Building and maintaining customer relationships are two important qualities of any successful farm contractor.
To achieve them you need a rock-solid team, which is exactly what our three finalists have endeavoured to create.
See also: Find out more about the Farmers Weekly Awards
Spring Farm Partnership, Felthorpe, Norfolk
Most youngsters with an interest in farming dream of having a huge contracting operation with a shed full of machinery, but turning that fantasy into reality takes more than just wishful thinking.
Yet Oliver Arnold’s rise through the farming ranks is even more impressive.
Entering the industry with no agricultural experience, he took his post-college learning to farms in Russia and Australia before setting up with 30 heifers back home in Norfolk.
What’s in the shed?
Tractors 2 x Fendt 936, 4 x John Deere 6210R
Forage equipment Krone BigX 1100, John Deere 8400
Sugar beet Ropa Euro 4 Tiger harvester
Slurry 3 x Terragator 2244 with Tebbe discharge plates,
1 x Terragator 2244 with liquid injector
Handlers Pistenbully 300,
JCB 434s, JCB 541-70
From that, his contracting business was formed.
Initially it focused on basic livestock jobs, but he eventually added a forager to his repertoire.
But all that is now a distant memory as you run your eyes across his machinery fleet.
Huge investment in the best farming equipment money can buy has allowed him to cater for some 350 customers, predominantly across Norfolk and Suffolk.
In many cases he works on jobs that demand some pretty specialist machinery.
“I need to be able to offer services that farmers can’t do themselves, which means investing in high-tech, self-propelled machinery.
“Provided you can keep the kit busy, it is the most efficient way of getting the work done.”
Focusing on specialist jobs allows Oliver to steer clear of the ultra-competitive sectors such as combining, spraying and, latterly, straw baling.
Alongside a Ropa beet harvester that covers 1,000ha/year, his machinery shed includes four Terragators.
It might sound like a bit of a luxury, but they are the bedrock of the muck, compost, fertiliser and lime side of the business.
And with Agco ceasing their production, they should hold their money – something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Oliver.
“Some of them are reaching their fifth year and have clocked 12,000 hours, but it is worth spending the money needed to keep them going because their residuals are so high.”
What the judges liked
Researches machinery and farming methods thoroughly before investment
Not afraid of pioneering new systems
Focus on profit and financials
The willingness to hold on to machinery beyond its natural use-by date comes from his love for the workshop.
To keep the bills down, all of the servicing is done on-farm and workshop sheets must be filled in, which helps track the costs of each piece of kit.
That confidence in his team’s workshop skills means there is no set plan for machinery replacement and some of the higher-horsepower Fendts have even hit the 13,000-hour mark.
Instead, Oliver considers each replacement individually – its value, reliability and the quality of the potential newcomer.
That way he makes the most economically sound decision for the business.
New machinery is researched thoroughly, even if it means flying to another country to see it in action.
“I am always keen to try new technology,” says Oliver, who was also one of the first in the area to install a biogas plant and is now producing 3MW from two plants.
Operations: Green harvesting for both forage and biomass, sugar beet harvesting, muckspreading, cultivations, drilling, baling and bulk haulage of digestate
Latterly he has been experimenting with strip-tilling using a Sly Agri Stripcat to try to cut the quantity of topsoil blown from the fields, but his enthusiasm for new kit has also led to a few off-the-wall purchases.
His Pistenbully has replaced two machines on the clamp and is perfectly suited to the short chop length of grass and maize silage destined for the biogas plant.
It is another example of Oliver’s willingness to experiment in order to improve the efficiency of the business.
“It is all about reacting to the market – if new opportunities open up you need to be willing to invest in the machinery and manpower demanded by the customer,” says Oliver.
“That said, we are not afraid to stop doing work that doesn’t turn an acceptable profit,” he says.
“There is no point doubling your turnover while the profit stays the same – you are taking on all the extra work and hassle for no financial gain.”
