Combine harvesters continue to increase in capacity and sheer bulk, but for smaller or mixed farms, there are still plenty of options, extending to used or hired machines. Jane Carley reports.
Investing in machinery takes serious consideration, not least when they have such a pivotal role to play as a combine.
While redundant for much of the year, come harvest the threshing machine needs to be firing on all cylinders, leaving farms of all sizes with multiple options with how the crop is bought in, be it with an owned, hired or contractor’s machine.
Smaller new combines now make up a tiny percentage of UK sales – just 6-8 per cent, suggests New Holland’s Robert Mills.
“Many small farms find it more convenient to use a contractor or buy a used combine,” he says.
However, he adds that used choice is not necessarily restricted to older, high hour machines.
“Some buyers will only keep a combine for one or two seasons, or an ex-demo combine can be a good buy.
Younger machines can also come with the balance of a service contract and warranty, and on a CX7 or CX8 it is possible to upgrade the warranty with a service plan for up to five years.”
However, an older combine can serve smaller acreages well, says Adam Hayward, Claas combine specialist.
“There are Dominators still going strong with customers who bought them when they felt the Lexions were too big or had too much technology. But gradually the small straw walker Lexions replaced the Dominators, with the availability of options such as auto-steer proving more appealing,” he says.
Nigel Worthington, sales director at John Deere dealer Rea Valley Tractors’ Shrewsbury depot, says the used combine is the cheapest option on paper, with hiring coming in at about 60/hectare and a contractor at £84/ha or more.
“But remember that the contractor price is all in, no need to worry about operator or diesel costs. It is the most expensive, but also the most convenient.”
In the east of the country farm sizes continue to increase as smaller farms sell up, but those staying in the business who wish to retain control of harvesting are more likely to buy a used combine than get a contractor in, suggests Andrew Whiteley of Massey Ferguson dealer Peacock and Binnington.
He says: “We bought seven or eight Massey Ferguson Activas and Betas before harvest and sold them on.
There is a shortage of good second-hand small combine trade-ins in this area as farmers are not buying new, so we look to farm sales or retirees.”
Mr Hayward says one drawback of a higher capacity used machine is it will generally have been owned by a large farm or contractor and been worked hard.
“A used Lexion will have had a large tonnage put through it, so you may need to spend money on parts such as bearings and other wearing components. However, once the work is done, it could still be a good buy as a smaller farm will put fewer hours on it.”
He suggests it is worth a good look at the service record, as larger businesses will generally have covered their investment with a full service maintenance package such as Claas’s Maxicare.
“It is possible to cover all the preventative maintenance for up to five years, so this would be a benefit, although it will obviously put a premium on the price of the combine.”
Finance is also freely available on older combines, along with a one-year warranty if bought from a Claas dealership.
“There is also the advantage that it will have been through a Claas workshop before being offered for sale,” Mr Hayward adds.
Mr Worthington says there are plenty of used John Deere T550s about, often coming onto the market as small farms disappear, and many at ‘sensible money’, but points out that availability of skilled labour is a consideration.
He says: “You could opt for a low-houred used T550 at £80,000, or spend £40,000 on an older, higher-houred machine taken in part exchange, which over 10 years is going to be £4,000 per year or £19.20/hectare, plus the extra costs of maintenance and repairs, say £24-£36/ha in total.”
Both options have their benefits, he says.
“You would have to be prepared to work on the combine both before and during the season to keep it running with an older example. If you are less mechanically minded, then the £80,000 machine is a better bet. If bought from a John Deere dealer it can come with dealer checks, which adds another £5,000-£6,000, but it will have a warranty and you know it will work. All the key points, such as knife, feeders, belts, clearances for the concave and rasp bars will be taken care of.”
Mr Whiteley suggests a second-hand smaller combine is a good purchase.
“They do not tend to have the hours on that a higher capacity combine would and they are simple to maintain with low service costs.
“Buying used from an MF dealer gives the advantage that it comes fully serviced and harvest prepared, with a ‘bronze’ warranty package good for 100 hours as standard, which can be upgraded, he says.
“The Activa and Beta come with Autoguide, electric sieves, yield and moisture monitoring plus a good cab with air-con and fridge.”
Claas continues to offer smaller combines with its Avero and Tucano range and Mr Hayward says that by choosing a small new machine, the buyer can specify the ideal capacity for their acreage.
“It will use less diesel than a larger harvester and can be specced for the precise needs of the farm and its crops.”
Where buyers can take advantage of the annual investment allowance, a new machine can be a good option, says Mr Mills.
“The latest smaller New Holland combines come with big features. Our new CH crossover combine is ideal for mixed farms as it offers high grain quality and output from its twin rotors but with the straw quality of a walker machine, yet is affordable. For farms looking to keep a combine for five to 10 years, it could be a better choice than a used machine.”
Mr Mills says finance is relatively cheap at the moment and as growers aim to get the maximum potential from their crops, it is worth investing in technology such as connectivity to make best use of harvest data, regardless of farm size.
Grain tank size remains an individual choice, but the trend is for larger cutter bars. Mr Hayward says the average five years ago was 7.5 metres but that has now increased to 9m with a significant proportion moving to 10.5m headers.
“There are many more factors to consider when deciding the right size of combine for you,” he says. “It can depend on whether you are aiming for milling premiums, how much grain storage you have and the logistics, such as how many trailers are available. Rotations are also changing, with farms moving away from oilseed rape and growing more beans or spring crops, which affects what you need from a combine.”
While John Deere has discontinued its smallest W Series combine range, the 305hp T550 remains a popular entry level machine, explains Mr Worthington.
“It is the ideal machine to keep on top of 200 hectares. But smaller farms do have a lot more options than someone harvesting 800ha who need to buy a large machine to get the job done. With 200ha to cut, buying new or used, hiring, sharing with a neighbour or using a contractor could all work, depending on your circumstances.
“If you have a combine to trade in that is worth £70,000-80,000, then a new T550 is going to cost you £10,000 a year or £48/ha.”
Specialist hirer APH has an extensive combine fleet and general manager Martin Powell suggests seasonal hire can work if the farm’s cropping fits in with an early or late season term.
“You could get a £20,000 hire combine for as little as £10,000 if your harvest is completed before the middle of August,” he explains.
“Plus, it is easy to quantify the cost of harvest – there are always hidden costs with a combine you own.”
Hire terms are generally three to five years, but Mr Powell points out this can work well for smaller farms.
“With fewer acres to spread depreciation over, buyers would need to keep a combine for 10 years. If there is uncertainty about the business direction, hiring a combine can work very well.”
Mr Worthington adds: “Hire tends to be down to the specialists, but that is not to say a dealer would not consider hiring a nice trade in for the season for about £15,000, if you do not want to commit to a long term deal, perhaps if your acreage is likely to increase next year.
“Dealers can be flexible where combines are concerned so it is always worth talking through your requirements.”