What machines did farmers buy in 2008?

Farmers spent a record amount on new machinery in 2008. David Cousins looked at what they bought – and what they didn’t buy

As any behavioural psychologist worth his salt will tell you, there are three types of farmer when it comes to making new machinery purchasing decisions.

There are those that boast a carefully crafted investment plan, with flashy spreadsheets and lots of dates and numbers.

Then there are those that would love to buy new but simply don’t have the size of business to justify it. So they stick to second-hand and dream of selling a bit of land for development.

Finally there are the farmers – probably the majority – that buy very little new in the lean years. But on the rare occasions when the business makes a bit of money, they will grab the opportunity for reinvestment with all the enthusiasm of a starving man accidentally locked in a Marks and Spencer food department overnight.

For this last group, 2007 and 2008 turned out to be a financial oasis after 10 years of wandering around like thirsty camels in a cash desert.. They drank long and deep, too, to the tune of £1.5bn in 2007 and £1.9bn in 2008.

If you assume 100,000 full-time farmers in the UK, that’s an average spend of £15,000 in 2007 and £19,000 in 2008.

Of course some of that rise is accounted for by the 14% slump in sterling against the euro in 2008. Since two-thirds of the farm machinery bought by British farmers comes from the eurozone, it meant that price rises (sometimes several of them) were inevitable.

So what did we all buy? Was it tractors or cultivation equipment or grass kit? Or did we all lock the accountant in a cellar and buy a new £300,000 combine?

To find the answers to those – and other – questions, we turned to Chris Evans, long-time economist at the Agricultural Engineers Association. As the official organisation that represents the farm machinery manufacturers and importers, the AEA collates information from manufacturers and the DVLA.

He points out that there is typically an eight to 10-year machinery investment cycle. Sales build up gradually as the decade progresses, then drop back rapidly towards the end of it.

In the 1990s, sales peaked in 1996, then belly-flopped sharply. This time round, they’re hanging on gamely into early 2009 but are expected to fall back as we head further into the year.

* Tractors – 17,104

We bought 17,104 tractors in 2008, the highest number since 1996 when 18,395 tractors were sold. That was the year when grain prices reached a glorious peak, only to come crashing down again. Tractor sales followed suit, halving to just 9468 in 1998.

And even the 1996 figures look modest when compared to typical sales levels of about 40,000 tractors in the late 1960s. Though of course the size and value of each of those was laughably small compared to what we buy now…

What’s really striking, says Mr Evans, is the huge increase in the horsepower of what we’re buying. Back in 1996, the average tractor was a modest 106hp; now it’s a grunty 138hp.

In fact there’s been a marked change in the relative popularity of different horsepower bands. Go back to 1998 again and you’ll see that more than half the new tractors (5052) heading on to UK farms mustered less than 100hp.

There were quite a few (3590) in the mainstream 100-150hp band, but between 150hp and 200hp there were just 604 tractors sold. And above 200hp, a truly measly 211 tractors edged their way out dealers’ yards.

How different it all is today. That sub-100hp band has shrunk to less than a quarter of the market (4043). The 100-150hp category is now the dominant one, accounting for nearly half the total market (7517).

The 150-200hp bracket, meanwhile, is now bigger than the under-100hp one with 4273 sold. And the over-200hp market? It’s now six times bigger in unit terms than it was in 1998, with 1271 sold.

When do farmers buy their tractors? The most popular time of the year is March. That’s partly to do with the change in the number plate, but also because it’s just before the end of the financial year.

There used to be a second peak for sales in August, but that has moved forward to July as farmers increasingly try to get machinery delivered in time for harvest.

And perhaps we should observe here a brief, respectful silence for the dearly departed – two-wheel-drive tractors. Once the standard item for almost all farmers (other than those with a County, Roadless or Doe Triple D), 2WD tractors over 80hp accounted for just 25 sales in 2008.

One question that even the AEA grapples with is how many tractors there are in the UK of all ages and conditions. The 280,000 tractors currently registered for road use are a good starting point, but there are plenty of others that probably haven’t been taxed or licensed since TV went colour.

The last MAFF census of farm machinery (yes, there really was one) was in 1979 but Chris Evans reckons there are probably 450,000 tractors at work in the UK or “resting” in a shed and theoretically capable of work.

* Combines – 1065

2008 was the year of the Big Combine Purchase. After a modest 550 combines sold in 2006, there was a near-50% leap to 730 in 2007. But then the market jumped again in 2008 to 1065 machines.

Small beer compared to the 3000 combines sold annually in the 1970s, maybe, but remember that those were the likes of 12ft Massey 500s, whereas their 2008 equivalents are three times as wide, have three times the hp and cost three times as much.

These days much of the combine market is accounted for by big farmers – the 2000ha people who routinely change their combines every two or three years. Or else farmers who are chopping in two medium-sized harvesters for a single giant machine.

But 2008, unusually, was the year in which medium-sized farmers made a visit to their local dealer to place an order for a new combine, says Mr Evans. That may be why rotary combines (which grabbed 54% of the market in 2006) sank back to just 44%, with straw walker machines getting the other 56%.

