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Liebherr loading shovels suit high-capacity contracting fleet

Giving a flavour of what future Claas Torion owners could expect, we speak to one Yorkshire contractor who is running three shovels from German giant Liebherr.


Richard Bradley finds out more.

A.J Long Contracting still runs its two original Liebherr 538s alongside its latest 550 XPower.
A.J Long Contracting still runs its two original Liebherr 538s alongside its latest 550 XPower.

When it comes to clamp climbers, JCB takes a clear majority of the UK’s market. However, this does not necessarily make them the best performer, or the best to live with, according to one contractor.


With this in mind, Skipton-based A.J.Long contracting has been operating alternative shovels in the form of Liebherrs for some seven years now, with the most recent third machine arriving for last year’s grass harvest.


Getting into the silage contracting game in 1979, the family-run business bought its first loading shovel for the clamp some 36 years ago, to keep up with the increasing output from its forage harvesters. This foraging business is one which now runs two Claas Jaguar 970 and one 960 self-propelled forager, along with a mixed fleet of 10 tractors Massey, Fendt and one Claas tractor, with all manner of reseeding, muck and slurry work undertaken.

Andrew Long with sons Tom (left) and Josh (right).
Andrew Long with sons Tom (left) and Josh (right).

Andrew Long says; “For us there is no match to a shovel on the clamp. We have tried high horsepower reverse drive tractors before and they do not compare.”


With this in mind, Mr Long’s clamping fleet currently includes two smaller 538 and a larger 550 XPower. To give an indication, these relate to the 1410 and 1812 in their new Claas livery.


“While out at the Grassland show one year I saw a green Liebherr shovel working on one of the demonstration clamps, and it just seemed to be quietly working away, not rushing about to get the job done.


“We were keen to get a machine on demo, but struggled until Rickerbys took on the dealership. We managed to get a 538 on demo for a few weeks in a very wet backend grass harvest, and left the drivers to try it out.


“After the first few hours the lads had not got to grips with it, as it is a different way of driving to other shovels, but by the end of the day they did not want to get off it and back onto their regular shovel.”

This different driving style comes from the Liebherr’s powertrain, with the firm’s own engines being coupled to hydrostatic transmissions in the smaller 538 machines, and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) in the 550. While traditionally thought of as coming second in the clamp-climbing league to a torque convertor transmission, Mr Long says how the German firm has got things well packaged together.


“Liebherr has only ever made hydrostatic transmissions, and they know what they are doing. We thought we would find problems with overheating, but we rarely blow radiators out in a season, never mind daily as we have done with other machines in the past.”


At the end of the 2010 season, Mr Long asked the three shovel operators whether, at the end of the day, they would stick with their tried and tested JCB, or twist and get back into the Liebherr. Before an answer came, the lads were met with the response; ‘well I’ve ordered one anyway’.


Mr Long says how he soon faced the problem of two drivers wanting to use the same shovel, so a second machine arrived in 2012. And these two machines are still primary movers in the fleet.


Mr Long adds: “Traditionally we would replace shovels about every three years, yet, despite clocking up a good 3,500 hours, our first machine is coming into its seventh season with us.


“Their running costs are brilliant and I do not think they need to be moving on soon either.”

Despite its long appearance, Mr Long says you soon get used to the 550's size.
Despite its long appearance, Mr Long says you soon get used to the 550's size.

Since first purchasing the shovels, Mr Long says how the output of forage harvesters has increased significantly, so with the aim to be well and truly on top of the job, the JCB 416 support loader was exchanged for a larger framed Liebherr 550 XPower for the 2017 season.


“On some jobs we were having the two shovels working together, so we wanted something to better match our newer 970 Jaguars which can be filling trailers in as little as a minute in heavy crops. We tried a lot of different colour machines, even putting them against other local contractor’s machines to see how they compare, but the 550 with its new transmission is in a league of its own. And while it looks monstrous, it does not feel it from in the cab.”


Available on Liebherr’s largest models, the ZF-sourced CVT in the 550 operates similar to a CVT in a tractor, using hydraulic drive to automatically vary speed. Within the speed range, fully mechanical drive is achieved at 10kph and 40kph says the manufacturer, offering further efficiency gains over the fully hydrostatic ‘boxes in the smaller 538 loaders, which already score higher than torque convertor ‘boxes.


“We would be interested to see the CVT in the smaller models to improve them further. The 550 is the most fuel efficient shovel we have used, generally using about 11-litres of fuel per hour. It is also simple to drive, there are no gears to worry about, and you only have to rev and go.

A.J Long Contracting services

  • End-to-end forage harvesting, including whole crop and maize
  • Large square baling and wrapping
  • Umbilical spreading with two outfits
  • Solid muck spreading
  • Ploughing and cultivation
  • Conventional and min-till drilling cereals and grass
  • Maize drilling
  • Land drainage and excavation

“Getting more speed up the clamp was really what we wanted in our new machine, with a lot of the driver’s time waiting for trailers to tip and get out of the way, and the CVT in the 550 beat other machines running torque convertors by a fair margin.”


Drive to the transmission in the 550 comes from a monstrous seven-litre, four-cylinder engine, offering its maximum 195hp from 1,100-1,800rpm. Similarly, its 1,215Nm torque is available from 1,100rpm. Both 538 models also use this four-potter block, albeit with a lower 141hp. Mr Long says this low-rev driving style takes a little getting used to, but as well as providing better fuel consumption, it also reduces noise.


“A lot of customers comment on how quiet the machine is when shoving up the clamp.”


Compared to the competition, another element to the nearly 18 tonne Liebherr, is its hefty weight. While you may think additional weight could put it at a disadvantage, Mr Long says things are quite the contrary.


“We find the extra weight an advantage on the clamp, it makes the machine more stable, and I always think you need weight to shift weight. You do not need to start ballasting them up to get the best out of them. When you watch any of the Liebherr’s going into a full load of grass they do not bounce and start spinning their wheels as they try to get up the clamp, everything just looks smooth.”

Loader pic

Compared to a parallel loader arm, Mr Long says the Z-bar linkage provides a more natural feathering action up the clamp, and views of the buckrake are improved.

At the front end, the Z-bar linkage is coupled up to a home-built 4.8m (16foot) buckrake, whereas the 538s will benefit from similarly workshop built 4.2m (14foot) forks.


Mr Long says: “We try to build our own kit where we can make it stronger than you can buy it, and it keeps us busy in quieter periods. For our latest forks we have beefed up all the joints and pivot pins to cope with the work they are put through. We have also made a lot of our slurry equipment and silage trailers in the past.


“As for the loader, compared to a parallel linkage, the Z-bar gives much better views to the edges of the buckrake, where you need to be looking. Its action also seems much better, and does not feel as much of a fight to feather grass.”


In terms of drawbacks to the Liebherr machines, Mr Long says they are few and far between.


“If you nit-picked of course you could find a few things, but we have had no major issues. They do carry a price premium over other loaders, but not as much as you might expect. And at the end of the day we are getting a better machine, and they should hold their value if we were to trade them in.”

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