A rare sight here in the UK, reverse-drive tractors are considered the reserve of specialist operations, but is the added complexity and convenience worth it?
Alex Heath visits a contractor who has run many iterations of the novel driving position in the past...
For one Cheshire contractor, life without reverse drive on his biggest tractors would stop his business moving forwards.
Steve Jones, director of Hooftrimming, which alongside the growing contracting business, manufactures cattle handling systems specifically with hoof care in mind, says he has been an advocate of the reverse drive concept and the benefits it brings to his business for a long time.
Having used all the reverse drive options major manufacturers offer on-farm in recent years, as well as a self-propelled mowing unit, the company now knows the benefits and nuances of each.
Recently, it has taken delivery of the very first Massey Ferguson 8740 fitted with reverse drive to grace British shores, in what is, according to Mr Jones, a calculated risk.
An aftermarket conversion was fitted to the big ex-demonstrator, designed by Austrian dealership Austro Diesel, by Agco dealer RVW Pugh.
Previously the company had run a Krone BigM420 and, while Mr Jones commends its output in the field, its sedate road speed was a hinderance to overall efficiency.
The manoeuvrability of the machine was excellent, says Mr Jones. However, sat on R26 tyres, it could be prone to sinking.
These reasons, along with the fact a 400hp engine was sitting idle for more than half the year, prompted the move away from the self-propelled mower and towards the multipurpose reverse drive tractor.
The new tractor has roughly the same power the BigM had, at 405hp, enabling it to keep on top of the job, even in very heavy crops.
Coupled to the rear of the Massey is a set of Claas Disco 9300 Duo mower conditioners with a Disco 3200 in the centre.
As the name suggests, cutting width is just more than nine metres, enabling outputs of nine hectares per hour.
Mr Jones says manoeuvrability of the 11-tonne tractor has surpassed his expectations, saying the steering lock is better than other manufacturers’ 200hp versions.
This has enabled the mowing unit to mow tighter into corners and get through narrow gateways easier.
In the field, steering is obviously done at the ‘rear’ of the unit, meaning the pivot point is very close to the mowers, reducing mower swing and misses.
Previously, the company had run a brace of Valtra T234. However, a number of factors contributed to Mr Jones looking elsewhere for reverse drive options.
He says: “The Valtras just lacked the power needed to run the triples, which was fair enough, considering they topped out at 250hp.
“However, the steering when in reverse drive was the big issue for us. There was very little control or feeling relayed through the steering wheel, as it was electrically controlled.
“This meant, unlike with the hydraulic setup we have now, it was hard to make precise movements, which is vital when covering more than 9m at a time around headlands.”
The new tractor is also surprisingly polite on the amount of fuel it gets through, in contrast to its predecessor, Mr Jones acknowledges.
Prior to the arrival of the MF, a Claas Xerion 3800 Trac VC was paired with the mowers.
Mr Jones enjoyed the high working position afforded by the revolving cab of the Xerion. However, that was not the only part of the Xerion that was high.
He says: “Its consumption of diesel was astronomical. It was basically a self-propelled drawbar, and pulled an eight-furrow plough very well, but used a lot of diesel in the process, likewise when running flat out mowing, where it was burning upwards of 50 litres per hour.”
In comparison, Mr Jones reckons the new tractor sips 40 litres per hour when mowing at full chat, and is keen to get it side-by-side with his other reverse drive tractor now employed, a Fendt 936, to see which is the most economical.
Interestingly, both tractors make use of Fendt’s continuously variable transmission, in Vario and Dyna-VT guises, but the engines differ.
The Fendt uses a 7.8-litre Deutz developing 366hp, nearly 40hp shy of the 405hp produced from the MF’s 8.4-litre Agco Power (Sisu) block.
Both tractors tip the scales at just under 11t, according to the manufacturers, making Mr Jones rather interested to see if the red tractor can use its extra power to its advantage, either in terms of acres per hour, or litres per acre.
So far, the Massey Ferguson has impressed with its visibility and ergonomics within the cab. Unlike the Fendt, where the whole steering and pedal assembly lifts up and swings around with the seat and armrest, just the seat and armrest in the Massey swings around.
At the rear is a dedicated steering column and pedals, which are linked to the front pedals via rods, rather than electric relays or hydraulic circuits.
This provides the same level of control as driving in conventional format, says Mr Jones, feeling safer and more responsive.
The full-size steering wheel has to be removed to turn the seat around, but takes seconds to reattach, and is stored neatly on a bracket in the corner of the rear window.
“Visibility to the extremities of the working width of the mowers is unhindered and impressive.”
He says reverse drive mowing is a much easier and enjoyable task for the operator. He now has three reverse drive mower combinations, one of which is to be split and run as a front and rear unit when demand dictates this season.
Each mower must be individually adjusted for height, but once that is set, it is a case of extending or retracting the hydraulic top link to alter the pitch of all beds, keeping them even.
Hanging off the front of the tractor is a 1,500kg weight block to keep the wheels down. While this is just enough, Mr Jones says a 2,000kg block will be put on the front to stop any bouncing when on the road.
IsoBus control is run through the tractor’s screen, allowing sections to be lifted in sequence. However, unlike the Fendt, the Massey joystick does not have enough functionality to assign implement commands to buttons, one of Mr Jones’ gripes.
Another niggle with the joystick is that it has not been reconfigured to change its directional output when in the reverse drive position, so when it is pushed forward, the tractor ‘reverses’, something that has taken operators a little getting used to, says Mr Jones.
Overall, Mr Jones’ first impressions of the Massey Ferguson are positive.
The agility and visibility of the machine belie its size, and the proven transmission is expected to provide trouble-free service for a number of years, as is the Agco Power engine.
The hydraulic steering setup and connected pedals relay to the driver the same level of feel as driving conventionally, making the MF setup superior to other products on the market, according to Mr Jones.
He says his operators are more productive and less fatigued when mowing large acres in a day.
The tractors can also be used for any other tasks the contracting operation demands of them, with minimal fuss or alteration.