With a keen eye on his bottom line, Scottish Borders farmer Richard Reed decided to exchange new machinery for tried and tested work horses.
Richard Bradley finds out more.
A pair of 1990 Ford Versatile 946s are responsible for tillage work at Berrington-Law-Farm.
Gambling repair bills of mature machines against the price tag of the latest models, Richard Reed is running a fleet of used machinery for his 1,200 hectare workload.
Mr Reed who runs his family-owned farm Berington-Law Farm, near Berwick-upon-Tweed, points out: “The cost of new equipment has risen a lot over the last 20 years or so, and commodity prices have not done the same. So keeping an eye on costs is crucial, and I think buying machines which have lost most of their depreciation is one way to go about it.”
Previously an AHDB monitor farmer, Mr Reed farms 509ha across two sites with a mixture of winter and spring drilled wheat and barley, oil seed rape, oats and beans. Barley is harvested for seed, feed and malting.
Richard Reed (left) with his father David.
Until the early-2,000s the farm featured a mix of beef and sheep, along with a contracting business to keep the machinery busy during the farm’s quiet periods.
Mr Reed says: “We since purchased the neighbouring farm and have been lucky enough to get more contract farming over the last five years or so, which, with an increase in our contracting business, has meant us nearly doubling our workload.
“The machinery we were operating at the time was not up to the job to work on such a large scale, so one way or another we needed to increase our output to match.”
Coupled with a run of problematic and unreliable new machines, Mr Reed says how he began relying on his older machines in the fleet to carry out the brunt of the workload.
"We may only be delaying a time when we have to spend a large sum on upgrading kit, but using tried and tested equipment is working for us and we enjoy operating the machines."
- RICHARD REED
“We would generally buy and sell tractors on a six to seven year cycle, but as our size grew so did the equipment, and tractors quickly became limited to the jobs they could do. The latest tractors were still relatively new and often sat parked up at busy times being repaired. We received good back up on the troublesome machines, but did not dare to run them out of warranty in fear of costly repairs.”
Reliable workhorses such as the farm’s New Holland 8970, TM165 and John Deere 7810 took on the work inbetween breakdowns of the front-line tractors.
Mr Reed says: “During this time I often thought about getting an old machine to fix up which could also provide us with some cheap horsepower, and the first machine which popped into my head was an old Ford Versatile or FW. In my teenage years, a neighbour ran a FW60 and I hoped one day I could have one.”
The first Ford Versatile 946 landed on the farm in 2010, and cost £15,000.
Mr Reed adds: “The reason for buying the machine was not for front-line power, however, once we had the tractor in the field we quickly realised how it could benefit our business. It had the power to pull our equipment and enough weight to put it down effectively.”
Shod on odd-sized dual wheels, he says how trying to source tyres for the tractor became an issue. To cater for modern tyres which could allow low pressures to reduce compaction and increase traction, Mr Reed has had a set of combine wheel rims adapted to fit the 946, as he says suitable tractor tyres are far more common. A set of single Bridgestone 800/65 R32 tractor tyres were fitted ready for this year’s winter drilling.
The Canadian-built articulated monster features a 14-litre Cummins engine which produces 325hp and weighs about 15 tonnes.
Mr Reed says how the tractor’s engine turned-over when arrived, but it could not drive itself off the wagon as it had been fairly neglected.
“We spent a couple of months stripping it down, put new hydraulic pipes in, new pins in articulation joints, and had the transmission fully rebuilt.” All in, he says the repair and improvements added another £25,000 to the machine’s price tag.
First 946 has been fitted with modern tyres to better put the tractor’s power down.
“We did not go into the idea of a used machine totally blind, we figured out if we needed specialist rebuilds of transmission, diffs and an engine overhaul the tractor should still cost far less than a modern equivalent machine. Coupled with this, we would also be left with a fully reconditioned machine under its chassis.”
Having seen the Versatile’s potential, Mr Reed admits he got a bit carried away when he decided to purchase a second Versatile 946 in 2012.
He says: “We were actually looking at hiring in a Challenger from a local firm, and when I inquired I told them how I was after something to run alongside my Versatile. Coincidentally, a 946 had just arrived in his yard as a trade in, and with our knowledge of the other machine, we decided a second Versatile would do the job. A second machine also gives us the option of breaking one tractor for parts, if things start to go wrong.
“While they are both the same age, the second machine had been looked after much better than our first tractor. Another bonus, it came on more conventionally-sized dual wheels, which where almost brand new so should not need replacing for a while.”
Thanks to the healthier condition of the latest 946, Mr Reed hopes it will not need the extensive work carried out as on the first tractor. The deal was made for £22,500 for the second tractor.
Effectively a 325hp self-propelled drawbar, three-point linkage has been removed and pto has been disconnected by a previous owner.
