Farmers Weekly Awards: Contractor of the Year finalists 2018

A keen eye for detail was the standout feature of this year’s three very different contracting finalists, which ranged from a professional herd care service specialising in animal husbandry to big-fleet businesses offering more traditional ag contracting work.

While Mornios Contract Herdcare works on a low-cost, high-profit model in providing relief herdspeople across the country, our other two finalists – Westover Farm Contractors and Sinclair Contracting – run farm services that involve large machinery fleets, specialist kit and high horsepower.

See also: Meet the 2018 Farmers Weekly Awards finalists

The 2018 Farmers Weekly Contractor of the Year finalists

  • Robert Chapman, Westover Farm Contractors, Westover Farm, Calbourne, Isle of Wight
  • Carl and Natalie Martins, Mornios Contract Herdcare, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
  • Magnus Sinclair, Sinclair Contractors, Kinknockie Farm, Udny, Ellon, Aberdeenshire

The judges

  • Russell Price, last year’s winner
  • Oliver Mark, Farmers Weekly machinery editor
  • Jill Hewitt, independent judge

Robert Chapman

Westover Farm Contractors, Westover Farm, Calbourne, Isle of Wight

Robert Chapman stands in a field

© Hugh Nutt

In just eight years, Robert Chapman has built an agricultural contracting empire that covers huge swathes of the Isle of Wight.

The bare bones of his business were assembled when he took on a 400ha foraging round from a local contractor and – through years of hard work, challenges and shrewd investments – it has blossomed into a 2,800ha diverse contracting operation.

His success stems from delivering the sort of quality job he would expect on his own farm, which has been rewarded with long contracts and lots of returning customers.

At times, that means offering flexibility to those that have lumpy incomes to suit the cashflow needs of both businesses, which he organises during annual review meetings.

Farm facts

  • Offers a contracting service across the whole of the Isle of Wight
  • Main customer base is arable, dairy and AD plants
  • Services provided include combining, forage harvesting, spraying, baling, drilling and cultivations

Machinery

Robert’s love for all things farm machinery means he takes a particularly keen interest in the business’ growing fleet and he is determined to get the most of every new piece of kit that rolls into the yard.

He’s grown from two to 12 tractors in eight years and most are kept for 5,000 hours or three years, with purchasing decisions often based on the experience of other farmers.

Rather than restricting his options to dealers based on the island, Robert has established a close relationship with Compass Tractors in Bridgwater, Somerset.

It provides most of the frontline machines and Robert is often tipped off about good deals that might mean tractors are shipped off from the business after just six months.

Comparatively, most implements come second-hand, leaving someone else to take the biggest hit on depreciation.

Westover’s arsenal now includes kit to cover almost every arable and grassland operation on the island, but machines are also hired in where necessary to make sure jobs are completed promptly.

A full-time mechanic and purpose-built workshop also helps cut the reliance on dealers and mean problems can be sorted quickly with minimal disruption to customers.

Staff

Robert’s business is based around his family and staff are treated in just the same way.

Team members have their own responsibilities, kit and operations, but are multiskilled and can fill in wherever they are needed. It gives them a sense of responsibility and belonging, and means they can get to know customers and help build relationships that might benefit the business in the long term.

They also take great pride in the machinery, which is always looking at its best and reflects the company’s professional approach to work.

Westover is in the unusual position of having a waiting list of potential staff, and a network of local farmers and workers means Robert can quickly bolster his ranks during busy periods.

Seasonal staff come from all over the world and the family farm house becomes their home for the summer, including home-cooked meals every evening and the use of a car on days off. Robert has also helped staff with other accommodation, purchasing vehicles and organising work abroad, based on the mantra that happy staff and their families benefit the business.

Customer relationships

With up to 20 tractors buzzing around during silage season, Robert works hard to minimise disruption to the local community. He maps out one-way systems for the gang to reduce congestion and tries to keep out of towns and heavily trafficked areas where possible.

