The life of a mobile agricultural engineer is a tough one. Working on different machines and facing new challenges every day in all types of weather, it is not a job for everyone, as Simon Henley discovered when he recently spent the day in Warwickshire with J. Brook Agri Services.
It is usually 6am when Mr Jono Brook’s feet touch the bedroom floor, as he gets up to have breakfast with his infant daughter before heading out to work. The first meal of the day is usually accompanied by a look through his diary and answering a melee of texts or phone messages as he arranges his schedule. On most days this varies or even changes slightly, usually because one of his customers has had a break-down or an emergency which might mean their livestock cannot be fed.
Mr Brook has been operating as a self-employed agricultural engineer for the past two-years. A former dealer technician with 16 years of experience on the tools, his ambition was always to run his own business. And he believes it is the best decision he has ever made.
“When I left school I wanted to be a plumber,” says Mr Brook. “Unfortunately I could not get an apprenticeship. Eventually I gave up and went to work at Vicary Plant at Lutterworth where I started to learn about engineering.
“While I was at Vicary, I studied to be a land-based engineer at Brooksby College in Leicestershire. I spent four years at Vicary and then went to work for Case IH dealer Startin Tractors at Twycross. After another four-years there, I moved over to Farol at Hinckley, where I stayed for seven years working on John Deere tractors and equipment.”
Within reason, he will take on just about anything, says Mr Brook. “However, I am considered locally as a John Deere specialist and a big majority of the machines I work on are green and yellow.
“My main priority is customer satisfaction. I work very hard to keep my customers happy. The people who use me are those who know me and trust me to do a good job. I also believe that presentation is important.
“My van is sign-written and I always wear overalls branded with my company logo. I want farmers to know who is working in their yard, and I want them to remember my name next time they have a problem.”
To find out more about Mr Brook, his business and what is involved, we shadowed him for the day as he carried out his work.
Typically, Mr Brook is on-farm with his first customer by 8am. Today he is performing a pre-harvest inspection on a 2011 John Deere S690i combine on a farm near Twycross in Leicestershire. Yesterday, his day started with a repair to an old-school John Deere 3040 which required draft link sensor seals on the link arms.
While he was on the same farm, he performed a diagnostic check on a John Deere 3800 pivot-steer telehandler which was de-rating. The problem was diagnosed as a fuel pump issue. Mr Brook will return to the farm to repair the underpowered handler when its owner has procured the parts.
This morning’s job is routine. It involves methodically inspecting the combine from back to front, making detailed notes on what is showing signs of wear and what needs repair or replacing.
Every part of the combine from the cutting table back is inspected, including belts, bearings, chains, hydraulic pipes and the electrical system, which fortunately in this case is free of damage by rats and mice. His list completed, the parts required are ordered and Mr Brooks will return to complete the combine’s overhaul in a couple of weeks.
While he is working, when possible Mr Brook always answers the phone. Outfitted with a Bluetooth ear piece, unless he is in the middle of pulling an engine, he will answer calls to his customers, some of whom simply have a technical question they want answering.
“Today, I have had a couple of calls from customers with specific concerns,” says Mr Brook, while crouched on his knees inspecting the feed elevator on the John Deere combine. “One of the problems is a JCB telehandler which is losing oil from one of the hydraulic crowd rams. The other call was from a farmer with a John Deere 6430 which has the engine management light flashing.
“When farmers have a breakdown, I always try and prioritise the problem. Even a short visit to a customer’s farm on the way to my next scheduled appointment can help diagnose a fault, and more importantly I can arrange to come back and repair the machine with some idea of what I am up against.”
With little more than a few moments to grab a sandwich and a cup of tea, Mr Brook is in his van heading out of Twycross on the A444 towards Nuneaton. His van of choice is Ford Transit, which has been outfitted with a workshop of tools and an alarm system worthy of Fort Knox. Chunky BFG tyres have been added to the rear axle, to keep the van moving across fields in sticky conditions.
Mr Brook’s next appointment is with a plant hire contractor near Rugby, where he is scheduled to replace the engine mounts on a JCB 8026 CTS mini-excavator. The JCB in question had developed a serious vibration at idle and was making a continuous rattling noise while working.
Upon inspection it was revealed that two engine mounts had failed, causing the engine mount brackets to vibrate loose. Mr Brook advised the customer to replace all four engine mounts, however, as he explains, it is not a straight forward job.
“The rear engine mounts are easy to replace,” he says. “However, the ones on the other side of the engine under the cab are more of a challenge. On this particular machine, you need to remove the exhaust system and then lean over the top of the engine to reach the mounts.
“This is where having the right tools for the task at hand is essential. I have a battery-powered Milwaukee ratchet which I use all the time for awkward jobs where I do not have enough hand room to use a conventional ratchet. In this instance I am working blind, but when you have been doing this job a long time you learn to use your fingers as your eyes and trust your judgement to make sure everything goes back together properly.”
With the JCB mini-digger back together, Mr Brook’s next port of call is just a few miles down the road on the outskirts of Nuneaton. Here he is scheduled to make a repair on the wiring loom of a John Deere 6150R belonging to a local grassland contractor.
The tractor had recently suffered from turbocharger failure, however, even with a new turbo in-situ the engine still was not playing ball. Under power, the 6.8-litre, six-cylinder was continually dropping into limp mode and the tractor’s ECU was throwing a turbo actuator communication error-code.
By the time Mr Brook arrives in the contractor’s yard, it is nearly 5pm. There is no time to waste, but in his usual courteous manner, Mr Brook continues to answer the phone and address the concerns of other customers while he prepares to do surgery on the poorly 6150R.
This particular repair has required some homework. Using the core from a wiring loom taken from another tractor, Mr Brook has built a test harness for the 6150R to resolve the problem.
“It is not uncommon for the wiring harness behind the engine to become brittle because of the inherent heat. This can create both insulation and conductivity issues, and having performed a series of diagnostic tests, it is where I believe the fault code is originating from.
“What I am doing here is installing the harness I have made into the appropriate ECU connector, so it temporarily replaces the circuit I believe is causing the problem. If this cures the problem, then at some point in the future I will come back and permanently replace the affected portion of the wiring loom with a new section.”
It is now 7.30pm. As he prepares to head home, Mr Brook gets a phone call from a customer 20 miles away with a New Holland tractor that has run out of fuel in the field. Having been refuelled, they cannot get it to restart. Mr Brook explains the procedure for bleeding the fuel system over the phone, but the farmer still cannot get the engine to fire.
“Don’t worry. I’m on my way,” he responds. Tonight Mr Brook will be lucky to see his wife and daughter much before 10pm. That is the commitment you need to a mobile agricultural engineer, yet Mr Brook is the first to admit being an agricultural engineer is not a job, it is a lifetime vocation.