To increase the visibility of the business, Oliver takes a stand at the Royal Norfolk Show each year and has also presented at the Norfolk Farming Conference.
Social media plays a big role in growing the operation too, not only in finding new customers, but also in attracting the best staff.
Bartlett Contractors, Hinton St Mary, Dorset
Anyone with a few quid in their pocket can buy the land and machinery needed to go farming, but having a keen, close-knit team is a business ingredient money can’t buy.
Yet, for a contractor it is the most important thing. And for Bartlett Contractors it has made the difference in winning local business despite the intense competition.
What’s in the shed?
Tractors All Fendt: 2 x 936, 2 x 820, 3 x 724, 3 x 720
Forage harvesters Claas Jaguar 970, Fendt Katana 85
Slurry Terragator slurry injection with three nurse tanks
Handlers Manitou, 10 Caterpillar diggers 3-30t
Drainage Mastenbroek trencher, 2 x side-discharge gravel carts, JCB 3CX
It is a family firm, and the clan’s enthusiasm for the job is woven into the fabric of the business.
Three generations of the family are now involved in some capacity.
The business was started by Roger Bartlett way back in 1959.
He offered basic green harvesting services and, during quieter times, ditching and drainage.
Remarkably, Bartletts have kept many of the same customers, which is testament to the quality of the team’s work.
“We operate in a competitive area where there are 20 different contractors within a 15-mile radius, but we are still picking up customers,” says managing director Rob Bartlett.
“While there is no doubt some of our rivals can match us on speed, we take a long-term view and so the standard of workmanship is our primary focus.
“Our livestock customers are taking a closer interest in grass quality, so we have to deliver what they want.”
Just like its long-running customer relationships, the company has also retained several of its original staff, some who have been with the company for more than 40 years. It doesn’t go unnoticed by customers.
“Regular clients like to see the same faces and most of our drivers know the fields they work in as well as the farmers who own them – it helps speed up the job and reduces the risk of accidents,” says Rob.
What the judges liked
Family environment builds strong customer relationships
Well-balanced cashflow helps stay on top of balance sheets
Diverse range of businesses keeps the team busy
The company runs a fleet of new Fendt tractors.
They might not be cheap, but they bring a sense of gravitas to the operation and are appreciated by drivers and customers alike.
Most have a front loader to go with them, which saves spending more money on telehandlers to work alongside them.
Because of the quantity of work they get through, Bartletts has a steady machinery rotation policy that sees the core kit replaced every four years.
By then the hard-worked 724s will have clocked up close to 10,000 hours, while the 900-series heavy horses rack up about 1,800 hours annually.
The civil engineering side of the business helps balance the books.
Mid-sized tractors are used for pipeline work during the quieter seasons, which keeps both tractors and men busy.
Any contractor will tell you that keeping the money flowing in is one of their toughest tasks, particularly when the dairy sector accounts for a bulk of the clients.
Operations: Forage harvesting grass, wholecrop and maize, mowing, baling and wrapping, muck and slurry spreading, cultivations, drilling, spraying, land drainage, straw supplies
28 full-time employees
“Some 80% of our customers milk cows, so we often structure the payments in advance to help with their cashflows,” says Rob.
“We offer 12-month packages to the customers who require them, which also helps balance our income across the course of the year.
“Our customers appreciate the job we do and the trust goes both ways.”
The company has never shirked any type of new work, and that willingness to adapt has steadily increased its workload.
Ditching and drainage have been core parts of the business since the start, but Bartletts has also supplied men for milking, feeding cows and even TB testing.
Work also extends to awkward 4ha fields that might not turn an immediate profit.
“You never know where that small bit of work to help out a neighbour might lead to,” says Rob.
“We have even started charging for sheeting clamps – a new service that keeps farmers happy – as well as snow clearing and track regeneration.
“You have to be ahead of the game to keep the business growing,” he says.