The company takes a stand at the local ploughing match – a major event in the island’s farming calendar – which gives the team the chance to meet existing and new customers, as well as supporting agriculture in the area.

Robert is also keen to encourage the next generation to take an interest in agriculture. He invites visits from schools, scouts and Young Farmers groups, and takes an active role with the grain co-operative, which has a strong farming voice on the island.

The judges liked

  • Keen eye for second-hand bargains keeps costs down
  • Kit kept in great condition and well looked after by staff
  • Rapidly growing business that shows little sign of slowing down
  • Can-do attitude to work keeps customers happy

The judges say

“Robert’s fast-growing business is built on a can-do attitude to meet his customers’ needs. He takes a close interest in machinery purchases, which has helped him get the most from his investments.”

Carl and Natalie Martins

Mornios Contract Herdcare, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire

Carl and Natalie Martins

Carl and Natalie Martins © Jim Varney

There can be few greater responsibilities in farming than to be left with an unfamiliar herd of dairy cows while the manager or owner takes time off for holidays.

But for Carl and Natalie Martins, this is now a regular occurrence, and the husband-and-wife team have more than 130 customers from the top of Scotland to the tip of Cornwall, Jersey, Northern Ireland and everywhere in between.

In doing so, they have developed their skills to the point where they can slot into any dairy system, whether it be abreast parlours, rotaries or robots.

Their 36 years of herd management experience also means they’re employed by farms to train new staff in the different systems, as well as helping larger block-calving herds at peak times and providing relief herdcare for robotic units.

Farm facts

  • Dairy herdcare service provided across the UK
  • Can be employed for a week’s holiday cover or long-term leave
  • Offers a training service for farms employing new staff members

Low-cost system

The Mornios business is based on very low operational costs. Farms usually provide Carl and Natalie with accommodation and they do without a permanent office, instead managing their work on the road and from the different sites they work at.

Laptops, smartphones and cloud-based software allow them to access clients’ data from the boot of a car and helps them to seamlessly slot in once they arrive on the farm, embracing the roles and responsibilities of the regular herdsman.

The low-cost, high-profit system relies on a serious dose of hard work and a willingness to spend extended periods of time away from home, but costs are also kept in check by price checking, bulk buying, negotiating and avoiding carrying too much stock.

Invoicing is prompt – twice a month – and deposits are taken from customers prior to work commencing. Work is charged by the hour and self-employed contractors are called in at peak time to avoid carrying excess labour when it’s not needed.

Customer relationships

Mornios’ customer base is particularly diverse and all have different needs, from small, family-run herds to huge commercial enterprices.

The company’s aim is to provide work priced to compete with a relief milking agency, yet offer extra services such as foot-trimming and artificial insemination. Given their qualifications and skills, Carl and Natalie are also able to spot sick, lame or bulling cows, which are often missed by relief staff.

It’s unusual in that the partners in the business actually do the work on farms and know their clients well, which helps develop particularly strong relationship.

They take the time to note important events for each of their customers – such as birthdays or school holidays – and can make sure they’re on hand to fill gaps when herdspeople are to take time off.

Staff training is particularly high on the agenda. Knowledge of first aid, personal protective equipment and manual handling, as well as ATV and telehandler licenses, are a necessity, and a clause in the terms and conditions of each contract states that if any procedure breaches health and safety rules then it won’t be performed.

Farming champions

Carl and Natalie are keen to take on ambassadorial roles for farming. They document their work through social media, showing different milking methods, robotics and farming systems employed across the variety of farms they work on.

They undertake milking demonstrations at local shows and take time to explain the intricacies of dairy farming to interested visitors.

They also provide training on different aspects of dairy cow husbandry to farms and are looking to expand their service to colleges, universities and Young Farmers clubs. Carl is also an alumni mentor at Nottingham Trent University, where he shares his passion for UK agriculture.

