This year’s hotly contested Contractor of the Year award features a trio of businesses at the top of their game, all focused on a long-term, financially sustainable vision with an adaptable approach to new opportunities on the periphery of agriculture.
The 2020 Contractor of the Year finalists
- M Metcalfe & Sons
Silver Hill Farm, Tunstall, Richmond, North Yorkshire
- Tom Dirom Agricultural Contractors
Pool in Wharfedale, Otley, Yorkshire
- P Russon & Sons
New Farm, Burton, Lincoln, Lincolnshire
The judging team visited each of the finalists for a three-hour interview and tour of their business.
The Contractor of the Year judges ar: Oliver Mark, Farmers Weekly machinery editor, Jill Hewitt, independent judge, and last year’s winner, Allan Wilson.
M Metcalfe & Sons
Silver Hill Farm, Tunstall, Richmond, North Yorkshire (DL10 7RF)
The Metcalfe family knows a thing or two about running a slick contracting operation, having served farmers across North Yorkshire and County Durham for 52 years.
However, its 17-strong Fendt tractor fleet, state-of-the-art applicators and immaculately kept implements are a far cry from the small enterprise started by Martin and Wilf Metcalfe five decades ago.
Much of that growth is attributed to a keen eye for niche and highly profitable opportunities, whether it be early-generation precision-chop foragers, a county-wide shredding and composting site or, most recently, a lucrative deal to spread ice cream washings from a local factory on to customers’ farmland.
This diversity of income sources helps spread financial risk and justifies investments in high-tech equipment that delivers both efficiency gains for the business and a better service for its customers.
The organic ice cream washings – low in nitrogen but high in potash and trace elements – are spread on local farmland, and the rolling three-year contract has given Metcalfe the security to invest in a crab-steering Claas Xerion Saddle Trac self-propelled tanker for the job.
To handle the vast quantity of liquid and avoid weather-related interruptions, the company has put a huge amount of work into fine-tuning the logistics. This includes using gateway mats and nurse tanks to minimise mess and the company’s own RTK base station to help with record keeping in a sector tightly governed by the Environment Agency.
The family prides itself on the quality and cleanliness of the kit in its arsenal and a fleet-wide telematics system ensures a fastidious servicing regime is maintained to preserve residual values.
Their efforts pay off when it comes to trade-ins, with buyers often lined up months in advance and happy to pay top-end prices.
Successful machinery trading is also the result of carefully planned purchases, with the firm prioritising premium brands and popular models that have guaranteed demand further down the line.
Although most tractors come with a long warranty, trade-ins are timed to extract maximum value and upgrades are frequent to minimise depreciation. Bargaining power is also increased by purchasing several machines at once to get healthy discounts and the best warranty terms.
The focus on top-spec machinery benefits the company’s customers, too. The forager, for instance, is kitted out with yield mapping and dry matter sensors, with crop and machinery performance stats kept on file so that customers can compare yields over several years. These can then be used to help get the most from future crops.
Any additions to the fleet are based on customers’ long-term farming aims and the machinery best suited to achieve them.
The team of seven, which can double at peak times, is trained and tested annually for health and safety competence in order to obtain the various industrial-level licences to complete work at sites such as Ministry of Defence airfields.
To help manage their workloads and streamline job management, the family is currently developing its own smartphone app, too.
After trialling other offerings, they decided to build a bespoke system that will allow tasks to be sent by phone to staff members, jobs to be logged and diesel use recorded, helping to keep a tighter grip on output and costs.
What the judges say
The Metcalfe family has a keen eye for alternative services that dovetail neatly with the main agricultural business and deliver strong, stable profits, helping to eke maximum value from their machinery, technology and staffing investments.
