Contractor Comment: Tim Russon rethinks forager replacement policy

In the second instalment of our new Contractor Comment series, Oliver Mark gets the lowdown on machinery comings and goings at P Russon & Sons.

Business data

Tim Russon, New Farm, Burton, Lincolnshire

  • Main services: Grass, maize and miscanthus harvesting, combining, muckspreading, drilling, spraying, hedgecutting, bruising and crimping
  • Staff: Eight full-time, plus up to 20 harvest casuals

About the contractor

Tim Russon

Tim Russon, Farmers Weekly’s 2020 Contractor of the Year, runs a fleet of foragers to harvest grass, maize and miscanthus

How did you get into contracting?

My father milked cows, but I hated the job. So I borrowed his tractor and went contracting instead.

I was fortunate with the timing, as maize silage suddenly got popular and we’d been growing it on the farm since the 1970s, so I knew what I was doing.

We had a drill, so I started with that in 1989, and by 1991 I’d bought my first self-propelled forager. Things gradually snowballed from there.

See also: 8 new tractors arrive as A&B Contractors updates fleet

Main contracting enterprises today?

Forage harvesting – grass, wholecrop and maize – for livestock farms and AD plants, most of which is done within 50 miles of our base.

The workload has been fairly settled for a few years, though the weather does cause occasional peaks and troughs.

The last major one followed the wet harvest of 2019, after which our maize drilling area shot beyond 4,000ha as AD plants tried to make up for the feedstock shortfall.

It subsequently slipped back, but this season will be another big one.

Last year’s yields were poor – down 40 to 50% in some places – and the pantries at the AD plants are empty, so they’ve been out with the cheque book to secure some more land.

The wheat price slipping back has probably worked in their favour.

Muckspreading, straw baling and maize combining are also important enterprises. Where possible, I like to find little niches for premium prices.

Running the Bale Baron is a good example of that – big bale straw might be hard to sell at the minute, but I can still get a decent premium for the little bales and there’s no shortage of takers for them.

Tim Russon

Tim Russon © MAG/Oliver Mark

Any forms of diversification?

I’ve had several decent side businesses over the years. You have to be in the right place at the right time, but you also have to make your own luck – and that usually comes down to gambling on something.

Nearly every machine in the yard has been a punt for one reason or another. Grimsby docks was one of those.

I had just sold the dairy herd and basically gambled my father’s lifetime of work on tooling up to bale small fraction waste on-site.

I ended up throwing £220,000 at a static Orkel baler on a whim, as I wanted to get the gig, but within six months I’d bought a second.

That went well for 10 years, but Covid sent the building trade into a spin, the contract came to an end and the business became unviable, so I ducked out.

I still move bulk cat litter in and out of the stores there once a fortnight.

These projects have helped me build up decent capital, so I can minimise machinery finance, I’m never at risk of negative equity and I can always get out if it all goes pear-shaped.

Recently, I’ve bagged a few civil engineering jobs – electric cable, waterpipe and even patio laying at Lincs Showground. You soon learn what to charge for new jobs…

Most profitable contracting enterprise?

Crimping and milling barley, for which I charge £15-20/t. I’ve fine-tuned the system over the years and, with a relatively cheap, old tractor on the front, there can be a decent reward if the job is large enough.

Overall, though, it’s not a particularly big earner and the lads hate it – it’s dusty, noisy, and not much fun.

New Holland tractor and Moore unidrill

© MAG/Oliver Mark

Least profitable contracting enterprise?

Hedgecutting has always been a tricky one. It’s a service I feel I have to provide and is often a catalyst for getting more work.

My approach is to use an old tractor – currently a New Holland 6070 and T7.200, both on 8,000 hours – and, within reason, charge as much as I can. At the minute it’s £52/hour.

It gives the tractor some serious stick and there’s no way I can make money on it using something that’s costing a lot in depreciation.

What’s really annoying is that it’s also too easy to break a hydraulic pipe – they’re fairly expensive and, if you’re not careful, you can end up with £200 of oil on the floor.

Biggest threats to your business?

Finding enough staff of the right quality. It’s been going on for 10 years now, though big contractors with nice toys have been slightly shielded from it as they’ve tended to have the pick of the bunch.

That’s not necessarily the case anymore, even if you can offer accommodation.

I gave my eight full-time lads an above-inflation pay rise this year to help them with the cost of living and I’ve been trying to reduce workloads at weekends, though that’s only possible to a point.

I’ve also been changing how I employ seasonal workers, as it now works out cheaper for me to hire a tractor and pay someone to drive it, versus a tractor-and-man package.

I can get a T7.210 from Burdens for £650/week – at about £8.50/hour that’s cheaper than running my own tractor.

JCB tractor

© MAG/Ooliver Mark

What excites you about the season ahead?

This year, I’m concentrating on increasing the density of the small straw bales to reduce my costs.

I’ve got a few mods up my sleeve, including some plastic wedges from Bale Baron that make the chamber tighter.