“Since buying the tractor we have replaced a few worn-out hydraulic pipes, with the odd bearing and universal joint also requiring a change. So far, less time and money has been spent as with the first Versatile.”
The second machine was put to use with a Discordon cultivator and plough, tasks which Mr Reed says the additional contact patch provided by the dual wheels make a difference over the other single-wheeled tractor. The plough and Discordon are two machines which Mr Reed says he is reluctant to use anymore, following a switch in field traffic strategy.
“While the duals provide us with more traction, moving this machine down the road can be a pain, as an escort is required, one area where the single-wheeled tractor has an advantage.”
At an AHDB event, Mr Reed says how benefits associated with controlled traffic farming systems were pointed out to him. So, in 2016 he made the switch to a 24 metre tramline system
“We are currently running a Horsch Terrano cultivator and CO8 tine drill, both of which work an eight metre width. The second dual-wheeled tractor tows the cultivator, with drilling taken care of by the first, now single-wheeled machine.
To improve efficiency and make life easier for the operator, Mr Reed says how fitting new air seats, DAB radios and making sure air conditioning systems work properly, make the cab a decent environment to work in. Both tractors have also been fitted with auto-steering systems.
While not positively eye-catching, Mr Reed says kit such at the Atlas sprayers do a good job.
The drilling tractor features a John Deere GreenStar 2 1800 display and JD AutoTrac Universal steering system. Clamped to the steering wheel, the system uses motors to correct steering wheel movements and maintain a straight path along the field. Having just upgrading from its entry-level guidance system, a Trimble EZ-Steer system is also fitted to the cultivations machine.
Mr Reed says: “By using GPS on the cultivation tractors, machines following on other tasks, such as rolling, are able to follow the wheelings left behind the Versatiles.” By not fitting steering systems to every machine, Mr Reed says he saves a large sum of money, and the systems do not need changing from the various tractors which carry out other tasks.
“While we have a number of skilled operators who are disciplined to look after their machines well, I do not think we are doing anything out of the ordinary. While we have had a good run over the past few years with very few major issues, you never know what is around the corner and things could go south very quickly.
“I know a lot of our kit isn’t great to look at, the Atlas sprayers being particular eye-sores, but we find them good to use, and they do their jobs well.
"Most machines feature a modular design, so finding problems should be easier and most repairs can be done in our workshop. More complicated and time consuming tasks such as major engine, transmission and axle work is sent off to specialist firms.”
For improved efficiency, auto steering systems have been retro-fitted, with the first Versatile getting a John Deere unit.
The cost-effective strategy does not just stop with front-line tractors either, with two Atlas 2500 self-propelled sprayers from the nineties, a number of telehandlers which carry an average 16 years of age, and two Claas Lexion TerraTrac combines from 2004 and 2009 at the ‘new’ end of the fleet.
Mr Reed admits for the area farmed he has a high number of machines. However, this is what allows him to keep working hours per machine down, he says. “Primary tractors will clock up around 300-400 hours each year. We are slowly phasing out the workload for the Deere 7810 and New Holland TM165, with a JCB Fastrac 2150 which we acquired last summer to take up some of their work, and a contractor is hired-in with two modern Fastracs for grain carting.”
As most modifications to kit are carried out in-house, Mr Reed says how the estate can trial different setups, and if the trial does not go to plan the kit can be reverted back to its previous setup.
An example of this is how the Horsch drill has been converted to run with low-disturbance points, with the same basic leg as used with the standard points, allowing a quick conversion back to standard, if required. In this instance, he says how some farms may choose to buy a piece of kit for different methods, and if it does not work it may lose a sum of money when selling it.
Not one to look at things with a narrow-mind, Mr Reed says how he believes there is no such thing as a free lunch; by saving costs in one area, he says he may be losing it in another.
“We are gambling the old machines and repair bills with the cost and upkeep of new equipment. We have been lucky with purchases so far, which have allowed us to keep costs at a realistic level.”
When buying used equipment, Mr Reed says he is aware there is always a possibility of buying something which could cost you an arm and a leg. And while most of the equipment has depreciated long before arriving on the farm, the thought of newer kit is not totally out of his mind.
“If the Versatiles started throwing up big problems we would start looking at different options for our front-line tractors, and hiring one larger machine looks a viable option at the minute.”
However, he says once one piece of equipment is upgraded, everything else needs to match up to get the best level of efficiency.
“We may only be delaying a time when we have to spend a large sum on upgrading kit, but using tried and tested equipment is working for us and we enjoy operating the machines.
“Extra management and a bit of luck are needed to run the older equipment, and I breathe a sigh of relief when all of the work is done and the tractors are back in one piece. And, at least if we stop farming, we could open a vintage tractor museum.”