On course for slopes
By Robert Davies
FARMER/CONTRACTOR Gareth Davies does not mind if people who pull off the road to watch him working on a severe slope think he is a crazy daredevil. He knows that the risks have been carefully assessed and, as far as possible, countered.
Mr Davies and his wife, Susan, run 300 Welsh Mules and 14 suckler cows on 21.82ha (54 acres) at Lower Cilhaul, Llanfair Caereinion, Powys, and 19.4ha (48 acres) rented on an 11-month grass let.
Like many small farming businesses, the income generated is too low to sustain the family, so both do contract work. He specialises in foraging, topping and fencing, while his wife is a relief milker.
Some income also comes from working as an ATB-Landbase instructor. Its a job which allows him to pass on some of his 20-year long experience of operating machinery on the slopes of mid-Wales. He is one of six trainers involved in revising and improving the Tractor Driving on Slopes course; the aim is to make it even more practical, and the changes will be customer tested at the end of May.
"Its important that all tractor courses are suitable for the growing number of people from outside farming, like amenity service workers, local authority employees and market gardeners," Mr Davies says.
He accepts that each new group trained could include a potential new contractor, who might compete with him for business. But he believes the amount of work available will continue to grow, and experience shows that a good contractor can keep his customerss loyalty in the face price cutting.
Though he had to learn safe tractor operation on the job to survive at a time when physical and mechanical safety devices were rare, he is convinced that formal training is essential. This is especially true of the many young farmers who turn to part-time contracting on land with which they are not familiar.
That said, Mr Davies always warns trainees that many accidents involve operators working on marginally dangerous slopes they know well.
"Where theres a big risk people take precautions, such as fitting twin rear wheels. Problems are most likely to occur where people are over-confident, in a hurry, or do not take conditions into account."
My lesson began with the fitting of twin wheels to his 4WD Massey-Ferguson 390, a 20-minute job that Mr Davies believes absolutely necessary for working in difficult conditions. "The time involved is not important. My first golden rule for working on slopes is to leave my watch at home. Worrying about time and work rate doesnt mix with tractor driving on steep land."
On each side, the inner wheel had plenty of tread to provide traction, while the outer one was well worn. This allowed it to provide lateral stability without causing excessive pasture damage. But the integrity of the side walls of all four tyres, and their pressures, were checked before the tractor was taken on the slope.
"The tractor must be properly serviced and up to the job. Cab windows must be cleaned to let the driver see any hazards, and loose objects that might interfere with controls must be removed from the cab."
The training session began with adjusting the seat to ensure that clutch and brakes could be applied without fully extending my legs. This was to ensure that in an emergency I would not have to yank on the steering wheel to apply sufficient pedal pressure. Next came a check that I understood and could operate all the other controls and instruments.
The other rules were simple: Leave the foot throttle alone, co-ordinate clutch and brake release to avoid any forward or backward rolling, select the right gear for the slope, and dont rush anything.
Before tackling a new slope, Mr Davies advises his trainees to walk the area to spot potential hazards, such as hollows and raised rocks that might affect the tractors centre of gravity. The check also includes an assessment of how slippery any herbage is likely to be. Lush new leys can be like ski slopes.
A grip test – involving both reversing up the slope and running down in very low gear, stopping and starting again – provides valuable information for optimum gear selection and throttle settings. "Its very important that the gear used means that it is always possible to call on some extra power when needed."
For my introductory lesson a fertiliser spreader was mounted on the tractor. The spinners stabilisers were checked to ensure there would be no sideways load swing. Because the lateral movement of the fertiliser granules could cause stability problems, only half the hopper capacity was used.
"The operator has to think carefully about the safest direction of travel with the equipment being used. Its important to get the basics right, but much also depends on experience, and conditions on the day.
"I get a tremendous kick out of working on steep land, but it is satisfaction from doing necessary work as safely as possible, and not a thrill from taking risks. On training courses we can quickly spot those who are not cut out to work on slopes. Hotheads, and those who do not like it should stay on the flat."
My gentle slope training over, he tactfully made no comment on my potential as a hill-side driver.