Producing woodchip for renewable energy tariffs requires plenty of power. But for one contractor, an older Claas Xerion has proven to be a more flexible prospect than just pure grunt.
As traditional ways of working change and margins become tighter for farmers and contractors, diversification into other areas of agriculture, and separate industries altogether, begin to look more appealing.
One area that has seen a rapid rise in popularity over recent years has been wood chipping.
And one such contractor, Jason Holloway of Wiltshire-based Bed It, has all but finished with the ag side of contracting, bar the odd job for local contractors and farmers, in favour of the lucrative wood chipping industry.
Mr Holloway says the rise in popularity of wood fire boilers, for domestic, industrial and agricultural applications, has led to demand outstripping supply of the renewable energy source.
Much of this demand has come about through the Government’s Renewable Heat Incentive, which has encouraged and subsidised energy consumers to install wood fired boilers.
Most of these require a fine wood chip to power them, a gap in the market Mr Holloway saw a number of years ago.
Having already got a decent tractor in the form of a Fendt 930 in the fleet, he bought a wood chipper and chipped away at the local area.
Demand soon increased, prompting him to buy a larger machine, more suited to the task.
Coming off a local arable farm, where it was the main cultivation tractor, he knew the 5,000 hours on his new Claas Xerion 3800 Trac VC should not pose to much of an issue in terms of reliability.
Mr Holloway says the first and major attraction to the Germanbuilt machine was the renowned Cat C9 engine that powers it.
This 8.8-litre block produces 388hp, delivering what Mr Holloway says is raw power, without any complicated electric wizardry.
This is an important consideration, as the Jenz Hem 581 chipper it is powering will at times drag the engine right down.
The chipper is currently equipped with a half set of 12 knives, due to power limitations. However, it is still capable of munching through a trunk up to 560mm in diameter, through its 1,200 by 660mm mouth.
Currently Mr Holloway is producing G50 chip (screened to 50mm), useful for both industrial burners and domestic ones.
At full chat, the chopping cylinder spins at 520rpm, with the tractor drinking 70 litres/hour. Mr Holloway says this figure is acceptable, with many other brands consuming considerably more.
Depending on the wood, average outputs tend to be about 45 tonnes/hour, with Mr Holloway typically chipping a lot of brash and branch type material, slowing his progress.
Unlike large trunks which neatly feed in, leaving time for the onboard crane to gather more wood to present to the knives, branches tend to feed very quickly due to their smaller diameter. Also, their lack of uniform shape and presentation require the crane to be employed holding them on the feed belt, or breaking off stubborn limbs that wedge the material in the feeing roller.
However, the visibility from the Xerion is second to none, says Mr Holloway.
Having the Trac VC version enables the cab to be spun from its central position on the tractor around so that it sits over the rear axle, leaving the operator with a clear view of the linkage, and in this case the chipper it is powering.
Spinning the cab around is effortless and takes a matter of seconds. Hydraulically lifting, it then relocates on either set of three cones.
Mr Holloway says he prefers this setup to the one used to convert his old Fendt into reverse drive, as the ergonomics and controls in the cab are identical either way round, and space is not compromised by adding the turning gear into the cab.
All of this on the Xerion is external.
Having bought the tractor last year, the 57-plate machine has now racked up a total of 6,500 hours.
With him spending all those hours piloting it, he has established the ride is not the smoothest, but by no means uncomfortable.
He says the stepless transmission is as smooth as it should be, with no transmission gremlins having emerged as of yet.
On the road, the machine is not as imposing as it looks, with the ability to easily achieve 50kph and four-wheel steering aiding to its manoeuvrability.
So far, the tractor has had no mechanical issues to speak of, with Mr Holloway describing it as ‘a lot of tractor for the money’.
The next big bill forecast will be to re-shod the prime mover, something Mr Holloway reckons will cost about £20,000 to replace its 710/70R42 tyres.
He also praises how cool the engine stays when working flat out, with the easy access cooling packs filling the front of the tractor’s sizeable bonnet.
As well as working with the chipper, Mr Holloway says the tractor is very versatile, more so than an equivalently powered track or articulated machine, and on a par in his opinion with a conventional setup.
During autumn, he does keep his foot in the ag sector by fitting the tractor with a four-metre blade.
This is used for pushing up maize silage for local dairy farms and anaerobic digestion units. He says it is pretty much unrivalled for pure grunt on the pit, managing the job with ease.
Again, with the reversible cab, he says visibility to the outside and in front of the blade is exemplary.
And unlike other reverse drive setups, the operator is at a decent height to see over the top of the blade, which is also true for when working with the chipper with a clear view of the feeding table.
Looking to the future, Mr Holloway hopes to get 12,000 hours out of the Xerion, before considering replacing it.
He says resale price should still be decent, with potential buyers recognising the power it provides.
When talking about possible replacements, Mr Holloway likes the concept of the Xerion for its versatility and possibility of mounting other implements on its platform.
Options include the superseding generation of his model, with the 4000 catching his eye. However, the physical size of this may be a limiting factor as it is substantially bigger than his 3800.
The new model is nearly a metre longer overall, and weighs in about 3t heavier.
Mr Holloway says his tractor is by no means light, but its weight is spread well over its four equalsized tyres, meaning it does not leave much mess, important when travelling around the boundaries of paying customers’ fields.
However, Mr Holloway says this is a long way off yet, and he is pleased with his trusty Xerion.
He says everything he has thrown at it so far has been matched with power and convenience, praising the tractor for its performance and cab ergonomics.