• 52 years in ag contracting
• 150 customers
• 17 Fendt tractors
• 7 full-time staff
• 200t ice cream factory washings spread weekly
• Services offered: Silage, combining, baling and wrapping, muckspreading, cultivating, drilling, stone crushing and excavation work
• Main customer base: Arable, dairy and mixed, plus licences to remove waste products from the food, drink and digestate industries
• Area covered: North Yorkshire and County Durham
What the judges liked
• Adaptable and innovative in exploring business opportunities
• Robust pricing structure ensures profitability
• Close relationship with machinery suppliers minimises costs
• Pragmatic approach to new kit purchasing decisions
• Diligent job record keeping
Tom Dirom Agricultural Contractors
Pool in Wharfedale, Otley, Yorkshire (LS21 1QY)
Machinery-loving Tom Dirom is living his farming dream, but without his wholehearted commitment to the business, it could quickly have turned into a nightmare.
His fledgling contracting outfit was left £242,000 out of pocket after his main customer went bust. Though rather than being a financial wrecking ball, it served as a catalyst for expansion and he applied seemingly endless reserves of determination and enthusiasm to rebuild.
Despite now owning a barn full of immaculate kit, Tom started from humble beginnings, leaving the family farm at the age of 16 with the hope of one day assembling a fleet of machines that would allow him to work for himself.
After years working day and night for various agricultural contractors, he’d earned himself a good reputation and, in 2007, realised a childhood ambition by starting his own business.
He certainly didn’t stand still, though, and his first New Holland TM 155 tractor was quickly joined by a loading shovel, trailers and more tractors, as he hoovered up work with civil engineering firms, recycling businesses and mainstream farming customers.
Before long he was forage harvesting and combining, too – his can-do attitude developing the business at breakneck speed and a personable approach helping to attract custom from some of the biggest estates in the area.
Tom readily admits he’s an impulsive buyer, but cheques are only signed once convinced he’s got value for money.
That approach gives him a strong hand in negotiations and has taken him through several tractor brands, with his current stable containing five Valtras, two Cases and a pair of John Deeres.
He aims to pay everything off over three years and is exceptionally kit-proud – something that has rubbed off on his big team of staff, who all go out of their way to keep exteriors pristine and cabs spotless. This attention to detail is financially beneficial when it comes to selling the tractors at the end of their three-year payment term, by which point they’ve often clocked up 9,000 hours but still command strong second-hand values.
To simplify fleet management, all the tractors are highly specced and have the capacity to add value to services by offering variable rate seed and fertiliser applications using RTK guidance.
Similarly, he can slot into a customer’s controlled-traffic system – downloading their tramlines if necessary – and offer yield maps from the combines and forager. Much of the information can then be transferred directly into a customer’s Gatekeeper management software to reduce the administrative burden.
With up to 20 staff to manage at peak times, management inevitably has its challenges. But with Tom determined to spend time in the tractor seat to make sure his exacting work standards are upheld – something he believes has been the bedrock of his rapidly-grown business – he is increasingly sharing the logistical burden with son, Liam.
As well as benefiting the long-term future of the company, this frees him up to focus on arable customers and a new venture in the world of willow harvesting, where he now cuts 1,500ha through October to March.
Never one to shy away from an opportunity, he invested in a specialist, and expensive, Swedish-built header for the job. The gamble has paid off in allowing him to keep his forage harvesting fleet and team of staff busy throughout the year.
What the judges say
Tom’s positive, can-do attitude, hard work and exceptionally high standards have been central to his meteoric rise in becoming one of Yorkshire’s most sought-after farm contractors. He continues to invest in a brave but calculated fashion and has been rewarded with a flourishing business.
• 13 years in ag contracting
• 100 customers
• 9 Valtra, Case-IH and John Deere tractors
• 8 full-time staff
• 1,500ha willow cutting annually
• Services offered: All agricultural contracting, including foraging, combining, drilling and spraying, as well as willow harvesting and highway maintenance
• Main customer base: Beef, dairy, arable and AD plants
• Area covered: Yorkshire and surrounding counties
What the judges liked
• Can-do attitude and exceptionally hard working
• Exacting standards deliver high-quality workmanship
• Down-to-earth approach has formed strong, trusting customer relationships
• Highly driven to expand the business
• Quickly adding diversifications to spread financial risk and get more value from growing machinery fleet
P Russon & Sons
New Farm, Burton, Lincoln, Lincolnshire (LN1, 2RD)
Organisation and planning are at the heart of the vast contracting outfit built by Tim Russon, whose office-based role allows him the time to manage the head-spinning logistics of a barn-load of kit and up to 30 staff at peak times.
