Spreading 355,000 tonnes of sludge across the length and breadth of East Anglia takes serious kit and coordination.
Richard Bradley finds out about the machinery at the heart of O.J. Neil Contracting’s outfit.
Following the demise of Challenger’s popular RoGator, O.J. Neil Contracting had to look elsewhere for its self-propelled spreaders.
Knowing they would be submitting a tender to Thames Water to spread its 355,000 tonnes of biosolids under the ThamesGrow banner, the firm trialled several high capacity machines, including options from Holmer, Verveat and Vredo.
Despite impressive credentials and plenty of experience on the continent from the former two machines, the Vredo became a favourite with the firm for its operator comfort and Tebbe spreader body, the same used on TerraGators.
Established in 2004, O.J. Neil Contracting, Bury Saint Edmunds, Suffolk, is no small-time operation.
With no background in farming, Olly Neil started as a one-man business in 2004, spreading lime for a sugar beet factory only a stone’s throw away from what is now his head office. This expanded to buying an excavator to keep him and his seasonal workforce busy during quiet periods and he began spreading 50,000 tonnes of sludge waste for Anglian Water with trailed Bunning spreaders.
A self-propelled forager was bought in 2010 to meet the harvesting demands of a new anaerobic digestion (AD) plant five miles down the road. Now, the firm operates three foragers to harvest 6,000 hectares (14,826 acres) of wholecrop rye and maize for 10 AD plants, bales up to 14,000 tonnes of straw, and operates six self-propelled spreaders to satisfy the demands of Thames Water. Alongside this is the groundwork operations.
Olly Neil says: “We try to target renewable and utility works in agriculture, with their longer term contracts allowing us to justify buying high-output and high cost machinery. This is kit which we can also use for other work.”
Following the successful tender for the Thames Water contract in June 2016, the firm invested in two Vredo 4546 spreaders, with four 4556 following for the 2017 spreading season. This contract sees the firm cover all areas on the north of the River Thames, from Swindon in the west to the Dartford Crossing in the east, with the A14 as the upper limit. Most of this spreading is done from early July to September, following the combine harvest.
With a 450hp engine, four 1050/50 R32 Michelin tyres and 14.7cu.m Tebbe spreading body, the Vredo sits at 19 tonnes unladen, pushing 40t when piled high with sludge.
Drive to the cross-beaters and twin spinning discs is hydraulic on five of the firm’s six Vredos, while the sixth spreader features direct drive.
Mr Neil says: “The direct drive machine may be a little more efficient, but the hydraulic drive is better to cope with varying sludge consistencies. Spread patterns and widths are easier to maintain and they can cope with the occasional foreign object which makes its way into the spreader, without breaking anything.”
To ensure an even spread, the Vredos use Trimble auto steer to run at 12-metre passes, with the spreader’s 24m working width providing a double-overlap effect.
On-board weigh-cells control the machine to maintain the desired application rate, which Mr Neil says is generally about 18-23t/ha. This control includes disc and bed speed, slurry-door position and the spreader’s forward speed, which he says can be up 20kph depending on the sludge.
Controlling the machine is relatively simple too, according to Mr Neil.
“All the parameters for spreading are programmed into the control screen, so the operator only has to press one button to start spreading. This makes life easier for the operator and prevents the chance of missing something.
While each Vredo has its own excavator, larger stockpiles may see spreaders paired up.
“Our operators also find the Claas cab much more comfortable than the TerraGator’s.
“Generally speaking, one machine will spread about 1,000t of sludge per day, but distances to stockpiles and transport time have a big impact on this.”
Despite this, he says one operator, known locally as ‘The Beard’, has been able to spread twice this amount on more than one occasion.
Operating over such an area with six separate outfits also takes some logistical planning.
“Thames Water will create up to 760 stockpiles, each for a block of land, which will be heaped up with an excavator in the field to be spread. The area rep will then tell us when the farmer wants an area spreading, where the stockpiles are, how many tonnes are in them, and the application rates for each area.
“We send all this to the operator on their iPad, which we use instead of having a raft of paperwork. This also prompts them to fill out daily checks and risk assessments for each job, and they have to complete each job card before they can move onto the next.”
To keep each of the Vredos spreading, the firm has six, 14 tonne Volvo excavators which are towed by tractors and low-loader trailers, or hauliers are used for longer distance moves.
“Loading with diggers is not the quickest task, with 13 bucket fills required to fill the spreader, taking about three minutes. While loading with our 435 loading shovels may be quicker, using the tracked excavators ensures we keep compaction and ground disruption to a minimum.”
Keeping with the compaction theme, Mr Neil says how the spreaders run in crab-steer mode, allowing each of its metre-wide tyres to run on a different patch of ground.
“For such heavy machines they travel surprisingly well. Running the self-propelled, compared to a large trailed spreader, definitely lengthens our spreading window. Even to the point where we have two machines spreading in Oxford until early December.”
Despite being on the options list, Mr Neil has not specified his spreaders with central tyre inflation.
“When spreading, the weight transfer shifts from being a relatively balanced machine, to one which is rear-end heavy. To get the best compromise, Michelin came out to weigh the machine properly, so each tyre now runs at different pressures to accommodate for the machine’s layout.
Taking 13 buckets to fill, the excavator spends most of its time at full height to clear the spreader’s high sides.
“Being able to let the tyres down for road travel would be handy though, as they tend to bounce a little at their higher pressures.”
With a big emphasis on minimising downtime, Mr Neil says he has been impressed by Vredo’s service.
“Vredo has been good at listening to any issues we have found, coming out, fixing them and training our mechanics, allowing us to keep a lot of costs in-house.”
Additionally, he says simple things, such as having to stock only one tyre size for the entire spreader fleet, keeps the spreaders rolling without a huge parts store.
Aiming to get the most out of his machinery, Mr Neil says he aims to widen the use of the Vredos.
“We are looking at getting a couple of backpack slurry tankers to spread digestate, and beet bunkers to cart for the local factory. As the bodies are attached with twist-locks, we thought the Vredo machines would give us the most versatile option and allow us to keep them busy in their quiet periods.”
Maximising machinery use is clearly evident across the firm.
“We try to get our pool of kit working as much as possible. For example, the spare excavators are currently out working on construction jobs in the area, with the tractors and trailers carting all the soil away. If Thames Water ring up saying they have a job to do, we will withdraw from other jobs accordingly. Their contract takes priority and we work round it where possible.”
Along with managing logistics, Mr Neil says the level of health and safety required helps to keep competition to a minimum.
“There is a lot of work involved, but we get paid well for it. While the large spreaders appear to retain their value well, we could not justify them for smaller jobs spreading farmyard muck. We also do not get the same issues with baling string puzzles on the spreader.
“While running a large trailed spreader with a 400hp tractor may give us similar outputs, the Vredo self-propelled is much more compact and makes little mess in the field.”