor and incur costs for something that has no direct bearing on its performance," he says. "Its mostly leaks caused by hoses and unions that our air conditioning specialist says are simply not up to the standard of the rest of the tractor."

Equally irritating has been the sequential replacement of every single ventilation fan in the 395s cab.

"There are four altogether, each one about the size of a saucer, made specially for Fendt, I gather, and not repairable," says Mr Lambkin. "So each time one fails, we have to pay £150 to get it replaced."

Of rather more fundamental concern has been the failure of both rear wheel bearings on the "systems" tractor.

With its engine located beneath the cab and little else but fresh air between the front wheels, the 395GTA inevitably has a substantial rear-end weight bias. The 4m power harrow/drill combination used for sowing all combinable crops on the farm adds to the load on the rear axle. Although not as much as on many tractors as seed is carried in a 1t hopper on the clear chassis area in front of the cab.

To minimise ground pressure for final seed-bed preparation and sowing – and to pack the soil evenly across the 4m working width – big double wheels are used all round. And it is at these that the finger of suspicion is now being pointed for the early bearing deterioration.

"Ive certainly not had any expressions of concern about us using duals on the 395, from the manufacturer or the dealer that supplied the tractor and wheels," says Mr Lambkin. "And its an expensive business, mostly because of the time involved in stripping back the GTAs special axles – two-thirds of the bill is for labour."

Nor did the failures occur conveniently at the same time – the first in July, the second some six to eight weeks later. Four days use of the tractor were lost on each separate occasion.

All of which has unsettled Mr Lambkins tentative plans for changing the tractor line-up.

Declining costs

The venerable Ford 6610 which, ironically, is costing less and less each year to maintain, is to be replaced next year, probably with a good second-hand tractor that will take some of the pressure off the Fendt 312. Before this years bills started mounting up, it may have been another Fendt. But now?

"I havent gone as far as deciding what to go for, thats for next year," says Mr Lambkin.

And there is another dilemma with equally tentative plans for replacing the 312 in 2001.

"Ive been so pleased with the performance of the GTA and the way it has worked that I was inclined to have another," says Mr Lambkin. "But losing two wheel bearings at 3500hrs will make me think more cautiously. And, in any case, word has it that the GTA is soon to be discontinued."

How that will affect the Easton Lodge tractors resale value remains to be seen. If there is sufficient latent demand for the tractor in Germany, where more farmers are geared up with specialist equipment for the machine, it could actually help rather than hinder. &#42

Tractor service and maintenance costs (to 30 Sept 1999)

Main items plus sundries (£)

Fendt 395GTA

1993 Sundries 173

1994 250hr service (£120) 311

1995 1000hr service (£489) 720

1996 Sundries 96

1997 2000hr service (£840); aircon service 1187

1998 3000hr service (£686); aircon/diff lock/cab fan (£449) 1247

1999 Aircon repair (£208); cab fan (£300);

two wheel bearings (£1761) 2384

Total 6118

Average/year 1020

Average/ha/yr 4.22

Fendt Farmer 312LSA

1995 Puncture repair 98

1996 3000hr service (£585); aircon repair (£113); electrical fault

(£146); two batteries (£212) 1208

1997 4000hr service (£643); diff lock hydraulics (£201);

hydraulics fault diagnosis (£121) 1076

1998 Tyre repairs/tubes (£248); brakes overhaul (£174); exhaust

silencer (£250); aircon repair (£102); 4wd shaft bearing (£221) 1195

1999 5000hr service (£636); cylinder head gaskets (£992); fuel

pump (£232); rear window (£152); aircon repair (121);

replacement top link (£156); charging fault/batteries (£224) 2868

Total 6445

Average/year 1459

Average/ha/yr 6.03

Ford 6610

1995 Water pump etc (£278) 426

1996 Replacement clutch 877

1997 Wheel centre (£95) 279

1998 Spares and repairs 164

1999 Spares and repairs 97

Total 1843

Average/year 367

Average/ha/yr 1.52

Tractor purchase and operating costs to date

Tractor Life-time (£) £/year £/hr £/ha

True depreciation* Fendt 395GTA 16250 2708 4.40 11.19

Fendt 312 11000 2490 2.79 10.29

Ford 6610 0 0 0.00 0.00

Servicing & Fendt 395GTA 6118 1020 1.65 4.22

maintenance Fendt 312 6445 1459 1.63 6.03

Ford 6610 1843 367 0.30 1.52

Tax & insurance (x3) 1522 0.85 6.29

Fuel (x3) 3800 2.12 15.70

Totals: 13366 13.74 55.24

* Purchase price less current trade-in value. In Easton Lodge accounts, tractors are written-down over eight years with any trade-in allowance taken as profit on sales.

Cash purchases mean no finance charges are incurred.