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Taking the clamping challenge

With foragers producing higher outputs and clamps growing in size, filling and consolidating has become a more demanding task. Jane Carley talks to operators of three high capacity systems.

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Clamp duties extend Xerion’s working season

F Pickering and Sons are approaching their third season fulfilling contracts for clamp filling at anaerobic digester (AD) sites across North Lincolnshire and Humberside, using three Claas Xerion tractors.


During a season which runs from May to October, they clamp 1,500 hectares (3,707 acres) of maize, 475ha (1,174 acres) of wholecrop rye, 1,000-1,200ha (2,471-2,965 acres) of grass and a variable acreage of black-grass infested wheat for a variety of farmers growing for AD contracts.


Robert and Matt Pickering get more hours out of their Xerions by using them on the clamp as part of a foraging service for ADs.

Robert Pickering explains: “We were arable-focused until recently, operating full farm contracts, farming land on FBTs ad contract farming, covering some 1,800ha, but we were aware that with AD plants being commissioned all around us, there were new opportunities to be had.”


Son Matt adds: “Our friend and fellow contractor David Fox was using foragers for poppy harvesting and in a chance conversation we suggested that we should join forces to offer a harvesting and clamping service for crops going into ADs. It would have been a big step for either of us to get into this market as individuals but together we have been able to upgrade and pool our equipment.”


The Pickerings were already using Claas Xerions for their arable operation, and although they investigated other clamp filling machinery, the high horsepower tractors were an obvious choice.


“It offers us the opportunity to extend the working season for our cultivations tractors and the sheer power of the Xerion means that it is always on top of pushing up the crop into the clamp,” says Robert Pickering.


“Fuel use is low – averaging 120 litres in a working day. Another advantage is that the Xerion can be easily ballasted to 24 tonnes for rolling the clamp using a three tonne weight block adapted to go on the rear linkage, platform weights, and if necessary, water in the tyres. It also means weight can be removed and the tractor is light enough for drilling.”


He reckons that the Xerion can push an 18 tonne trailer load up in 2-3 passes.


Matt Pickering says that despite its size, the Xerion is surprisingly manoeuvrable on the clamp.

“It could easily keep up with two foragers but we aim to run them separately and pair a Xerion with each one to push up and roll. We then send a second machine – either a telehandler or tractor correctly weighted up - to help with the rolling. It’s important to push up each load individually and you don’t want to get behind and end up with it in a big heap.”


Despite its size, Matt Pickering says that the Xerion’s four-wheel steer means it is manoeuvrable as a rigid chassis 180hp tractor, which comes in handy even on the substantially sized AD site clamps. He says that it is easy to drive once the basics have been mastered.


“You do need good drivers on the clamp in any machine – they need to be safe and competent.”


Xerions have been on the family farm near Gainsborough for 10 years, with the first, a 3300 still in the fleet. Of the two 3800s which do the bulk of the work, one has just been traded in for a new 435hp 4000 model.

Robert Pickering points out that the simplicity of the Xerion design means that it is both reliable and easy to fix should anything go wrong.


“We aim to keep the tractors for five to six years, and with the arable work can put 1,200-1,600 hours a year on them,” says Matt Pickering. “They are more common now and the Claas dealer network seems to have a ready second-hand market, so the 3800 had a good resale value.”


On tracks for AD standards

Future Biogas operates Anaerobic Digesters on seven sites in Norfolk, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire with outputs from 1.4-2.5MW, and at most sites harvesting and clamp loading is undertaken by local farmers and contractors.


Wide, special ‘silo’ tracks on the Pisten Bully offer stability on higher and steeper clamps, and create vibration to firm the surface further.

However, to maintain quality at one site with two clamps ensiling large tonnages of maize from two foragers, the company has invested in a Pisten Bully Greentech tracked loader, sourced from UK agent Off Piste Agri.


Originally designed as a ‘piste basher’ normally found in ski resorts, a front-mounted body swap system allows a silage pusher to be fitted. 


Powered by a 330hp or 430hp Mercedes engine, it is mounted on 2.3m wide special ‘silo’ tracks for stability on higher and steeper clamps. The manufacturer says to compact the material, the rubber tracks create a shudder/vibration to firm the surface. Off Piste Agri suggests that it can offer the output of three conventional clamp loading machines.


