A number of farm businesses are overlooking high-tech, high horsepower tractors in favour of more straightforward, mature muscle and keeping a lid on costs. Geoff Ashcroft sought their views on running older high horsepower machines.
Mechanical simplicity and modest operating costs are among the key reasons growers cite for keeping high horsepower tractors on their fleets for extended periods.
Some farms have also turned to the used market in search of good value muscle which still has a useful second life – sensible, perhaps when running for just a few hundred hours each year.
And such economics are becoming harder to ignore.
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William Forsyth, of contract farming business Forsyth Farmwork, Moorlands Farm, Little Kineton, Warwickshire, has a pair of Ford Versatile tractors on the fleet.
Up until this season’s change in drilling policy for the 2,200-hectare contract farming business, both had been earning their keep pulling eight-metre Vaderstad Rapid drills.
Mr Forsyth says: “These are the remaining two of four Versatiles which were the backbone of our fleet. They’ve been great value, they are mechanically straightforward, and if they offered enough hydraulic power to run our modified 12m Horsch CO12 drill, we’d be keeping them both hard at work for a lot longer.”
Nudging 24 and 27 years of age, the two Versatiles are now used to carry out mole ploughing and also to pull a Carrier cultivator to incorporate sewage sludge after oilseed rape.
The oldest of the two, a 1989/G-registration 976 model, was a direct import from Canada and was bought with just a few hundred hours under its belt by the Forsyths. The younger 946 model dates back to 1992, and was bought new through the then local Ford dealership Murleys.
“We soon had Cummins out to the tractors to fettle the engines and raise power from 360hp to 400hp,” he says. “They’ve been very robust and pretty reliable.”
Now with 6,400 and 6,900 hours on their respective clocks, the Forsyth’s Versatiles have both had their powershift transmissions overhauled by local specialist Tim Ingles, of Cotswolds-based Midwest Machinery.
Cummins has also attended to the engines with new piston rings and liners, and in the last five years, both tractors have had their original crossply tyres replaced by newer radials.
“With 400hp and no ballast, these tractors are surprisingly light on their toes, and for high-speed top work, they’re hard to beat,” says Mr Forsyth. “But running on dual wheels – and with land farmed for eight clients – cultivations often pose a challenge when moving about on local roads. At this width, we have to run escorts.”
Despite their ages and a few running repairs, he says both machines have been cost-effective horsepower.
“During our ownership, they have been regularly covering about 250-300 hours each year,” he says. “Yes, we’ve had the odd oil pipe break and radiators replaced, but there’s little else to fail. It’s a tug with an engine, transmission, chassis and axles.”
The cab interior, while now looking a little dated against more contemporary power, is said to be a reasonably quiet place to sit, as a result of having the exhaust right at the front of the bonnet, and well away from the cab.
Covering so few hours each season makes it harder to justify making a big investment on a replacement tractor to handle the wider Horsch drill. And it perhaps explains Mr Forsyth’s recent purchase of a 12-year-old Case Quadtrac STX450 which has covered 5,500 hours and was a fraction of its new price.
“The shift onto tracks means we can get more power to the ground, we also gain enough hydraulic power to safely power the drill, and we get a narrow transport width which avoids the need for an escort,” he says.
“There is no doubt we’ve compromised on running costs for a bit more output and capability,” he adds. “And after completing its first autumn drilling campaign, the STX doesn’t slow up or struggle for traction when working on some of the steeper banks.”
While the two Versatiles still provide a useful level of support at Forsyth Farmwork, the long-term plan is to find another secondhand Quadtrac, which means the Versatiles will soon be looking for new homes.
“If the STX450 does break down, I’ve nothing else which can pull the drill,” he says. “So if I can replace either or both Versatiles with another Quadtrac, the business should gain efficiency without incurring huge costs.”
Mr Forsyth says his Quadtrac is expected to cover about 500 hours/year, and having bought with a year’s warranty, it is something he will be looking to extend.
“The Quadtrac is a much more complex tractor and there’s a lot more which can go wrong, but it should be good for 9,000 hours before I need to think about its replacement. By then, it’ll be almost 18 years old.”
Essex grower Tom Sawdon, of Peldon Hall Farms, Colchester, Essex, continues to run a Claas Challenger 75E alongside newer equipment, based on its proven reliability and sensible running costs.
Bought in 1999, the 75E handles cultivations and drilling at the 800ha farm, and despite being in its 17th year, the tractor is in rude health and has just 5,500 hours on its clock.
Mr Swadon says: “We have considered changing the 75E on a number of occasions – but the cost to change is fairly high.”
Current fluctuations in commodity prices make it harder to justify heavy investment in machinery and equipment, particularly those not handling an extensive workload, he says.
“Ignoring market prices though, it’s going to take something quite special to make us want to spend a large sum of money on a replacement for the 75E.
“And this is simply because it suits the work we do perfectly. While a 765D or 775E would be a natural successor to our old 75E, this tractor gives us a great turn of speed which complements the nature of the cultivations we carry out.”
Working on heavy London clay soils at Peldon Hall Farm, the 75E handles an 8.3m Vaderstad Rexius Twin and an 8m Vaderstad Rapid drill, following primary cultivations carried out by the farm’s two-year-old Challenger 875C and 7m TopDown cultivator.
“Output is good and with a high forward speed, the flat track undercarriage allows the machine to turn quickly back into work without scuffing on the headlands or making a mess,” he adds. “And having been remapped up to 410hp, the 75E also has power in reserve for high-speed top work.”
Mr Sawdon recently pitted the 75E against a Challenger 775E, which he says is a vast improvement over recent Challengers, but he and experienced operator Paul Scott remain convinced the flat track 75E is still the machine to beat.
“We found the older tractor had easier steering, a more comfortable cab and worked much more neatly when turning on headlands,” he says. “Despite being similar in power, the 75E was far quieter, and I like to listen to what Paul has to say – after all, he’s the one spending long days in the cab.”
Mr Sawdon says fuel consumption on the 75E is reasonably low because the farm is not using it for particularly heavy work or primary cultivations.
“In dry conditions, it might get through 800 litres of fuel/day. However, with the nature of the Vaderstad kit, when the going gets stickier and engine load increases, fuel consumption can get up to 1,200 litres/day.”
Despite its age, the 75E has been kept in top condition, which Mr Sawdon says is entirely down to farm staff who take the trouble to give kit a thorough inspection each winter.
“We’ve also worked closely with RW Crawfords, which has played a key role in helping to maintain the Challenger,” he says. “And Paul knows the machine like the back of his hand and is quick to report and fix any small issues, though they have been few and far between.”
In its time at Peldon Hall Farm, the 75E has had one new set of tracks and one idler replaced. Machine reliability has been impressive, though the farm is acutely aware of the cost of annual servicing and the importance of keeping on top of maintenance.
“If and when an expensive breakdown or issue arises, we believe fixing the problem is still going to be far cheaper than buying a new replacement tractor,” he adds. “And of course, we are very keen to continue using the 75E given the success we have had with it, over such a long period.”