The judges liked

  • High standards of work have earned a huge amount of trust from customers
  • Offers training support to new employees on farms across the country
  • Heavily involved in mentoring young people
  • Willingness to learn more and develop skills wherever possible

What the judges say

“Carl and Natalie Martins are comfortable working in any dairy system and set exceptionally high standards in the herdcare of cows, which has helped them secure work across the length and breadth of the UK.”

Magnus Sinclair

Sinclair Contractors, Kinknockie Farm, Udny, Ellon, Aberdeenshire

Magnus Sinclair stands by his car

© Angus Findlay

Constantly adding to a varied list of services has helped Magnus Sinclair’s Aberdeen-based contracting business overcome the challenge of rising machinery costs and competition from one-man bands.

As well as starting one of the first AD plants in the area, he runs a waste haulage operation – a gang of eight wagons deal with the permits, stockpiling and spreading of 190,000t of liquid waste a year – plus Christmas tree harvesting and farm machinery sales alongside the mainstream agricultural contracting outfit.

This helps spread the risk, but also keeps his machinery and team of 27 full-time staff – and up to 40 part-time during peak periods – busy year-round.

Farm facts

  • Offers agricultural contracting, waste haulage and renewable energy services across northern Scotland
  • Main customer base is arable, dairy and AD plants
  • Work includes forage harvesting, mowing, baling, muck/slurry/digestate spreading

Recordkeeping

At the heart of his business is John Deere’s MyJobs documentation system, which helps track the exact cost of each job completed, including fuel used, time, tonnage or bale count.

Employing such a system means every job can be costed accurately and information can be recorded quickly and easily in the office and sent to customers.

It also ensures staff members make notes about a job’s key details, which speeds up the process, from assigning the work to sending out the invoice.

Coupled to JD Link, it allows Magnus to monitor different jobs on his iPad, including up-to-date yield maps, engine speeds and data from the manure-sensing system fitted to the tankers.

Machinery

Prior to 2004, Sinclair Contracting ran a mixed-brand fleet. However, the switch to a John Deere-only outfit has brought stacks of benefits, making life easier for operators that need only to be familiar with a single system, speeding up servicing and workshop jobs, simplifying spare parts storage and building a very close relationship with the local dealer.

The other big perk is staff only have to be trained once on the various Deere computer systems, which is a major time saver for Magnus. The local dealer provides training on the use of guidance, as well as Deere’s other software programmes, including Harvest Lab, Manure Sensing and the MyJobs documentation system.

The close relationship with JD naturally delivers reliable back-up, but Magnus also gets involved in trialling new equipment prior to its global releases.

Unusually, the business runs its tractors to well beyond 15,000 hours before trading them in, despite only taking a one-year warranty. The secret to their longevity is monthly health checks and in-house servicing.

It also helps manage the rising capital costs of machinery that are affecting contractors across the country. By buying new, maintaining tractors well, keeping them for longer and putting more hours on them, their costs are reduced and the business can stay profitable.

Sharing knowledge

Magnus has built a reputation for providing a quality service and sets himself apart from others by offering specialised knowledge and technology to provide the best service for specific jobs.

He also attends local school presentations on machinery development for young children to demonstrate the changes in farm equipment and the new technology that is influencing modern farming methods. He has also been director of the Royal Northern Agricultural Society, where he helped organise shows introducing the general public to farming.

He hosts farm tours on a regular basis, where he takes Young Farmers’ Clubs and agricultural discussion groups around the site to talk about farming and his AD plant.

The judges liked

  • Takes an interest in the contracting sector and open to new business opportunities to spread risk
  • Keeps close eye on costs and excellent record management
  • Long machinery replacement policy and monthly servicing
  • Involved with the local YFC and invites schools to visit

What the judges say

“A diverse range of services is central to the success of Sinclair Contractors and Magnus’ willingness to embrace new technology and explore new opportunities sets him above many of his rivals.”

Sponsor’s message

“All three finalists demonstrated a tremendous focus for delivering a first-class service to their customers, which has become central to the success of their flourishing contracting businesses.”

Richard Miller, Fendt business support manager