Leicestershire farmer and contractor John Pierce of Morgan-Agri Contractors, was one of the first UK farmers to buy JCB’s 531-70 Loadall AgriPro DualTech VT.
Today with 2,600 hours under its belt, Simon Henley went to see if the loader was living up to its owner’s expectations.
At Morgan-Agri Contractors in Leicestershire it is the bright yellow livery of JCB which dominates the farm fleet – and make no mistake about it, these guys know their onions when it comes to talking about Uttoxeter products.
Morgan-Agri Contractors is a Wigston-based contracting firm, operated by farmers JM & JM Pierce & Sons.
The multi-generation family business was established in 1960, and today the Pierce family runs its contracting subsidiary alongside its dairy farming enterprise, which encompasses 263 hectares.
On the dairy side of the business, the family milks 300 cows, rearing followers as herd replacements or for beef, adding an additional 400 animals to the livestock tally.
On the contracting side, the company specialises in slurry and muck handling, drainage, cultivation work, baling and forage harvesting as its main lines of work.
The farm’s tractor fleet is a mix of old and new, featuring John Deere, Case-IH and Ford/New Holland models. The fleet also includes five JCB 4220 Fastracs, a JCB 418S wheeled- loader, a JCB JS130 excavator and no less than six JCB Loadall telehandlers.
Business partner John Pierce, runs the contracting side of the business. He was one of the first farmers in the UK to operate a JCB 531-70 Loadall AgriPro (7.0m/3.1-tonne), equipped with JCB’s revolutionary DualTech VT transmission.
Mr Pierce says: “JCB approached us to see if we would be interested in using a pre-production AgriPro for evaluation purposes.
“When it arrived, the machine had clocked just 100 hours. We were essentially told by JCB to run it into the ground, so we put the machine to work mixing quick-lime into biosolids.
“In the first three months, we put 1,000 hours on the machine, working it literally around the clock. The contract was to mix 25,000 tonnes, all of which had to be handled three times, and the test machine did virtually everything.”
According to Mr Pierce, when the AgriPro first arrived it took a lot of getting used to. Initially the handler kept stalling when it was pushed into the heap. This was quickly rectified by JCB engineers, who closely monitored the machine’s performance during the trial.
“JCB re-worked and fine-tuned the DualTech gearbox,” recalls Mr Pierce. “The machine metamorphosed from being a nuisance at the beginning, into an absolutely superb piece of kit which we did not want to hand back.”
JCB’s DualTech VT transmission combines a Bosch Rexroth hydrostatic unit with a JCB three-speed powershift module.
The transmission provides purely hydrostatic drive up to 19kph, at which point the powershift system takes over, enabling the AgriPro to achieve a maximum of 40kph.
The DualTech VT’s hydrostatic system eliminates the necessity to use a torque-converter, enabling the powershift system (once it engages) to provide direct drive to the wheels.
One of the key features of the DualTech VT gearbox, is a system called Fleximode, which operates in the transmission’s hydrostatic module. Once selected, the engine speed is set using a hand throttle, to maintain a consistent engine speed.
The foot throttle then becomes a travel pedal, providing a progressive rate of progress in either direction, proportional to how far the pedal is pressed.
The maximum ground speed is controlled using a dial, which shows its setting as a percentage of the maximum speed – 19kph.
Following the six-month on-farm evaluation of the AgriPro Loadall at Morgan-Agri, the telehandler was collected by JCB and returned to the factory, where the transmission and the cooling system were removed for evaluation.
A new transmission was installed and the machine was overhauled, after which it was returned to Leicestershire to re-join the Pierce family fleet.
“Our local JCB dealer, Sharman’s Agricultural at Kettering, had the telehandler valeted for us at their cost when it was delivered, so it looked like new,” says Mr Pierce.
“JCB made us a deal we could not refuse, and the AgriPro came back to us with a five-year, 5,000-hour warranty.
“In terms of the machine’s overall layout, there is no difference between a powershift model and the AgriPro. The difference purely centres around the transmission, which once you have adapted to it, genuinely transforms the telehandler’s performance.”
He continues: “We always use the machine with the gearbox set in Eco-mode. You do not need Power-mode unless you are really working the machine hard.