Off Piste Agri director Harry Kester says: “The machine can handle 150-180 tonnes of material an hour using just 11 l/hr of fuel and cutting the number of machines and labour needed to build a clamp.”


Innes McEwen has specified a Pisten Bully tracked loader for use on clamps at First Biogas’s AD sites.

Future Biogas director of farming, Innes McEwen explains: “We use the tracked machine alongside two clamp tractors for the maize harvest and it gives us the best of both worlds – versatility and finish. In terms of costs it is similar to two tractors, but we can’t afford to compromise on quality.”


Mr McEwen adds that Future Biogas needs to be able to build a clamp which can be used successfully all year, so even compaction and exclusion of air is essential.


But the company is also under time pressure – some clamps have to be filled in a specific 12 hour period to meet local planning conditions.


“We purchased the machine with one site in mind but were so happy with the result that we moved it onto another clamp when that one was finished.


Its design means that it can work across the clamp as well as up and down, so it’s safer than a tractor. It also finishes the clamp really well, giving better contact with the film which excludes air and reduces spoilage.


Off-Piste Agri has trained several of First Biogas’s contractors to use the loader, but one driver is nominated to the job and takes responsibility for the machine.


The company does not operate any other mobile machinery, and has no storage or workshop facilities so Off Piste Agri takes care of servicing and maintenance.


“We have still to use it on grass, but the results have been impressive on maize and rye,” says Mr McEwen.


Loading shovel offers versatility

Contractors P and R Burbage purchased a 4.2 tonne payload JCB 435S Agri Wheeled Loader for clamp work in 2013, the latest in a succession of loading shovels used for this task as well as to load a fleet of muck spreaders for their Northamptonshire-based business.


The JCB 435S features torque lock, which offers increased speed and power while cutting fuel consumption.

“We have a Claas Xerion for other work and tried it for silage loading but felt that for dairy farm clamps it had a limited range of movement and also lacked traction on the concrete,” comments Richard Burbage.


“We started out using pivot steer telehandlers on the clamp and then traded up through JCB 412, 414 and 434 loaders as the range developed.”


Richard and brother Peter harvest 2,600ha (6,425 acres) of grass, wholecrop and maize each year, and have purchased a higher capacity forager – a Claas Jaguar 970 for 2015.


Customers are mainly medium sized dairy herds with a couple of small AD plants; the brothers also raise 100 suckler cattle at their farm near East Haddon.


“The big advantage of a loading shovel is that it is designed to push the material up as well as compact it,” comments Mr Burbage. “The 435 has a torque lock-out feature which really gives a lot of speed and power, so there’s no need to rev the engine. Previously the drive was just through a torque converter, but this gives a direct drive. We were using 20 litres/hr of fuel, now it is 15.6 litres/hr.”


Torque lock out also gives higher road speeds, useful as Mr Burbage points out that the loader is always the last machine to leave a clamp and needs to get onto the next job.


He adds that while the new loader was a bigger investment, it offers value for money and durability.


Contractor Richard Burbage uses a JCB 435S wheeled loader on dairy farmer customers’ clamps and on his own farm.

“With a buckrake fitted to a tractor front linkage, you are always working against side forces when loading; a wheeled loader’s pivot steer allows the full strength of the loader arms to be used. It’s flexible too – the torque converter gives the precision to get close to the edges of the clamp.”


Mr Burbage says the JCB 435S gives good consolidation as it puts its weight to the ground, which also gives plenty of grip for safety on the clamp, using 750/65R26 tyres.


“The finish is important – dairy farms need to be able to feed out the clamp slowly so secondary fermentation must be avoided.”


Output is also significant as 100 acres/day can come into the clamp at peak periods, he comments: “You do need a skilled operator to get the best out of the machine.


We have trained up several drivers to give them chance to build confidence on the clamp before it gets busy.”


While the early loading shovels were fairly basic, Mr Burbage says that the 435S offers increased space and a cooler working environment with good visibility.


He points out that the key to justifying the major investment needed for such a machine is sufficient workload.


“Whenever we are not chopping it is loading muck- we spread 170,000 tonnes a year and I reckon to put 1,200-1,400 hours a year on a loader. “


“We aim to avoid downtime by buying new equipment and keeping it up to date – loaders are kept a maximum of four years and the 434 was changed after two years because a new model was available.”


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