Could working farm
machinery longer at peak
times improve profits on
your farm? Andrew Swallow
asked Strutt & Parkers
Mark Hall how to go about
it and visits a Beds-based
farmer contractor where
24-hour working is the norm
WORKING modern arable machinery for 24 hours/day at peak times can slash fixed costs/ha, improve timeliness and substantially boost net farm income.
That is why more growers should consider a shift working system, says Strutt & Parker farm management consultant Mark Hall.
"Basically, you can spread the cost of the equipment you have over a larger area," says Mr Hall. "There may be intangible benefits in terms of yield and weed control from getting jobs done in good time too."
But as Beds-based grower and contractor Robert Barnes of L E Barnes & Sons points out, 24-hour working requires 24-hour management.
"Two-way radios are essential for an efficient operation. It means the staff can talk to each other and if there is a problem they can pool ideas and bounce them around to get a solution."
If that doesnt work, Mr Barnes keeps his mobile on 24 hours/day, seven days/week and will go out to fields with a part or to help move a large machine between fields at 3am if need be.
"With 2000ha of combinable crops, plus contract operations over and above that, it is in my interest to keep the machines and men going," he says.
Mr Hall warns that there are pitfalls which must be avoided if adopting such a policy. Having reliable staff capable of making a quality job at night is imperative.
Not worth it
"If the quality of work starts to fall off too much it is just not worth doing it. You must get the best seed-bed to get the best grassweed control and the best establishment of the crop. Yield and weed control must not be compromised."
Built up areas should be avoided at night and some form of effective tractor-to-base communication is essential from both a management and health and safety point of view.
"That could be a mobile phone, but beware of weak signal areas. You may need another way of communicating."
L E Barnes & Son start night working with oilseed rape swathing in early July, then continue with cultivations as soon as combining starts. A Quad Trac, a Challenger 75 and a Challenger 55 are all kept working 24 hours/day for as long as weather permits.
"The Quad Trac mostly pulls a Solo and press, the 55 is on the plough, and the 75 pulls anything else thats required, such as sub-soiler, discs or discs and press," says Mr Barnes.
An experienced team of "regular casuals" that have usually done three or four seasons at the farm before make up the night shift. Each is teamed up with a full-time day-shift colleague and allocated a tractor.
"Each two-man team is responsible for the maintenance and operation or their machine. We run the cultivation team separately from the combining team, so there is no need to take a man off the plough to go and help with corn-carting."
Shifts are 6am/pm to 6am/pm, plus travelling time to and from the field where the machinery is working. "If you ask a man to work 15-16 hours/day for 6-7 weeks there will be problems."
Cultivation, be it plough, disc or Solo, is kept as close to the combine as possible, creating a seed-bed that is sprayed off prior to drilling with an 8m Simba or 6m Vaderstad drill. A 4m Horsch is used for direct drilling oilseed rape.
The night-shift work finishes once all cultivations to create the stale seed-bed are complete.
Mr Barnes stresses that there is no recreational tillage. "If there is no work for the tractor it will come to a standstill, but if we didnt work 24 hours/day we wouldnt be able to cover the ground we do."
Shift working is not just for the "big boys", says Mr Hall.
"Anyone can do it really. On a smaller family farm it can be worthwhile, staggering shifts so that the slowest operation – often ploughing – gets done in good time."
For example, one operator could work 6am to 8pm, another noon to 2am, hence cutting downtime to four hours/day, while keeping everybodys hours reasonable. "The tractor seat hardly gets cold," he says.
Where extra land has been taken on, introducing shift work is likely to be much cheaper than expanding the machinery fleet to cope, adds Mr Hall.
That is echoed by Mr Barnes. "If you are farming 1000 acres and working 12 hour days, you could probably manage 1800 acres on a 24-hour basis with the same equipment."
While there may be an additional labour cost in the short-term, that is nothing compared to the fixed cost saving of less machines/ha, he adds. "Even a well run 4-500 acre farm doing its own operations is likely to have fixed costs of £150/acre. We can often reduce machinery fixed costs by 30%." *
GPS guidance systems could help drivers perform more difficult operations at night, such as drilling, says Mr Hall. For example, John Deere recently launched its AutoTrac for steering tractors hands-free in a straight line across the field. "When the driver touches the steering wheel he takes control again," says JDs Jonathan Henry. "Once he has turned round at the headland all he has to do is point it within 45deg of the right direction and the system will take over," Cost is £10,500, available on tracked models only at present. The entry-level Parallel Tracking system is half that, but leaves steering to the operator, providing guidance up the field either with a visual display or audible warnings. Mr Barnes is experimenting with Trimbles system on the farms Quad Trac. "We hope it will allow us to maintain an accurate width which may in turn mean output improvements of 5-10%."
Round-the-clock operations spread costs with primary tractors doing up to 1500 hours/year, says Beds-based farmer contractor Robert Barnes.
• Reliable staff needed.
• Avoid built up areas.
• Communications vital.
• Management on call.
325ha 400ha (day-shift (24 hours) only)
Labour* £75/ha £73/ha
Power* £87/ha £83/ha
Deprecion £90/ha £73/ha
Property £74/ha £60/ha
Admin etc £30/ha £24/ha
Misc £9/ha £7/ha
Total £365/ha £320/ha
Total for farm £118,625 £128,625
Output** £186,875 £230,000
Net farm income £68,250 £101,375
Source: Strutt & Parker.
*Includes £5000 extra labour charge for 24-hour working and additional repairs allowance. All other totals unchanged by area increase.
**Based on standard £575/ha gross margin across farm.