Russell & Lorraine Gaw
RG Contracting, Port William, Scotland
Farming is the primary livelihood for the residents of the tiny seaside village of Port William and, as the biggest employer, Russell and Lorraine Gaw’s contracting business is right at the heart of it.
The peninsula in south-west Scotland is the heartland of dairy and beef production.
In many ways its geographic location is perfect – a warmish climate and rain by the bucket load means there is no shortage of grass, but it also brings some challenges that would be completely alien to the average farm.
What’s in the shed?
Tractors 3 x Claas 820, 620, 630, 2 x New Holland T7.200, Case Puma 185; 3 x Valtra T131, Fendt 828
Forage equipment Claas Jaguar 950, 2 x Schuitemaker 520 forage wagon
Handlers JCB 320s; JCB 416; Doosan 140 excavator
Sugar beet Vervaet 617
Take the sea breeze, for instance – lovely and fresh, but brutally corrosive. It means machinery rotation must be handled delicately. Tractors are replaced every three years, after roughly 6,000 hours, but RG Contracting’s frontline horsepower is unlike most others.
Five different tractor brands are lined up in the shed because Russell insists on shopping around.
The local dealer – Gordons – has supplied a handful of them, but to keep costs down and dealers on their toes, Russell will travel as far as 85 miles to keep the line-up fresh.
Staff also have a say in tractor purchases and each of the 10-strong team is in charge of servicing their own machines, which helps keep a closer eye on costs.
With that in mind, Russell is also implementing a bonus scheme.
“Each driver gets a £1,000 kitty and the cost of any accidental damage, excluding wear and tear, is taken from it,” explains Russell. “Any cash left over at the end of the season is given as a bonus, which encourages drivers to take care.”
The fact that a contracting business is able to offer full-time employment to 10 staff in such a remote location is impressive in itself.
To keep hold of his team, Russell has worked hard to cultivate new opportunities to keep the men busy through the leaner months.
What the judges liked
Steadily expanded the business despite geographical challenges
Focus on the local community and team of staff
Very close relationship with local customers with a can-do attitude
This has seen the company take up work as far afield as Coupar Angus in Perthshire.
It is an eight-hour drive to haul the gear they need to spread slurry and lift energy beet, but it has the potential to become a satellite business for Russell and Lorraine’s son when he is ready to join the company.
“The work further north has allowed us to invest in a Vervaet beet harvester. It means when we are not working up there, we have a big machine to lift fodder beet in the local area during the winter, which makes us more efficient.”
Russell has also bought a digger to keep one man busy year-round ditching and shifting rocks.
But, as you would expect in a near-perfect grass-growing region, silage remains the core of the business.
It supplies about 40% of the income and the forager travels up to 18 miles from the farm base.
The company almost monopolises the contracting work in the local area and also spreads as much as 100m gallons of slurry every year.
Operations: Forage harvesting, baling, muck and slurry spreading, cultivations, drilling, sugar/fodder beet harvesting, excavation, hedgecutting, bruising barley
10 full-time employees, plus extras through peak season
Timeliness is key, and Russell’s philosophy of an hour in the morning being worth two in the afternoon is played out year after year.
“Keeping the team fresh results in fewer accidents and we always take a good lunchbreak where possible to recharge the batteries.
“We also give workers rainy days off during the busy seasons,” he says.
Some of the bigger customers have an annual review of the quantity of work undertaken and then pay in equal-sized monthly instalments.
It helps their cashflow and provides the company with a steady income to pay wages.
Staff are kept on salaries to limit the effect of overtime and the company uses the tablet-based Kash Flow application to track the income from each of the services.
It also allows the invoices and other financials to be sent quickly and easily to the accountant based many miles away.
Russell hopes building a business on sound financials will form a strong base for the future.
Farm Contractor of the Year is sponsored by JCB.
“All three finalists have balanced machinery finance and staff workloads to build their successful contracting operations in what has been one of the most closely fought Contractor of the Year categories we have ever seen.”
Richard Foxley, marketing manager, JCB