The writing is on the wall for troublesome tractors

22 February 2002

The writing is on the wall for troublesome tractors

Unexpected bills and unwelcome costs are threatening

profits at Hoe Hall. Robert Harris reports

WARNING lights flashing up on the tractor dashboard are frustrating at any time. But at Hoe Hall the matter was made worse by the fact the machine was on its way back from the dealers, following a lengthy and expensive repair.

Back the tractor went, for the new, supposedly unrelated problem to be fixed. "The first bill, which arrived on the doormat before the tractor had even left the workshop, runs to about £2000," says James Keith. "I dread to think what the total bill will be.

"It will certainly punch a hole in our machinery and repair budget, and that can make a huge difference to the profitability of the whole farm in todays climate."

Mr Keith is kicking himself for being taken in by "smooth-talking" reps. They advised him that the 200hp John Deere 4755, the farms main ploughing tractor – and two smaller ones in the fleet – should be good for 10,000 hours.

"The 4755s done 6000 hours and is now proving unreliable. Unexpected repairs and the cost of downtime could be critical.

"Like its 4850 predecessor, it just hasnt lasted. The repair bill now outweighs the depreciation we would expect on newer machines, so its time for a change.

"We had a big Case on demonstration last autumn and we were very impressed. We have had another one in to do some ploughing this week. We need something a little bigger than the JD to keep on top of the job, but at 270hp, this particular model is perhaps over the top.

"We shall probably settle for what we can afford rather than what we dream of."

Mr Keith is undecided whether to buy outright, or settle for a long-term lease. Given current interest rates, finance deals are very competitive. "Ultimately, it depends on what deal can be thrashed out."

Continuing delays delivering sugar beet to British Sugars Cantley factory, caused by roots being diverted from Wissington following processing problems there, will also affect the budget.

The last loads were lifted this week and hauled straight to the factory. Heavy topping and the need for hand-picking mean costs are mounting. Mr Keith reckons the business stands to lose at least £4500 before sugar losses.

"Clamp losses would have been greater but for our haulier, Roger Warnes, who has pulled out all the stops. At one point, he had 60,000t on divert from Wissington to Cantley. It must have been a logistical nightmare for him."

Late delivery payments should compensate for some sugar loss, but not all, so the cost is likely to grow. "We had to store some beet for more than six weeks. For the later deliveries, sugar % has slipped from 17% plus to the low 15s.

"The total loss will be absolutely critical, and could mean the difference between profit and loss and whether we fill our quota or not."

Talks are underway with a neighbour to form some sort of co-operative venture. He farms about 800ha (2000 acres), a similar area to Mr Keith who believes the opportunities for spreading fixed costs are too good to miss.

"The figures look encouraging. We could make much better use of machinery, using fewer units. And we could halve many overhead costs at a stroke."

He is convinced that expansion is the key to survival. Diversific-ation might be right for some, but in his rural part of the world, it is difficult. "There are not enough chimney pots around here to make many ventures worthwhile."

He is fortunate enough to have several cottages that he can rent out. An advert in the local paper for a three-bedroom one generated 15 replies in 24 hours. "I wish we had as many replies to an advert for maternity leave cover in the office. The phone number is 01362-693172."

However, he believes diversification does nothing to tackle the real problems besetting farming. "Why should I have to start another separate business to subsidise food production, so I can keep my head above water and carry on farming at a loss? Its about time we started calling diversification a subsidy, then everyone will know where they stand."

Meanwhile, there is plenty to keep farm staff busy at Hoe Hall. The drilling team is set to drill 66ha (163 acres) of Optic spring barley and 45ha (111 acres) of Victor spring beans were sown last week. There is also 300m of hedge to be coppiced under the Country-side Stewardship Scheme. &#42

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