We made 50,000 small bales last year and I’d like to make the same this year, but 10-20% heavier.

That would be about the limit – any more and we’ll be breaking strings, and that would make it counterproductive.

The small square bale market is a good one for me. It goes for double the price of big bale straw, so I like to put as much as possible through the Bale Baron.

If the weather is against us then we sometimes resort to going through with the four-string baler to get it done, and the bale merchant will then rebale it – at a cost.

I now supply Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire showgrounds for events and work with a merchant in Lancashire for the horsey market.

It’s the Waitrose of straw, so it needs to be good and dry to get the premium. That means it needs to be stored well too – we put rodent bait in the stack and keep it in sheds or under ProStraw sheets.

I’ve also just bought a new Massey Ferguson 1840 little square baler, as the old one was three years old and had done 120,000 bales.

New machines in 2023?

Last year was a big one. For starters, I had two new Jaguar 970s and 9m Orbis headers that arrived in time for maize harvest.

I wasn’t planning to replace both, but Claas gave me a super hire-purchase deal over four years. I’ll keep them for that period, then reassess the situation.

They directly replaced four- and six-year-old models – the latter had become particularly troublesome – and the longer lead time really worked in my favour.

Claas took the old ones away, then had to lend me them back for first and second cut grass. That made them pretty cheap to run.

I originally intended to buy a new forager every two years, but then the prices went mad, so I changed tack and tried to hold them for six years.

I got my fingers burned on that approach, mainly because of the stress of it. It’s not so much the cost of keeping them running, but rather in being unable to provide a timely service to customers.

I also bought a new JCB Fastrac 4220, albeit the old, pre-iCON generation, which I think pulls better.

It was a like-for-like replacement, as was the new New Holland T7.245. And I had six Bailey silage trailers and a couple of dump trailers.

There was a new shovel, too – an ex-demo JCB 435. My 14-plate version had a small incident on a silage clamp, and the wiring harness on the 17-plate one burned out.

It got put right on an insurance claim, then almost immediately got written off because of a twisted chassis. I’ve still got a 416 as a spare.

I’ve been tightening my belt on warranties. They usually seem OK to 3,000 or 4,000 hours, at between £2.50 and £3/hour, then get prohibitively expensive beyond that.

At £5/hour it’s too pricey, locks the dealer into doing all the servicing, and doesn’t even cover all eventualities.

Recent major repairs/breakdowns?

A snapped half-shaft on the Jaguar 870 when it was chopping miscanthus a month ago. Luckily it happened in Brigg, only five miles from a Claas depot.

The wheel was left propping up the whole machine and, typically, it happened in a wet hole.

We dug it out with the 360, propped it up and left Claas to strip it down and replace the half-shaft. It cost £5,000.

Breakdowns on that machine aren’t entirely unexpected – it’s done 5,500 hours, hits all the potholes on the edge of the road, and gets pushed hard in miscanthus.

I’ve thought about upgrading to a newer 870 but it isn’t without its risks. We’ve lost three machines to fires, usually when the crop is tinder dry in April.

Overwinter projects?

Nothing major – just our usual servicing and overhauls.

Current contractor frustrations?

Getting paid on time. I invoice every week and expect to be paid within 30 days without having to waste my time chasing money…but I will knock on a door on Saturday morning if I have to.

Sometimes that means I adjust future rates accordingly.

Slow payers have probably pushed some contractors out of business.

The capital at stake makes it a hard business to stay in but I’ve tried to reduce my exposure by having the farmer supply fuel where possible.

That minimises the risk for me, especially if fuel goes back to £1.30/litre, and means the customer doesn’t have to pay for the diesel at the same time as paying for my service.

On big silage and AD jobs I can’t lead fuel out quick enough, and nor have I got the cashflow to keep up with it. One day two years ago we had 8,000 litres of diesel out of the yard in just 24 hours.

Kit list


© MAG/Oliver Mark

  • Tractors: JCB 4220 x3, 2170 x5; New Holland T7.245 x4, T7.200, T6070
  • Combines: Claas Lexion 670 with 7.5m header and Conspeed maize header
  • Foragers: Claas Jaguar 970 x2, 870, 850
  • Swather: Claas Maxiswather
  • Handlers: JCB 435 x2, 416, TM310, 531-70 x2
  • Sprayers: Chafer Rogator 418
  • Grass: MF 1840 conventional with Bale Baron, MF 2150, McHale 660, Kuhn front and rear mowers, Claas triples, Claas four- and two-rotor rakes, Krone single-rotor rake x2, McHale 998 square and Orbital round bale wrapper
  • Drills: Moore Unidrill 4m, Amazone combination 3m, Horsch Maestro 6m, Kverneland Optima eight-row x3, Weaving IR inter-row grass drill
  • Diggers: Kubota 5.5t, JCB JS 145
  • Main other kit: Bunning muckspreader x5, Bailey silage trailers x20, Bailey dump trailers x3, Bailey lowloaders x2, KRM K65 lime spreader, Amazone fert spreader


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