16 January 1998

Something out of nothing

This month, Contractors

Comment moves east, to

Suffolk, and welcomes R & J

Self to our regular

Contractors Comment team.

Geoff Ashcroft reports

STARTING a contracting business with no orders and no equipment could be seen by some as financial suicide – but not by our Suffolk contractor R & J Self.

That was 10 years ago, and through hard work and perseverance, Robert Self and his wife Jane now have a thriving business which employs two full-time staff and up to 12 casuals during peak times.

From Grange Farm at Creeting St Mary, near Ipswich, the Selfs plan workloads carefully and schedule dates to suit customers. It means a workload of baling 40,000 medium density straw bales, 404ha (1000 acres) of beet drilling, 728ha (1800 acres) of beet harvesting, and about 485ha (1200 acres) of rape swathing are handled.

But the beet operation is not Mr Selfs greatest workload.

Surprisingly, in a region populated by large arable units and sugar beet growers, it is forage harvesting that dominates the business. About 800ha (2000 acres) of grass and 730ha (1800 acres) of maize silage are made.

"Well travel up to 60 miles to carry out foraging for our customers," explains Robert Self. "And by not relying too heavily on the more traditional contracting operations in this area, we have filled a few niche markets and manage to remain busy for almost 10 months of the year."

Future decided

Mr Self left the familys Walnut Tree Farm at Henley, Suffolk, in 1987 to pursue his interest in contracting. He had a taste of contracting while at home on the farm and knew this was where his future lay. And not surprisingly, his father and brother are now customers of the R & J Self contracting business.

"At the time I started contracting, I knew of someone winding down a business with 300 acres of foraging, so it was an opportunity to get on the first rung of the ladder. I bought a second-hand John Deere 4250 and trailed forage harvester and literally, never looked back," he says. "But thats not to say it was all plain sailing."

Mr Self admits there were many bleak times and he now has an understanding relationship with the bank manager.

"It took a while to progress the business and it meant I had to offer a service which no one else could offer," he says. "We wanted to buy kit to expand, but without any business history, we were forced into leasing agreements to get hold of expensive, high capacity equipment."

A Caterpillar D6 joined the trailed forager operation to provide a moling and subsoiling service which lasted for four years. It coincided with ploughing and power harrowing – services which are no longer offered by R&J Self.

"There was still the "fire brigade" image of contractors who were called in at the last minute when farmers either baled out of a job or his kit broke down. It was not until the late 80s that we could get customers to start planning when they would need to make use of us."

Long association

Mr Selfs long-standing association with forage harvesting is one which should have seen him move to the West Country. But his determination to buck the trend in such a predominantly arable area drove him on to make foraging the mainstay of the business.

In only his second year of contracting, the trailed forager made way for a self-propelled John Deere 5830. And, naturally, grass silage led on to maize, and in difficult years this also saw the whole crop side of the business start to take shape.

The current silaging operation, though scattered far and wide, requires a 410hp JD6910 to be used – and with much travelling between grass contracts, output is about 22ha (55 acres)/day. Supporting this is a 170hp JD7800 with front-end loader for clamp duties, a front and rear mowing combination, 7.5m (25ft) wide rake, plus trailers. For maize harvesting, a Kemper header is used.

"Weve tried to develop the business so work doesnt overlap too much, but its not easy," explains Mr Self. "Beet and maize drilling lead up to first, second and third cut grass silage. Then its rape swathing and baling by mid-July, before maize harvesting and beet lifting take us up to Christmas."

January and February give rise to a hectic workshop period where every item of equipment gets a good overhaul. It also means staff get a holiday.

"Second only to customers, the workshop is the most important part of the business," says Mr Self. "Id rather spend an extra couple of hundred £s replacing parts in the workshop than lose a day because of a silly breakdown."

From starting 10 years ago with no equipment or work, Suffolk contractor R & J Self has evolved its business to filling niche markets. Inset: Over the years Robert Self has seen contracting shift from being a fire-brigade task, to a planned part of everyday farming.

SELF BUSINESS DATA

&#8226 Base: Grange Farm, All Saints Road, Creeting St Mary, Ipswich (01449-722711).

&#8226 Work undertaken: Sugar beet drilling and harvesting, maize drilling and harvesting, grass silaging, medium density straw baling, rape swathing, whole crop silaging.

&#8226 Machinery fleet: Four John Deere tractors (110-170hp), 410hp John Deere self-propelled forager, two Krone BigPack 880 balers, two self-propelled beet harvesters, two Hesston rape swathers, Arcusin bale trailer, JD1360 and 228 mowers, plus associated tackle.

&#8226 Labour: Robert and Jane, plus two full-time staff and up to 12 casuals during peak times.