Friday, December 6, 2019

Forage contractors keep focus on fundamental service

March 5, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Jack and Bay Watson are gearing up for another season offering top-class silaging services to customers. Simon Wragg reports.

Long-standing dairy farming customers are the foundation of family-run firm forage operation offered by Jack and Bay Watson of Church Farm, Moreton Bagot, near Redditch. But ways have been found to broaden the business without losing focus on this fundamental service.

The unexpected loss of their father, John, saw the brothers take on the contracting operation in 2006. Hard graft and support from family, friends and customers saw the duo go on to win the  Farm Contractor of the Year award from Farmers Weekly in 2012.

More recent progress has been achieved by integrating forage operations with fellow contractor Andrew Brown.

Bay explains: “As a family, we’ve known Andrew for many years and he was especially supportive in our early years. In 2014, we combined forage operations in a new venture – Watson and Brown – broadening our forage customer base while allowing Andrew to concentrate on contract farming operations.

“Importantly, the merger has been seamless for customers. They’ve always known whose coming to do their silaging, they recognise the staff, have access to modern kit and get a single invoice for the work done.”

Forage harvesters

During the season separate teams run with Watson & Brown’s two Claas Jaguar self-propelled forage harvesters. A 2016-registered 860 is used for grass, maize and whole crop while a 2012-registered 870 is set up solely for grass.

Key is the ability to cover a lot of ground as soon as the season opens, explains Jack.

“We have to hit the ground running often doing up to 600ha in the opening week. During a season we may cover 1320ha of grass, 440ha of maize and 80ha plus of whole-crop wheat. But it is the opening cut which is key for customers.”

Time-served operator Peter Hughes – one of Watson & Sons’ five full-time operators – makes use of auto-steer fitted to one of the fleet of Case Puma tractors to ensure mowing is as efficient as possible.

He says: “It takes a lot of fatigue out of the job not having to constantly be looking behind where you’ve travelled.

“The wheelings left by the nine meter wide bank of three mowers are used by the driver of the rake making his job more efficient. It also removes the need to have two tractors spec’d out with £8k’s worth of auto-steer which adds to machinery costs.”

Machinery fleet

Like all efficient operations, these costs remain under scrutiny. The Watsons gear machinery replacement according to maintenance and servicing costs, reliability and the availability of dealer promotions.

“For example,” says Jack, “our JCB 418S loading shovel has 2000hrs, looks clean and is a reliable unit. But despite the low hours we would go for a new model with the benefit of warranty if the cost was comparable to paying on-going maintenance and finance costs.”

In-house servicing and repair work should benefit from a new 6000sq ft workshop planned for 2019.

“It’s timely,” says Jack. “Both Bay and I have Class 1 HGV licences but I’ve also done my Operator’s CPC enabling us to buy two new HGVs dedicated to delivering cereals nationwide for a large farmer-owned grain storage company. Our original HGV is still used for delivering forage and straw.”

Working with larger companies including utilities, co-operatives and construction clients alongside farming customers has seen the brothers become tuned to legislative compliance and health and safety. Bay says: “We all want to go out to work in the morning and come home in one piece at night.

Risk management

“It’s influenced our view on managing risk. For example, we’ve contracted out the servicing and six weekly inspections of the new HGVs to Volvo (Coventry). When we need to be focused on forage harvesting we don’t want to be diverted to sort out a servicing issue on a HGV.”

Most other servicing is done in-house. This includes Watson & Sons’ fleet of 14t K-Two rear discharge spreaders which will soon begin this season’s spreading work, explains Jack.

“Always keen to see what’s on the market, we went around LAMMA earlier this year but nothing had better build quality in our view.”

But investment in machinery rolls on. Alongside a new Claas 5200 quadrant baler the company’s fleet of Case Puma tractors is now led by 19-plate CVX 200. This joins a 17-plate CVX 240, 62-plate 200 and 2014-registered 160. All are GPS ready with a single operating system moved between units for fertiliser and foraging operations, explains Peter.

“We know some precision farming technology benefits the customer in terms of  reduced operator error and savings in the use of fuel and other inputs. But whether that actual monetary value is sufficient to justify the investment is still anyone’s guess.”

Jack echoes the observation. “What we do know is that our dairy farming customers’ forage operations are our bread and butter and we still aim to deliver a quality service. Yes, we want to keep developing and diversifying the business but without shifting our focus on forage.”

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