When you run a contracting business as well as your own farm, and a tractor driver falls ill at a critical time of year, you can do without the hassle of unreliable machinery.
Throw in unusually hard soil conditions, relieved only recently by rain, and it’s hardly surprising that Troy Stuart’s autumn drilling programme at Clyst St Mary, near Exeter, has been disrupted.
“We’re about 500 acres behind where we’d like to be,” he says. “The main reason is that it has simply been too dry. In places, we just couldn’t get into the ground.
“We had one chap go sick on 6 August, got behind with the cultivations and it’s all had a knock-on effect, especially as we are mostly non-inversion tillage, which needs a lot more management if you are going to do it right.
“But I’m also concerned about machinery reliability. It’s a major challenge. We have plenty of new technology and improvements in products. But the reliability’s just not there at the moment.”And that unreliability is not just linked to new technology, he stresses.
It began with irritating breakdowns on the Claas Lexion 580 combine, which lost nearly three days of harvesting.
“The clean grain auger broke and we had several other simple things – not the sort of problems you’d expect on a machine only three years old.”
A range of mechanical faults on his 10-strong fleet of tractors, ranging from burst radiators, failed hydraulic pumps and alternators, to a complete rear wheel and drive shaft coming adrift when hauling grain, then followed.
Although all Mr Stuart’s tractors are John Deeres, he says it would be unfair to single the firm out for particular criticism, and he praises his local dealers for their efforts to minimise the downtime.
“It’s not so much the cost of repairs that are the worry, it’s the hassle factor the breakdowns cause and the lack of confidence our experience creates. With machinery, you want to know it’s going to work when you need it.”
Some engine problems, such as fuel sensor issues, can be attributed to manufacturers trying to keep up with new emissions legislation, he says. “But we’re still suffering from really simple things like cracked guards.”
CULTIVATORS ON TRAIL
About 75% of the 1620ha (4000 acres) of autumn cereals Troy Stuart sows for himself and his customers are established by non-inversion tillage.
Drilling rarely starts before 20 September to ease disease pressures.
“We have tried direct drilling, but it doesn’t really work because much of the land round here goes tight and needs lifting,” he says.
His primary pre-drilling tool is a 4.4m Quivogne Tinemaster cultivator, with a home-designed nine-leg machine based on Shakaerator tines providing deeper soil lifting where required.
“The plough is a useful agronomy tool, especially for tackling brome, as we have oats in the rotation and there are no herbicides to deal with brome in oats.”
“We used to run two power-harrow drills because many of our customers still prefer ploughing. But the Vaderstad is so flexible, we have found we can manage with just one.
“The Tinemaster is a good, mainly reliable bit of kit, but technology moves on, and it’s been a good season to test some new machines to replace it next year.”
That led to a side-by-side test on some hard ground after oilseed rape of two Sumo models, a 4.5m Trio and a 4m Quattro; a 4.5m Simba Solo ST; and a 5m Vaderstad Topdown. All were hauled by a John Deere 8520.
Drilling after all of them was easier than after the Tinemaster, he says.
“The Sumo machines were the easiest to set up and left by far the best finish. But the Trio didn’t like too much trash and the Quattro took just too much pulling.
The Simba, with its cross discs, did a good job, but with plenty of adjustments, it needs a lot of setting up.
“At the time, the Vaderstad didn’t seem to be doing so well, and it certainly needs a good operator to set it up for the best finish.
But its advantage is that you can lift the legs out and use it only 2in deep as a chitting machine. It’s effectively two machines in one.”