* Telehandlers – 3300. Tractor loaders – 4325

telehandlerRoughly 2500 UK farmers buy a new telehandler every year, but 2007 and 2008 were bumper sales years, with 2700 units sold in 2007 and a massive 3300 finding their way on to farms in 2008.

But don’t think that the tractor front loader is in danger of disappearing – 3925 were sold in 2006, 4350 in 2007 and 4325 in 2008. Those who could justify a telehandler probably switched over to them years ago and those who have a front loader no doubt appreciate its compactness and relatively low purchase cost

* Balers – 1600 round, 270 big square, 130 conventional

Drive around the UK in September and you could be forgiven for assuming that big square bales rule supreme and that round – let alone conventional – bales are yesterday’s thing. But that’s probably because the contractors who run the big square machines simply produce thousands and thousands of the things every autumn.

In fact just 270 big square balers were sold in 2008 (compared to 225 in 2007 and 220 in 2006).

Numerically, the round baler still rules supreme, says Mr Evans, with 1600 machines bought in 2008, up somewhat from 1425 in 2007 and 1200 in 2006.

And conventional balers are far from dead too. A few years ago they joined the black rhino and Siberian tiger on the endangered list, with numbers of new machines dropping below 100.

But thanks to the burgeoning horse feed market (plus the fact that for many farmers small bales are just so convenient) their numbers edged up to 115 in 2006, pushed on to 120 in 2007 and then bounded to 130 last year. That’s still small beer compared to the 350 or so that were bought in the mid-1990s, though.

* Self-propelled forage harvesters – 140. Mowers – 1725. Mower-conditioners – 2175

Self-propelled forage harvesters may be the big beasts in the grass machinery jungle, but in terms of new machines they’re sold in surprisingly small numbers. Just 120 were sold in 2006, 110 in 2007 and – predictably – there was a big jump to 140 machines in 2008.

Mowers, meanwhile, continue to be the bread and butter of the grass machinery market, with 1450 new ones going on to farms in 2006, 1750 in 2007 and 1725 in 2008.

They were slightly eclipsed by mower conditioners, which managed 1650 new sales in 2006, 1850 in 2007 and a massive 2175 in 2008. Bale wrappers, meanwhile, were steady at 625 new machines in 2006, 800 in 2007 and 800 in 2008.

* Ploughs – 1200

ploughRead any farming magazine (including this one) and you might think that min-till equipment had shunted the once-dominant plough into the same technological scrapyard as the two-wheel-drive tractor, the trailed combine and the reaper-binder.

Indeed, from a peak of 2000 new units in 1997, plough sales sank to just 575 in 2006. And Chris Evans admits that at one stage the AEA was quite worried about the future of this most traditional of implements.

But then a couple of wet autumns (plus the realisation that farmers on heavy land would always need to plough) saw a dramatic turnaround in sales, with 875 sold in 2007 and 1200 last year.

* Power harrows – 1900

power harrowThey may be thirstier than a Glaswegian after four bags of crisps and slower than the progress of an RPA cheque, but power harrows still occupy a special place in British farmer’s hearts. Their ability to make a seed-bed out of anything, and their dependability when allied to a drill, means farmers on stiff land continue to want have one around the place.

They’re not quite the force they used to be (10 years ago we used to buy 2500 of them every year), but a look at the figures – 900 in 2006, 1400 in 2007 and 1900 in 2008 – suggests we still like their affable brutishness.

* Grain drills – 1400. Fertiliser spreaders – 3375

Rising tractor horsepowers mean that there continues to be a steady upgrading of drill widths. The 3m drill is still widely used, but 4m and 6m units are gaining in popularity and there are a couple of 12m models on the market for those impatient to cover the ground.

Drill sales have been buoyant over the last three years, with 675 sold in 2006, 1000 in 2007 and a healthy 1400 in 2008.

The same push for higher workrates probably also applies to fertiliser spreaders, with farmers looking for bigger hopper capacities and more accurate application of an input that now costs about the same as caviar. Some 2300 were sold in 2006, 2850 in 2007 and 3375 in 2008.

* Sprayers – 480 mounted, 390 trailed, 230 self-propelled

Mounted units may still be the most popular type of sprayer (480 sold last year), but sales are only rising slowly. Contrast that with trailed sprayer sales (190 sold in 2006, 300 in 2007 and 390 in 2008) with their bigger tanks and you can see that there’s a marked push for higher workrates going on.

And sales of self-propelled sprayers, having dropped from 190 in 2006 to 170 in 2007, shot up again to a healthy 230 units last year.

ATV* ATVs – 8000

The sales figures for ATVs used for work (7600 in 2006, 8250 in 2007, 8000 in 2008) suggest that their popularity is dropping. In fact the figures have always tended to be artificially boosted by the high theft levels of these machines; at one stage it was reckoned that one in every two ATVs was stolen at some point in its life. When manufacturers started to fit trackers, thefts (and therefore sales) started to drop.

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