John Deere’s 6M high-visibility range of tractors represents a new element in the company’s 90hp-120hp line-up, an increasingly popular sector of the UK market. Simon Henley visits a Warwickshire salad grower to see how the new tractors are performing.
Valefresco is the UK’s leading producer of salad vegetables, with facilities at Evesham and Stratford upon Avon. It is a progressive company, which uses a combination of time-honoured methods and the latest technology to produce a wide variety of oriental vegetables and baby leaf salad crops, for many of Britain’s leading supermarket chains and restaurants.
One of the four men responsible for the day-to-day running of Valefresco is Nick Mauro, who with business partner, Joe Pilade, manage the company’s outdoor farming facility which lies at the heart of Shakespeare country in Warwickshire.
Valefresco farms approximately 400 hectares, more than 50 per cent of which is double-cropped using a three-year rotation. A significant feature of the company’s Stratford farm is a large poly tunnel green house, which dominates the horizon from almost any angle of approach, covering a five hectare block of laser-levelled land.
The growing and harvesting process here is non-stop. In the summer Valefresco harvests more than half a million plants each week, all of which have to be replanted. At peak season, there are four, 12-man harvesting teams and a dedicated six-man irrigation team working constantly to meet the demand for the company’s salad crop customers, with work starting as early as 4am on the hottest days.
As for mechanical muscle, the tractor fleet on the farm is divided into two specific categories. Ground work, including primary cultivations and bed forming are handled by a fleet of seven Fendt tractors. This includes a 936 Vario and 412 Vario mounted on Soucy tracks, which have a very specific purpose.
"Because we facilitate such an intensive cropping programme, we are forced to travel on our fields extensively, which increases compaction," reveals Mr Mauro. "We also have to work in conditions which are not always favourable. Tracks allow us to keep working without making a mess.”
Although modern technology plays an important part of the production cycle at Valefresco, high-tech tractors are not necessary for every job on the farm. At its Stratford facility, the majority of the farm’s tractors are basic specification machines used for bed work including harvesting, planting and irrigation. And it is this aspect of the farm’s mechanisation policy, which has recently seen the most significant changes.
The harvesting and irrigation crews have traditionally relied on an eclectic mix of classic-era Massey Ferguson and John Deere tractors. These have included tractors from the MF 200, 300, 500 and 5400 Series stables, and equivalent units from John Deere’s yesteryear line-up including the 6310, 6400 and 6410 models.
"Many of the staff we employ are Eastern European,” says Mr Mauro. “Some of them have very little experience with modern machinery, so having simple-to-operate tractors is essential in an operation like this.”
In the past, all of the tractors used on the farm were owned by Valefresco. However, in recent years, this policy has changed. Many of the older tractors, which had become increasingly costly to maintain, have now been sold and replaced by newer models secured on contract hire agreements.
“Tractors are getting very expensive and replacing them is becoming more and more costly,” explains Mr Mauro. “Last year, we made the decision to use contract hire tractors, with an aim to replacing them every five years. We asked John Deere, Massey Ferguson, Kubota and Case IH for quotes to supply us with five 100hp tractors. We wanted an agreement that included service contracts and warranty coverage on tractors which would be returned to the delivering dealer at the end of the agreement.
“The tender was won by the Tallis Amos Group, which supplied us with five John Deere 6100M high-visibility models. The contract hire agreement includes 750 hours per tractor for each year, after which it costs £10 per tractor hour.”
According to Mr Mauro, the specification of these base-specced models was determined by the delivering dealer, in order to maximise the resale value of the tractors once the contract hire agreement has expired. In this case, all five models are equipped with PowrQuad-Plus semi-powershift gearboxes, two mechanically-operated spools and fixed front axles without suspension.
“When they arrived, the tractors were all equipped with narrow row crop wheels. To reduce costs, we used the wheels previously fitted to our older John Deere 10 Series tractors. The unused OEM wheels and tyres will be refitted when the 6M tractors are returned to the dealer, so the tractors will effectively have brand new tyres.”
For larger companies, procuring multiple tractors using contract hire agreements has the significant benefit of providing a fixed cost for operating the machines over an agreed period. The depreciation factor is essentially eliminated, so there is no haggling over trade-in values, and unless the tractor is damaged on-farm, there should be no additional service or repair costs.
But there is a minor downside, concedes Mr Mauro. “Several of the tractors have already reached the agreed hour limit for the first year. Thankfully, during the winter months they remain virtually unused, so this should not be a problem.
“For winter work, we use three older John Deere 6410 tractors we deliberately held on to. These are bullet-proof machines, which serve us well for tasks such as general maintenance work and verge trimming.
Mr Mauro concludes: “The decision to contract hire the smaller (100hp) tractors we use for harvesting and planting, has to date proved to be successful. The new John Deere 6100M tractors have so far done everything we have expected of them.
"I would have no hesitation using them in the future, as long as we can continue to negotiate a contract hire agreement which suits the needs of our business.”
As for the new tractors, Mr Mauro says: “The new John Deere 6100M tractors are actually perfect for what we do. They are simple enough for anyone with limited experience to operate, they have excellent all-round visibility which you need for bed work and they have a tight turning circle, which makes them very manoeuvrable. Importantly, they also have plenty of power, so they are suitable for almost any task in the field.
“In terms of reliability, so far we have not had a single issue. Last year we purchased three Kubota M105GX-IV models (111hp) to use for irrigation work and I would say the John Deere’s 6M models compare very well to the Kubota models, both in terms of their build quality, durability and performance.
“In my opinion, it is hard to choose between a John Deere and Kubota. They are both very good products. It really comes down to the relationship you have with your local dealer. We have very good Kubota and John Deere dealers in this area, but getting the right deal to suit the needs and operating costs of your business is equally important.”
He continues: “Having sold the majority of our older tractors, last year the seasonal demand for additional machines was supplemented by hiring three John Deere 5100M models, which in just a few months clocked 400 hours. Unfortunately, as the cost of buying tractors increases, so does the cost of short term hire.
“Next year we are increasing our commitment to using contract hire machines, by adding another five tractors under a five year contract. By doing this, we anticipate there should be no requirement in the immediate future for using seasonal hire tractors."