29 March 1996


Do contractors big self-propelled harvesters offer the best silage making solution for every farm? Andrew Faulkner visits two Dorset dairy farms with different approaches to grass silage: One chops its own, the other gets someone in

TO MAKE it work, a contractor-based silage harvesting policy needs co-operation and compromise between both parties, contractor and farmer.

"Accept the need for give and take, and the benefits far outweigh the downsides," says Tim Frost who, with his son William, runs a mixed livestock operation based at Childhay Manor Farm, near Crewkerne, Dorset.

Mr Frost is a recent contractor convert, making the change from DIY silage in 1995. And, according to Agricultural Engineers Association (AEA) figures, he is not alone in his decision. In 1985, nearly 2000 trailed forage harvesters were sold compared with just 550 in 1995. The implication is clear. Many more farmers are now using contractors and self-propelled foragers to harvest their silage.

But what is behind the shift? Although Mr Frost is no typical stock farmer – 260 cows, 450 sows and building up to 1000 goats – his reasons for switching to using a contractor are common to many producers.

"We are basically not machinery people, and never likely to be," he says.

"When we made our own silage, it was definitely the most frustrating time of the year – machinery breakdowns, staff under pressure to get the work done and, most important of all, our stock work suffered."

As on many mainly livestock farms in May, Childhay Manors biggest problem was that stockmen had to be drafted from their regular duties to make up numbers on the silaging gang. Although there were two specialist tractor drivers to chop and clamp, three stockmen were still needed for mowing and trailer work.

Combine that stretched labour force with rising repair bills from an ageing silage machinery fleet, and Mr Frost needed little prompting from his son to make the switch to using a contractor for the 1995 season.

His one doubt was the perennial argument used by the anti-contractor lobby – will they be here when I want them?

This is where the contractor compromise comes in, as Mr Frost explains: "You have to accept that contractors may not be with you on the exact day you want them. Its inevitable.

"The fact is that our contractor gets this farms 160 acres of first cut in the barn within two days, whereas it used to take us 10. Even allowing for the worst delay, the contractor is still almost certain to have the job done before we would have finished with our old system."

It is contractors massive self-propelled harvesters and matching back-up operation that make these high workrates possible. Mr Frost uses Wootton Fitzpaine-based ATG, which runs two 360hp John Deere 6810 foragers backed up by three Taarup mowers, a fleet of 10t and 12t trailers, and Claas rakes and tedders.

Clamping work is carried out by either a 100hp John Deere 6400 tractor and 3m (10ft) wide front-mounted buckrake or JCB 412 Farm Master wheeled loader; both loader and tractor are fitted with dual wheels all round.

Obviously, a farm cannot hope to compete with that sort of investment or output. ATG regularly achieves workrates of up to 40ha/day (100 acres/day) of first cut per forager gang.

"There are other benefits too," Mr Frost says. "Getting the job done in two days means we can apply fertiliser straightaway for faster regrowth, and the clamp is also properly tyred and sheeted down sooner. Last year we even saved about £3000 in additive costs because the crop was in before the wetter weather came."

One-off savings have also been made at Childhay Manor. The tractor fleet has been rationalised and one member of staff has left the farm. Old silage kit was sold off at a dispersal sale where the Claas forager and Taarup 306 mower made a total of £4000.

Cynics will say Mr Frost is basing his pro-contractor theory on one of the best silage making seasons in living memory, 1995.

To that he has an answer. "Last year, the contractors finished our first-cut in two days, and the following day there was a freak downpour.

"Had we still been making our own silage, that rainfall would have been right in the middle of first-cut. As it was, our main clamp analysis was the best I can remember."

&#8226 Farm size: 243ha (600 acres).

&#8226 Soil type: Predominantly medium clay loam.

&#8226 Cropping: 28ha (70 acres) of winter wheat and 47ha (117 acres) of maize. Remainder in grass and set-aside.

&#8226 Stock: Two 130-cow dairy herds plus followers, 450-sow pig herd plus progeny reared to bacon weight, and 570 milking goats.

&#8226 Labour: Four pigmen, two herdsmen, a relief herdsman, a goat stockman, a tractor driver and a student.

&#8226 Mainline machinery: 100hp Case Maxxum 5130 and 82hp Case 895XL tractors, JCB Loadall telescopic handler, JCB Robot skid steer, Taarup complete diet feeder, 7000-litre (1500-gal) slurry tanker and an Amazone twin-disc fertiliser spreader.

Tim Frost: "Contractors finish our first-cut silage in two days, whereas it used to take us ten."

Silage making 1990s-style. Contractors are increasing their grip on the nations silage making operation. Speed of operation is their advantage.

One of three Taarup mowing outfits run by Tim Frosts contractor, Wootton Fitzpaine-based ATG.