Carefully managed co-operation can bring untold rewards. Tom Allen-Stevens visits three growers who have formed a machinery syndicate.
HOW would you like to ditch your ageing combines and hard-pushed tractors and buy co-ordinated, cutting edge kit that will set you up for getting the seedbeds and harvests you need in the 21st century? For most growers its the stuff that dreams are made of, but with a little co-operation three growers in Essex have made it a reality, and they believe it will actually cut their costs.
"Weve all been living off depreciation, pushing machines older and older and we realised it wasnt economically feasible to replace them. The only way forward was to amalgamate some of our kit," says Hugh Wiseman who farms 420ha with his son, Anthony, near Saffron Walden.
So a new partnership was created in the new year. The Wisemans joined up with neighbours Tetlow and Sons, farming 260ha, and Toby Abrey, with 126ha. The plan was to club their harvesting and primary cultivation equipment, but retain their own spraying and top dressing kit.
Professional advice was taken from Grant Thornton and a proper agreement drawn up. "With all of these things, the devils in the detail – theres more to it than you think. If one partner drops out, for example, theres a lot of investment for the others to take on. For the moment we just put the agreement in the drawer and forget about it," says Mr Wiseman.
Then in June they held a combined farm sale with no less than 150 lots. With the proceeds, and some extra, borrowed capital, they replaced it all – with just six items. The kit was carefully chosen to suit the conditions and size of the combined units: all three growers farm predominantly the strong chalky boulder clay prevalent in the area and none of them include barley in the rotation. This meant a relatively narrow harvest window: "We went for the biggest combine you could buy and one that spreads the straw and chaff well," says Andrew Tetlow. Its a Claas Lexion 480 with a 7.5m Vario header.
Output can be as high as possible: "Were not restricted by dilapidated grain stores that cannot handle a high output. Were all members of Camgrain, so the grain comes in and goes straight to the store where it can be dried if necessary," points out Mr Wiseman, who is also chairman of the co-operative.
The purchase of the primary cultivations equipment went hand-in-hand with a major change of policy: all three growers went from 100% ploughing to minimal cultivations. The main tractor is a Claas Challenger 85E. Pulling a mighty 375hp, it is again one of the largest tractors available, but its needed. The combine is followed within 24 hours by a 4.5m Simba Solo cultivation train: two sets of discs, split by sub-soiler tines and packer, and followed by another 5.5m double packer.
Theyve been thankful for the timeliness in a year as tough as this: "Its been one of the most abrasive years I can remember. It was wet before harvest and then it set like concrete. But the new kit handled it brilliantly," recalls Mr Wiseman.
An 8m Horsch drill gets the seed in – theyve found its a good tool to handle trash – and a 12.5m set of Cousins rolls finishes off the seedbeds. Two-thirds of the drilling had been completed by mid-October. He doubts whether they would have got on so well with their old, slow power-harrow drill units.
The main difference has been time spent on a tractor seat, however. Mr Tetlow is the main combine driver. "He had a Claas before and knows how to push it to its limits," notes Hugh Wiseman. Anthony Wiseman spends most of his time on the Challenger. His father and Mr Abrey fill in as relief drivers and backup.
Mr Abrey has his own business selling Autocast (including one to the partnership) and Biso harvesting equipment, so is thankful for the time he can now spend away from the farm. His father and Mr Tetlows father, both over 70, can now retire.
At the end of the year they will tot up hours spent on others farms and bill each other accordingly. But it wont be a case of splitting hairs – this is an amicable agreement, although thats not all it relies on: "It doesnt just work well because were friends, it works because we want it to work for the sake of our businesses," says Mr Wiseman. Other expenses – capital cost, maintenance, repairs, and fuel – are repaid regularly to the partnership. Capital cost is shared out per acre farmed, while other costs are shared out per acre worked in the year.
They cannot claim to have saved much so far in machinery costs, but with all new kit, the depreciation bill is vast at the moment. This is the only year that all the machinery will be replaced, however, so costs should come down dramatically over time. The advantage is that they are safe in the knowledge that theyre set up for the future: "Wheats at £60/t, prospects dont look good and nobodys going to bail us out. Weve made a positive step to rise to the challenge," says Mr Wiseman.