His no-nonsense approach to pricing and payments, sharpened through tough experiences in the cut-throat industrial waste sector, has helped to tune his business to run at maximum efficiency for the benefit of both him and his customers.
Like many budding contractors, his business started as a bolt-on to the family’s dairy farm, but it quickly snowballed, as maize drilling led to harvesting and complete forage services.
His “work smarter, not harder” mantra meant he stopped regularly driving 15 years ago, instead choosing to use his time to manage a growing army of staff and machinery.
This shift has given him more time to plan jobs, manage his dozens of cost-tracking spreadsheets and promote the business to new and existing customers.
He aims to work several days ahead, organising chemical, diesel and spare parts deliveries and devising rainy-day alternatives to keep the staff busy when the weather scuppers his plans.
Though agricultural contracting still dominates the workload, he also has a sister company, TR recycling, that bales 80,000t of waste annually at Grimsby dock, shifts cat litter from ships to stores and provides construction site clearance.
These additional operations complement the agricultural contracting in providing year-round work that utilises equipment in quieter periods.
Tim takes a matter-of-fact approach to machinery purchases based on how much money they cost and how much they can earn. Years of diligent data recording has formed a vast bank of information that details precise running costs for different tasks and the associated machinery depreciation.
New tractors are taken with extended warranties to avoid expensive and time-consuming lay offs. Most are run to 6,500 hours but, as purchase prices rise, he expects to extend this to squeeze maximum value from his investments.
It means the two on-site workshops will have a bigger role to play. They’re already impeccably organised and fully stocked, with crates of spares shunted around to make them accessible while the kit is running.
Managing up to 30 seasonal staff is no mean feat, so the business uses a clocking-in machine to track who is at work and JCB’s Livelink telematics system to monitor machine whereabouts and usage, providing vital insights into fuel use and idle times that can be used to improve efficiency.
Staff are also armed with daily checklists for equipment, which means any defects are recorded and problems fixed. They’re also given annual appraisals, continually assessed to make sure they are working to their full potential and encouraged to discuss any issues they have with their role in the team.
Though it has its complexities, running such a big team with a range of skills provides the flexibility for time off during busy periods and Tim is acutely aware of the risk of burning team members out, so often restricts them to 14-hour days.
His work across a broad range of safety-scrutinised sectors has also given him a laser focus on health and safety. Participating in the Assured Land-based Contractors scheme necessitates the business to work within the parameters set out by the Health and Safety Executive, keep training records and complete risk assessments for all types of work.
He also expects customers to contribute with site maps, including details of overhead power lines and other hazards.
What the judges say
Tim’s fastidious planning and meticulous costings have formed a big and ruthlessly efficient business, and a pragmatic approach to staff management, training and health and safety provides a great benchmark to which other contractors should aspire.
• 32 years in ag contraction
• 200 customers
• 12 full-time staff
• 3 Claas Jaguar forage harvesters
• 80,000t waste baling at Grimsby docks
• Services offered: Forage and miscanthus harvesting, drilling, grain maize combining, baling, muckspreading and digestate application
• Main customer base: Anaerobic digester plants and livestock farmers
• Area covered: Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire
What the judges liked
• Well-planned workflow with back-up alternatives to keep stuff busy during poor weather
• Balanced fleet with machines to suit specific jobs
• Impeccably calculated costs ensure jobs are profitable
• Organised staff management and structured training plan
• Broad range of non-ag services fits well with agricultural business
The Farmers Weekly 2020 Farm Contractor of the Year is sponsored by Tama UK.
“Recognising the role contractors play in British agriculture is vital. The finalists strive to efficiently deliver high work standards through continual investment in new machinery and in the training that allows operators to get the best from it. We’re proud to support Contractor of the Year.”
Warren Tatton, Tama UK commercial manager