High-hour Horsepower: Shropshire contractor clocks 25,000 hours a year

Contractors are renowned for working tractors hard, but Much Wenlock-based firm John Lea and Sons puts a few more hours on its machines than most.

Brothers Dave, Matthew, Alan and their five-strong workforce manage to clock up an average of 3,000 hours a year on each of their six main workhorses and about 2,000 on the remaining four.

The only lighter-worked machine is their 390hp reverse-drive Fendt 939 that spends its time on a set of triple mowers or a 6m Lemken Solitair power harrow combination drill. However, this still manages to rack up 1,500 hours.

The Leas's tractors

© James Andrews

Work for the six main tractors includes ploughing, cultivation duties, haulage and baling. But as well as their peak-season activities, these machines stay busy throughout the year on muckspreading, tanker hauling and umbilical slurry pumping jobs.

These harder-worked tractors include a 2013 Fendt 720, three 2015 Claas Axions, a 2012 New Holland T7.270 and a 2016 John Deere 6195R. Each of these has a designated driver, but when they are not on the seat, someone else often hops on to keep it running.

Meanwhile, in the 2,000-hour camp there’s a 2017 Fendt 828 and a brace of 6020-series John Deeres that have recently dropped down to a slightly lesser workload.

We paid the brothers a visit during one of their slightly quieter weeks to see how all the machines are performing.

See also: What’s in Your Shed? visits a Ross-shire contractor

Mix-and-match fleet

The pride of the brothers’ main fleet is a 2013 Fendt 720. This works six or seven days a week almost all year round and has so far racked up 13,000 hours.

It arrived as a nearly new ex-demonstrator on just 500 hours and has notched up about 3,000 hours a year. That’s an average of just over eight hours a day, every day of the year.

This tractor does some trailer work and baling in the summer, but the lion’s share of its hours are amassed towing an umbilical slurry pipe and splash plate or dribble bar.

Dave, Alan and Matthew Lea © James Andrews

Dave, Alan and Matthew Lea © James Andrews

Despite its hours, there have been no serious breakdowns and as a result the Leas plan to keep it until it has at least 20,000 on the dials.

The brothers used to carry out their own maintenance, but due the amount of time they spend on their tractors, they decided it was best outsourced. So Agco dealer Ross Farm Machinery does the regular servicing and repairs on this tractor, as and when it’s needed.

The next of the high-hour crew are a brace of Claas Axion 830s, one with the semi-powershift Hexashift ’box and one with the stepless Cmatic. These are on 8,000 and 9,000 hours respectively and carry out a range of different jobs throughout the season.

The Hexashift model spends a lot of time on a McHale Fusion baler/wrapper in the summer, as well as some trailer work. But come winter, it is hauling slurry tankers and umbilical kit around the county.

With its smooth stepless drive, the Cmatic version is the tool of choice for silage clamp building. For this job it is fitted with dual wheels, has a 2t weight block on the back and a push-off buck rake on the front linkage. In the off-season it switches to powering the slurry pump, where it’s in almost constant service.

Fendt 828 and 939

Fendt 828 and 939

According to the brothers, both of the Claas tractors pull well and are decent to drive, but they have both suffered transmission problems. However, their dealer, Morris Corfield, has been quick to get them going again and the work has been covered by the warranty.

The only blue tractor in the Lea family’s yard is a 2012 New Holland T7.270 that was bought second-hand. This has the stepless Auto Command gearbox and is primarily used for towing trailers and slurry tankers around. It had been plagued with electrical problems, but since the dealer replaced the ECU it has been trouble-free.

Last of the 3,000-hour bunch is a 2016 John Deere 6195R with the maker’s long-in-the-tooth AutoQuad semi-powershift ’box. This is another mixed-use tractor, which is quiet, smooth to drive and goes well. However, it had to be split twice to have the gearbox repaired – unlike their old 6620, which has an older version of the same ‘box that hasn’t been touched in 17,000 hours.

Best tractor

In fact, the 6620 is the single best machine the brothers have owned. “All the 20-series John Deeres we’ve had have been brilliant, but that tractor is easily the best,” says Dave.

“We had it remapped to 190hp, so it flies along, but despite that it’s never given us any trouble.”

In its 12 years it has had just one set of brakes and the only significant work has been a recent engine overhaul to freshen it up a bit. Fuel economy is good, too, and for all-round running costs you “just can’t beat it”, Dave says.

