9 March 2001

HOW SELF OVERCAME A NIGHTMARE SEASON

Heavy rain and the hike in

fuel prices made the

2000/01 sugar beet lifting

campaign a difficult period

for R & J Self Contractors.

Andy Moore found out how

the company coped

LAST seasons sugar beet harvest was a trying time for scores of contractors across the country and for Robert Self who operates near Ipswich, Suffolk, the experience was no different.

Faced with appalling wet weather, axle deep mud and a sudden hike in fuel prices, he says the lifting campaign did not go down as the best on record.

"The harvest was difficult right from the start when our local beet factory had problems opening on time," says Mr Self who is based at Creeting St Mary. "It eventually opened 10 days later than usual due to the fuel crisis so we did not get cracking until the last week in September."

Like hundreds of contractors, R & J Self had to cope with diesel prices which doubled to 29p/lt in September, a period when sugar beet lifting rubbed shoulders with maize harvesting.

Mr Self reports that his self-propelled forager and sugar beet harvester plus haulage team guzzled their way through 2800lt/day (600gal) of diesel, amounting to a hefty £812 fuel bill.

"The hike in diesel price forced us to look long and hard at ways of containing the extra costs without passing them on too greatly to the customer," he explains. "A disclaimer on our invoices states that bills can change according to fuel prices, but there was no way we expected them to fork out for the higher prices. Our customers were used to paying 13p/lt, so why should they suddenly pay double?"

Mr Self considered having his customers supply their own lower cost diesel. But this idea was dismissed due to their prices remaining equally high through lower quantity buying and many customers having insufficient storage capacity to support a thirsty harvesting team.

The solution was to charge fuel out at a standard 17p/lt, which was adjusted according to the price of a tanker load and number of acres of beet and maize harvested on each farm.

Base charge

"Introducing a base charge was the fairest way of passing on the fuel prices without putting an unnecessary hole in our customers pockets," he says. "Nearly all of them accepted the extra charge without any complaint, understanding that we too have to maintain our margins to survive in the tough farming industry."

In addition to higher fuel prices, Mr Self also had to contend with very unsettled weather which made harvesting the 688ha (1700 acres) of sugar beet a start and stop operation from September until late January.

"The last 10 days of September were dry which allowed us to crack on with lifting without any delays. But by the beginning of October the heavens opened, turning the ground into a complete quagmire," he adds. "We had to knock our lifting schedule on the head and resort to harvesting beet grown on lighter land which we usually leave until last. The entire beet crop was eventually clamped by January 31."

The wet conditions also provided a challenge for Mr Selfs new self-propelled harvester which replaced two older machines following a reduction in lifting acreage.

Out went a three-year-old 400hp Varvaet and six-year-old Riecam harvester, and in came a 450hp six-row Varvaet machine equipped with a 17t bunker which was purchased from Norfolk dealer J Rieley Harvesters.

"Harvesters depreciate rapidly after three years so it made sense to cut our losses and replace the machines with a single model which we will kept for a similar period," he says. "The new harvester has an extra 50hp under the bonnet and electro-hydraulic control which has helped to increase output and make life easier for the operator."

Up-to-date

Keeping kit up to date also suits Mr Selfs policy of providing what he considers an improved service and more accurate lifting date.

But there is a catch.

He believes contractors are finding it difficult to justify paying up to £230,000 for a shiny new bunker harvester when its pay back is based typically over three years.

"Bunker beet harvesters are over priced compared with machines such as forage harvesters which have to work hard over a few months of the year," he says. "If retail prices are not reduced over the next couple of years, contractors may be forced to return to conventional tractor trailed harvesting machinery to remain competitive."

Complaints aside, Mr Self believes his harvester is the right size to suit his lifting acreage and number of customers which have now been rationalised. The harvesting team now operates within a smaller radius, keeping haulage distance to a minimum for both harvester and trailers.

Sugar beet haulage falls into the hands of a 17t Richard Larrington trailer and John Deere 7810, with extra tractors and trailers laid on for further afield jobs. &#42

Keep smiling….Robert Self says higher fuel prices and poor weather conditions made last seasons sugar beet harvest a trying time.

Above: Greater field performance… The new Varvaet harvester is equipped with a 450hp engine – 50hp more than Mr Selfs previous machine.

Beet harvester gets a bed bath… Mr Selfs new six-row Varvaet with 17t bunker took over a three-year-old Varvaet and a six-year-old Riecam.

Self business data

Base: Grange Farm, All Saints Road, Creeting St Mary, Ipswich

(01449-722711).

Work undertaken: Sugar beet

Drilling and harvesting, maize drilling and harvesting, grass silaging, medium density straw baling, rape swathing.

Machinery fleet: Four John

Deere tractors (110-170hp),

410hp JD self-propelled forager 6910, Two Krone Big Pack 80×80 balers, one self-propelled beet harvester, Shelbourne Reynolds rape swather, Arcusin bale stacker, 5m Kuhn Alterna 500 trailed mower.

Labour:Two full-time staff and up to 12 casuals at peak times.