26/03/2015 It floats! … Challenger avoids that sinking feeling
Working on soil that is often heavy, Warwickshire farmers Tony and Tom Ellis have come to value an approach that sees the ground being ripped up while combines are still harvesting.
It was a tack that paid big dividends in the appalling autumn of 2012. With the weather already on the turn and two inches of rain forecast over the coming weekend, the father and son team decided they had a very short window of opportunity in which to get their wheat into the ground. Fortunately, they also had what was to prove a vital resource – a Challenger 755D tracked tractor.
“I don’t think we would have got it done without the Challenger,” says Tom. “We were able to push the boundaries massively because we had tracks rather than tyres. I drilled nine fields covering 180 acres in one day just before the weather turned. The Challenger coped in places where you couldn’t easily walk. It floats!”
Tony and Tom are respectively the third and fourth generations of a family that first took over Elms Farm at Marton near Leamington Spa in the 1930s. The business still trades under Tony’s grandfather’s name of RW Ford. It owns 1,000 acres and looks after another 700 acres on contract.
The land is a mixed grade 2 / grade 3 bag of reclaimed woodland, red marl and some sand. The business grows barley, oil seed rape and wheat, and are moving over to spring beans to replace linseed which Tony insists is “killing my combine”. He and Tom do the great majority of the work with support at harvest time.
The Challenger does the primary cultivation, most of the secondary, and all the drilling. The partners are great believers in the minimum tillage system with the aim of minimising the manipulation of the soil and maintaining its all-important structure. And that is where the Challenger comes into its own with its low-compaction characteristic. It also means that they avoid their previous problems with ripping tyres to shreds in a couple of years.
“On a big wheeled tractor, I used to run with 15 to 20% wheel spin when I was cultivating,” says Tom. “Now, I get no more than two per cent.”
“It’s about weight, grip and manoeuvrability,” adds Tony. “In the days when we used a wheeled tractor for the bulk of our work, you could never get rid of the tyre marks, especially on the drilling. Nowadays, we only use the wheeled tractors for field work if we are struggling for time. With the Challenger on the Min-Till system, we can rip up and plant 1,700 acres in just over 500 hours a year.
The current Challenger is their second and this time they have opted for the comfort pack with its special seat, visors all round and generally quieter operator environment. They have also come to value the accuracy of the automatic steering system which they guide via Topcon’s multi-constellation satellite technology.
While the Challenger appeared for our photographer with a seven-furrow plough attached, that is restricted to the odd bit of black grass which needs to be controlled. Beyond that, their kit consists of a four-metre Vaderstad TopDown cultivator which is capable of shallow tillage but can go deeper when required. Working the ground at two levels makes it a true one-pass machine. The farm also operates a five-metre shake rake a 6.5 metre carrier and six-metre drill, with a Bateman pre-emergence sprayer running behind the Challenger.
It adds up to an approach which means Tony and Tom can look back on the awful winter and spring of 2012-13 with rueful smiles. “We were one of the few people that planted everything,” says Tony. “We had a normal harvest because we had everything planted on time.”
Tom adds: “When the combine starts, we also begin ripping ground up. I don’t have anything to do with harvest - I just sit on the Challenger all summer. We have it worked out between us – I do the fertilising and my Dad does the spraying.”
“I wouldn’t want to drive anything else – it’s so nimble for a big tractor and yet it turns on a sixpence.”
PRECISE AND PROFITABLE
… guided Challenger goes one stage further
With its iconic Caterpillar heritage and light footprint, the Challenger 765D is a tractor that inspires loyalty. And when you add satellite navigation, you have a workhorse with a sensitivity that saves you time, fuel and seed.
But it wasn’t quite that easy. While Donald was very happy with the prospect of “same again”, Phil wanted to increase their investment by taking the optional RTK satellite navigation pack from Lister Wilder to guide its work. Phil won that argument – and with a year’s experience behind him, his Dad has become an enthusiastic devotee.
Donald and Phil farm over 700 acres on Trumpletts Farm at Hampstead Norreys to the north of Newbury. But they also provide a contract service to four customers in the area, which adds up to a further 1,300 acres. In total, they have 74 fields to cultivate and only a limited (though highly capable) part-time peak season team to support them.
Donald had been a contractor when he and wife Ali (the popular 2013 Chairman of the Royal County of Berkshire Show) took over the tenancy on Trumpletts in 1984. In those days, it was just 161 acres. In adding more dirt, the farm also built a sizeable pig business alongside its arable core. It had over 1,000 of them until just over a year ago when changing EC regulations necessitated suspending the business pending a potential major investment in a large new unit. Right now, the decision on whether to progress that one remains on hold.
“Pigs are great because they police you to get on I the morning,” says Donald. “But on the downside they take a lot out of your day.”
Since their departure, the full focus has been on arable with a rotation over their own and the contact sites that covers rape, wheat, spring barley and oats with an occasional diversion into peas and beans when weather conditions make them the right choice.
Getting priorities right for a small team managing a massive area of land was still, however, not easy. With an awful lot of harvesting to do, they struggled to get seed into the ground in the autumn. The decision was taken to reduce their contract harvesting, to maintain their shared farm service – and to invest in the Challenger 765D which they bought through Lister Wilder who Donald says have provided excellent support.
“That fact that we still run a wider contracting business means that we can have a level of equipment we would never otherwise have on this farm,” says Donald who nonetheless admits: “We are also junkies when it comes to machinery.”
“I bought the Challenger because we were coping with everything else bar the drilling and I reckoned if we got one we would get more land because we would be seen as being up with the boys that turn the ground around. We got a new shared farm within a year of buying it, so that made me feel more comfortable with the scale of the investment.
With a ten-furrow Kverneland plough in tow, Donald reckons the Challenger is capable of over 70 acres a day. It also makes light work of pulling a Vaderstad drill and even cultivates for peas. Donald like the fact that the light tracked footprint much reduces compaction compared with wheeled alternatives which create ruts when working hard down in the furrow.
The Browns are now on their second 765 and both now appreciate the value of the RTK satellite navigation. “It costs money to use people’s radio masts but the accuracy of drilling is phenomenal and produces big savings all round,” says Donald. “I reckoned we were pretty good at doing it by eye but Phil pointed out that if we got the latest gizmos we could put anyone on the Challenger and get the accuracy. The fact that you don’t have to look where you are going means that you can watch your equipment on the back much more closely.”