3 May 1996

Welcome aboard, new contractors

From this month two businesses – one in Cornwall, the other in Cumbria – join our regular Contractors Comment team. Here Andrew Faulkner travels to the south-west to meet Cornishman Graham Couch. Next week he heads north

FROM all hay/no silage to all silage/no hay. Quite a workload transformation for our Cornish contractor M R Couch & Sons – albeit one that has occurred over a 20-year period.

Back in the mid-1970s the three-man, Bodmin-based outfit baled an annual 40,000 conventional bales, mainly hay, with two New Holland 376 balers. Ensiled grass was considered to be no more than a passing fad.

Today, it is quite different. Now the three Couch brothers make silage from about 1000ha (2500 acres) of grass and 300ha (800 acres) of maize, with baling relegated to a minor, fill-in operation.

"A couple of wet seasons in the late-70s changed farmers attitudes to silage down here. The crop took off," Graham Couch explains.

"And as our silaging area grew, we made a conscious decision to get out and stay out of baling. Round baling, in particular, is a cut-throat business in this area, with people baling up grass for as little as £1.10/bale."

Development of the Couchs silaging operation has followed a traditional contracting pattern over the past 20 years. They started out with three Fahr self-loading forage wagons before progressing onto precision chop Claas and latterly JF trailed foragers. And in 1993 they bought their first self-propelled, a 12-month-old Claas 690SL.

Alongside those changes in hardware, fleet output has also dramatically increased. The trio of self-loading wagons struggled to haul in a total of 4ha/day (10 acres/day), while todays single Claas forager and its back-up team of four 8t trailers regularly return 24-28ha/day (60-70 acres/day) of first cut grass.

Given the 316hp Claass potential capacity, that 60-70 acre total may appear rather modest. But then burying the buckrake under a mountain of grass has never been the Couchs primary objective.

Topography, field size and clamp accessibility tend to be bigger dictators of output than harvester muscle alone, and explain the firms choice of back-up equipment. A standard 100hp Case 5130 and buckrake are responsible for all clamping duties, and ferrying trailer capacity is restricted to 8t rather than the 10t+ contractor norm.

"Steep slopes in this area mean 10t trailers can rarely be filled to capacity, so whats the point in buying them," Graham Couch says.

"We have a lot of long-term customers with confined yards and small fields. That also restricts output. For example, there are farms where we have to go in and out of 15 fields to cut 20 acres."

With such apparently insurmountable obstacles to output, it begs the question: Why buy a self-propelled forager? The answer is maize.

The maize business is now a major part of the Couchs operation and is one reason why the Claas forager is kept busy for almost six months of the year.

Bodmin Moor is the other. While many harvesters are taking a mid-summer break before third/fourth cut and maize, the Couch machine is still tucking into moorland farmers first cut. Lambs not making the trip off silage leys and onto the moor until June/July explains the tardy start.

Hedge cutting is the major out-of-season money-earner, with three trimmers clocking up an annual 1500 hours. For at least four months of the year, the machines are permanent fixtures on two of the Couchs tractors, and keep men and machines earning during those otherwise quiet winter months – months that traditionally make or break a contracting business. &#42

&#8226 Work undertaken: forage harvesting grass and maize, hedge trimming, slurry and muck spreading.

&#8226 Machinery fleet: three main tractors – 140hp Fiat F140 Winner, 100hp Case Maxxum 5130 and 95hp New Holland 7740SL -, 316hp Claas 690SL self-propelled forager, two Gaspardo maize drills, 6000-litre (1300gal) Malgar slurry tanker, three rotary muckspreaders and three Bomford Turner B49X hedge-trimmers.

&#8226 Labour: Graham, Brian and Barry Couch plus extra seasonal staff.

M R Couchs new flagship tractor, a 140hp Fiat F140 Winner, arrived at its Bodmin base in February; it replaced a seven-year-old 160hp model.

Inset: Graham Couch