“In Eco-mode, the machine uses less fuel without compromising hydraulic performance. The only time we use the Flexi-mode feature, is when we are using the rotary brush.
Engine: JCB 4.8-litre, four-cylinder, EcoMax, Stage 4, 145hp
Transmission: DualTech VT combined hydrostatic / three-speed powershift
Max Lift Kg: 3,100Kg
Max Lift Height: 7.0m
Forward Reach: 3.7m
Hydraulic System: 140L/min Load Sensing + 110L/min auxiliary.
“The AgriPro consistently uses 25 per cent less fuel than our powershift machines, which are equipped with the same 145hp, 4.8-litre, JCB engine. AdBlue
consumption is negligible, working out at around one fill-up for every six tanks of diesel.
“Another significant difference with the AgriPro, is that you do not need to use the brakes unless you are on the road. In a powershift machine, you are always riding the brakes.
“In the AgriPro, the braking effect of the hydrostatic module slows and stops the machine when you lift off the throttle, which
reduces both heat build-up and wear on the brakes.
“We have also noticed that when working in Eco-mode, the AgriPro is less prone to wheelslip when pushing into a heap than the powershift models. The combination of minimal brake usage and reduced tyre slippage has noticeably cut tyre wear – particularly when working on concrete.”
Gripes pertaining to the AgriPro’s performance are few, but nonetheless important. One of the main issues has been EN15000 load movement monitor interference, when using heavily laden buckets of wet material, says Mr Pierce.
“We found that working with material like biosolids, you get more work done using a 1.5cu.m bucket, than using a two-cube bucket,” he says. “The machine will easily lift the larger bucket, but the boom will continually lock-out when you extend it.
“To be fair, this is an issue with all JCB Loadalls. In future, we will need to buy larger four-tonne machines to do the work of an older three-tonne unit. I think all manufacturer’s products have this problem.
“The towing performance of the DualTech VT gearbox, is impressive. Basically, if the pick-up hitch will lift it, the AgriPro will tow it.
“We recently used the AgriPro to cart silage bales alongside a John Deere 6215R, both of which were carrying similar sized loads. Pulling out of the field onto the road with a loaded trailer, the AgriPro could not only out-accelerate the John Deere, the tractor needed almost a mile to catch up with the JCB.
“Its towing performance far exceeds that of a Loadall fitted with a powershift gearbox.”
Having spent thousands of hours piloting Loadalls, Mr Pierce is cognisant with a number of foibles common to the JCB Loadall design.
The mudguards for example are described as being too flimsy, and the mirror tree mounted on the off-side of the handler is described as being feeble, allowing the mirrors to sag and become loose.
“We like the fold-back split-door design, but the knob for the latch-back mechanism sticks out when the door is shut, and is prone to getting caught when you are working in tight spaces,” Mr Pierce adds.
“The other thing is you need to make sure the top door is latched securely back. My father nearly lost the tops of his fingers when the top door swung shut and his hand was resting on the bottom door. It was his fault, but it is something worth noting.”
Having spent some time working with quick-lime and biosolids, the AgriPro’s paint has noticeably started to peel off the cab door where rust has manifested. The seat upholstery is tatty – another failing blamed on the quick-lime – yet its cosmetic flaws aside, this machine runs like a Swiss watch.
“The only problem we have had with the engine, is that the plastic thermostat elbow on the engine became warped and needed replacing,” states Mr Pierce.
“We also discovered last winter, that freezing cold air being drawn into the radiator passes directly over the fuel filter, which on one occasion caused it to wax-up and stopped the engine.
“We have tried both Manitou and Merlo machines, but to be honest even though we were initially sceptical about the reliability of DualTech VT, it really has proved to be exceptionally durable.
“The transmission has performed flawlessly. Even when we were testing this machine, the DualTech VT gearbox had no problems, and the transmission they replaced it with has performed equally well.
"JCB is getting to a point with the Loadall design, where the machines are lasting longer and retaining a higher residual value on the used market.
“Unfortunately, the additional £15-20,000 it costs to buy an AgriPro Loadall does not stack up for us to have a whole fleet of them.
“This machine will be replaced by another (larger) AgriPro model, and I would imagine we will eventually buy a second machine with the DualTech VT transmission.
“Once you have owned an AgriPro, you do not want to drive anything else.”