5 May 1995

Plan ahead – please!

Farm machinery and tractor hire has become a popular means of acquiring kit for both contractors and farmers. Some contractors have even added hire to the list of services they offer. Peter Hill talks to two hire operators about their approach

DESPITE his best efforts to get farmers to think ahead, Tim Hubert still gets calls from customers wanting a machine the next day – or even later the same day.

It causes headaches and frustration when such demands cant be met, all the more so when the business is geared to providing a professional service.

"If I cant do it properly, I would rather not do it at all," says Mr Hubert, whose Agri-Hire operation is based at Bramford near Ipswich, Suffolk.

"We set out to provide a reliable service with reliable equipment and I think, on the whole, we achieve that. But it does help if customers plan ahead, and let us know their requirements in time."

Although there are still one or two items of tillage equipment on the hire list – power harrows, for example – the business now specialises in trailers, vacuum tankers and manure spreaders. Few of the 40-strong fleet are more than two years old, partly because they are worked hard and partly because Tim Hubert insists on supplying up-to-date equipment.

"It is very rare for a spreader not to go into the workshop for a thorough check-over between hirings," he says. "Breakdowns are annoying for customers and a big hassle for us. If something needs repairing, Id rather do it here than 30 miles away in someones yard."

Anti-breakdown strategy

The anti-breakdown strategy extends to non-standard specifications for much of the kit, with spreaders getting bigger gearboxes, for example, to cope with the rigours of hire operation.

Agri-Hire currently runs more than 20 spreaders, a combination of 9t, 10t and 12t low-line vertical beater machines which handle strawy yard manure as well as factory waste, plus 10t and 12t capacity horizontal beater spreaders. The horizontal beater machines are fitted with spinners for chicken manure and beet factory lime work, as well as spreading yard material.

The advantages of hiring are threefold, reckons Tim Hubert. First, it avoids the capital cost of buying the machines outright; second, customers can get the job done quicker by hiring two or three spreaders when they could justify owning only one. Third, it removes the hassle of owning a machine that can be troublesome, needs a fair bit of maintenance, and tends to sit in the yard doing nothing for most of the year.

"Arable farms that are buying in or swapping straw for muck need spreaders to get the material on quickly between harvest and cultivations," says Tim Hubert. "They have big enough tractors these days, so can do the job promptly by hiring in two or three big machines."

Typically, the spreaders go out on three- or four-day hires but are available for a day, or a fortnight or more, charged at the same daily rate plus a delivery and collection charge of 50p/mile. A pair of Mercedes-Benz Unimogs does all the running about, delivering and picking up machines throughout the east of England.

Clean and serviceable

Machines are delivered to customers clean and serviceable and are expected back in the same condition. Customers are responsible for daily maintenance, including any lubrication where necessary. The same goes for weekly maintenance, such as checking chain tension and tyre pressures, over longer hire periods. "We stand by any breakdowns that occur through general wear and tear or machine fault," notes Mr Hubert. "But if a customer drops half a brick wall in the spreader and breaks it, well repair it but the cost is down to him," he adds.

In practice, claims against customers rarely exceed one or two a year, he maintains.

The dozen or so 13t and 14t trailers in the fleet tend to be hired for a season – dumpers for sugar beet, bulkers for grain and potatoes. The trailers have top specifications including sprung drawbars, suspended tandem axles and hydraulic tailgates.

Trailers are in demand for farmer beet harvesting groups or larger individual outfits where extra haulage capacity is needed – often where additional land has been taken on and longer haulage distances require an extra trailer.

The four vacuum tankers Tim Hubert hires out are home-built; despite the huge number of manufacturers involved in this business, he says, he couldnt find the right specification.

The tankers are 9090-litre (2000gal) capacity and run on full-width Terra-Tires. Wheel arches are cut into the tank to keep the tyres within the 2.4m (8ft) maximum width limit, and a low height is incorporated for extra stability.

With such a large fleet of machinery on mainly short-term hire, it is a big task to get the right machine, in the right place at the right time. Each one is logged on computer, with earnings and costs recorded individually.