Fendy 720 and McHale Fusion

Fendy 720 and McHale Fusion

Less good was the New Holland TM155 they had around the same time. “Even though we looked after it well, it was just horrendous”, says Matthew.

“It had recurring transmission and diff trouble, but even when they were working there seemed to be something new to deal with every day.”

In fact, it cost double to triple as much to run as the 6620, he says.

Warranties

Despite the prodigious hour counts they put on their tractors, the Leas don’t shell out for expensive extended warranties or service packages.

That’s largely because their local dealers are so good at looking after them – they haven’t yet been stung with a horrendous bill. “We have had plenty of tractors go wrong outside their warranty, but often the dealers have met us halfway and the costs haven’t been too bad,” says Alan.

“For that reason we’re generally happy to run the hours up outside the warranty – it’s much cheaper than changing them every few years.”

Judging by their service to date, the 2013 Fendt 720 and 2006 John Deere 6620 will be the longest-serving members of the fleet. Both are expected to exceed the 20,000-hour mark and unless something serious goes wrong with the Deere, it could end up doing double that.

Fresh power

Moving to the top end of their horsepower bracket, the Leas have just invested in another 390hp reverse-drive Fendt 939 to run alongside their existing 2014 machine.

This has been specced with huge 900/60 R42 tyres fitted with Fendt’s Variogrip central tyre inflation system. That means it should skip over the furrows a little better than the current machine, which is on 800s.

Fendt 828 and Stewart Roadking

Fendt 828 and Stewart Roadking

Its first job will be tackling the spring share of the firm’s 1,200ha combination drilling workload with a 6m folding Lemken Solitair drill and full-width front press. Then it will transfer to their rear-mounted Claas triple mowers for the grass season.

The reasons for running reverse drive over running a front-mounted mower is that at about £7,000 it doesn’t cost that much more than a front pto and should be a stronger driveline. It also means they can run the mowers on the Fendt 828 if needed. That one is a peer-over-your-shoulder job though.

With the new 939 taking on frontline duties, the 2014 model will spend some of its time on a second set of triple mowers as well as towing their bigger 20t trailers and tankers around.

Business facts

John Lea and Sons, Home Farm, Longville, Much Wenlock, Shropshire

Staff Dave, Matthew and Alan, plus five full-time and 11 in peak season

Work carried out

  • Cultivation and drilling: 1,200ha
  • Clamp silage: 2,000ha
  • Maize silage: 500ha
  • Wholecrop: 120-160ha
  • Round bale silage: 20,000 bales
  • Big square straw: 12,000-15,000 bales
  • Combining 1,200ha
  • Slurry: Flat-out all year round
  • Muckspreading: 50,000t

The fleet

     

Tractors

Power

Hours

Average hours a year

1. 2006 John Deere 6620

190hp

17,000

2,000

2. 2013 Fendt 720

200hp

13,000

3,000

3. 2015 Claas Axion 830 Hexashift

235hp

8,000

3,000

4. 2015 Claas Axion 830 Cmatic

235hp

9,000

3,000

5. 2012 New Holland T7.270

228hp

7,000

3,000

6. 2014 Fendt 939 reverse drive

390hp

5,300

1,500

7. 2004 John Deere 6820

195hp

5,000

2,000

8. 2016 John Deere 6195R

195hp

4,000

3,000

9. 2015 Claas Axion 850 Hexashift

232hp

3,000

3,000

10. 2017 Fendt 828

280hp

2,000

2,000

11. 2018 Fendt 939 reverse drive

390hp

0

1,500 est

Total

70,800

25,500

Other kit

  • Combines: Claas Lexion 750TT and 760 Montana
  • Forager: Claas Jaguar 950 with 12-row Orbis maize header, wholecrop header and grass pickup
  • Other grass kit: Claas 9m reverse-drive triple mowers x 2, Claas two and four-rotor rakes, Claas tedder
  • Cultivation kit: KV six-furrow plough x 2 and Kuhn six-furrow, three-furrow front-mounted plough
  • Drills: 6m Lemken Solitair power harrow combination with front press and 3m Kuhn Venta
  • Trailers: Stewart 18t and 20t and 2 x 18t Bailey
  • Muck spreaders: Bunning Lowlander 150, 2 x 15t Richard Western Delilah
  • Slurry tankers: NC 4000 and 4500 gal
  • Telehandlers: Claas Scorpion 7044 and Manitou MLA628 pivot-steer
  • Balers: McHale Fusion 3 and Fusion 3 Plus, Claas 3200x 2 and 5300