More and more UK farmers are hanging on to tractors for longer, forcing the value of good second hand models to continue to increase. But is farming with an older fleet of tractors a viable proposition? Simon Henley visits a farmer in Leicestershire to find out.
The last brand new tractor to arrive at Ratcliffe Farms was a 2006 John Deere 8420. Since then, farmer and contractor Ashley Davies has purchased a 2003 John Deere 6920 and a 2006 John Deere 8520T, but even that was 10 years ago.
Today, his working fleet includes six John Deere models, with power outputs extending from 115hp up to 335hp. All of these tractors could be regarded as nouveau-classics, and at least three of them are now considered collectible.
Mr Davies farms 424 hectares on the border of North Warwickshire and Leicestershire. This is a mixed farm which contract rears pigs, runs an 80-strong beef suckler herd and fattens about 110 store cattle. There are three primary holdings within the company, one of which also serves as an equine facility, with a bespoke stable block and a large purpose-built menage.
The arable side of the business encompasses 340 hectares, with a rotation that includes wheat, barley, beans, fodder beet and maize. The fodder beet, the maize and about 50 per cent of the farm’s 30 hectare barley crop are used to feed the cattle, in addition to grass silage and hay.
Mr Davies also does some contracting work for several local farmers including forage harvesting, combining, baling, ploughing, drilling and muck carting. Working alongside him is tractor driver and stockman Jason Hamilton. Mr Hamilton has worked here for 10 years and, like his employer, he too shares a passion for old-school tractor power.
Having a penchant for older tractors is not uncommon, but how does Mr Davies manage to farm 400 hectares with a fleet of tractors which are for want of a better description; technologically redundant? The answer, as he explains, is by a method identified as effective utilisation.
“I remember when my father bought a brand new John Deere 3640 in the late eighties,” says Mr Davies. “That was me hooked on John Deere, but dad always tended to hang on to the older tractors. In those days we had a Ford 8100, a Case 2390 and an International Harvester 1055 XL on the farm. Each tractor had its own job, and that is how I still use my tractors today.”
“My tractor fleet encompass a wide range of specifications and power outputs, which provides the versatility to perform a broad range of tasks. We use a specific tractor for specific tasks, so we are not clocking-up hours or wear and tear unnecessarily,” says Mr Davies.
“The 6920 (150hp) for example, does the majority of the farm’s trailer and road haulage work. It is the only tractor on the farm with TLS (Triple Link Suspension), so it is the most comfortable on the road and it is well suited to transport applications. When it is not being used for road work, we fit it with flotation tyres and it is used for all the fertilising, rolling and harrowing.”
He adds: “The John Deere 7710 (155hp) and 7810 (185hp) models are the general purpose tractors. Their versatility makes them capable of doing almost anything. You can go baling straw or spreading muck all day, then drop some ballast weight on the front linkage and pull a five-furrow plough or a six metre power harrow.
“The two biggest tractors I own are only used for drilling and cultivation work. The 8420 (315hp) is used for pulling a 4m Simba Unipress and Sumo Trio combination, or a seven-furrow Kuhn plough. The twin-track 8520T (335hp) is used for high-speed top work with a 6.5m Vaderstad Carrier, or for drilling with either a 6m Vaderstad Rapid or 6m Kverneland Evo tine drill.
“The 8520T is the only tractor on the farm with AutoTrac self-steering. When I am drilling it is fitted with a John Deere StarFire 6000 dome, which I also use on the Househam self-propelled sprayer. It is probably not as accurate as newer systems, but it still works very effectively.”
“These older John Deere models are incredibly well-engineered,” concedes Mr Davies. “You can still get genuine parts for them, and they do not rely on a laptop to diagnose a problem. Generally, where possible we service and maintain them in-house. For major repairs, we use our local dealer or a John Deere specialist.
“I also take the upkeep of the tractors very seriously. Jason and I regularly clean and polish the tractors. The cab interiors and windows are always kept clean, and all of the tractors have now been upgraded with LED lighting packages.”
Effectively managing the fleet of machinery at Ratcliffe Farms does not just apply to the farm’s tractors. On this farm, the list of working machinery also includes a trio of telehandlers.
Taking centre-stage is a three-year old JCB TM320S, which arrived last year. The bendy JCB handles the heavy work, pulling bale trailers in the summer and loading them in the fields. These days, it also does 90 per cent of all the farm’s muck handling.
Next there is a Merlo P40.7, which has the highest reach. This is primarily used for stacking and handling bales, loading grain lorries and toting an auger bucket twice a day to feed the store cattle. Last but not least there is the Terex TM250-R, which spends much of its life at the company’s primary stock unit feeding cattle and scraping out the pigs.
Then there is the combine. Seven years ago Mr Davies purchased a 2009 New Holland CR9090 which replaced a Claas Lexion 480 Evolution. Equipped with a 10.5m header and New Holland’s Intellisteer auto-guidance and Intellicruise systems, it harvests about 450 hectares a season. Like the tractors, it too is meticulously maintained.
“Technology is important and it does play a vital role on this farm, but I do not rely on it. I suppose the sacrifice for using older tractors is you do not have the latest precision farming technology at your disposal. Similarly, we do not have 50kph transmissions and air-brakes, or tractors with new front axle and cab suspension systems,” says Mr Davies.
“Having said that, I know farmers who own newer John Deere tractors which may be more comfortable and technically more proficient, but they have experienced more problems and down time than I have with these older machines. Furthermore, when it comes to running costs, my experience of newer tractors with EGR and DPF exhaust emission systems is they use more fuel.
“Obviously, I am aware my tractors will not last forever. But to buy a decently-specced brand new 200hp tractor today, you are looking at around £140,000. In 2001, I bought the 7810 for £46,000, and in 2006 the 8420 cost me £64,000. That was two brand new tractors for £110,000.
“It is the escalating cost of new tractors which is the problem. I do not see the point of spending a fortune on new tractors, when I really do not have to. It is almost to the point of being unjustified, when you consider I could have the 7810 completely rebuilt using John Deere OEM parts for £25,000. A new 200hp tractor today will lose twice that amount in depreciation during the first five years.
“At some point I will have to buy a used low-hour John Deere 6195R and/or 6215R, which can use existing implements and equipment we have on the farm. But while tractors like the 7810 or the 8420 are still reliably earning their keep, I have no intentions of selling them.
“The fact remains that UK farming is going through some uncertain times,” concludes Mr Davies. “In the post-Brexit world, the agricultural industry is facing some significant changes, not only from a political perspective but also in the way food is produced and marketed.
“In my personal opinion, this is not a time to be carrying a huge amount of finance or debt. My goal for the future is to keep farming profitably. The way we farm may be changing, but at present I am happy to continue the way things are, until I can see there is a necessity to do things differently.”
Merlo P40.7 is one of three telehandlers used by Ashley Davies. Pictured loading straw, it shares the farm’s material and muck handling duties with a JCB TM 320S and Terex TM250-R (pictured below).