Any proper farming nerd will have spent many happy hours on YouTube oogling machinery videos. You know the ones: ‘Biggest farm machines ever!’ and ‘Awesome harvesters!’ and so on.
The millions of views these clips garner would suggest their appeal isn’t just limited to farmers. And this is the time of year when everyone gets to see these gleaming giants in the flesh as silage season hurtles along.
When I bought my 130hp Massey Ferguson back in 2019, I was enormously proud of my first brand new tractor, but put it into a modern silage trailer and I’d say it would get bossed from the field to the pit.
Most of the tractors I see around here on silage trailers seem to have double my tractor’s horsepower, treble the shine and quadruple the number of LED lights.
Whoever thought LED lights should be embedded in wing mirrors, front linkages and mudguards?
But such is the modern tractor, which has shot up in cost by all accounts. When I bought mine, I was able to swing a deal for about €500 per horsepower. Today, it’s costing closer to €1,000 per horsepower. It makes the cost of harvesting kits the stuff of daydreams.
I was admiring the team that had assembled in the field to start harvesting my daffodil bulbs last week when I started to do the sums. A Grimme harvester worth €200,000 was being guided down a bed by a €200,000 New Holland 215hp tractor. Purring alongside was another €200,000 Massey Ferguson tractor hauling a €30,000 twin axle Smyth trailer.
On the other side of the field, my little 130hp Massey Ferguson chugged along with a little bed-loosening machine. While the home-made gizmo was priceless in my mind, it would probably struggle to make €1,000 on Done Deal, leaving that combo worth a paltry €65,000.
Back in the yard, another €200,000 bruiser of a tractor was tipping an identical Smyth trailer. That was backed into a €250,000 intake grader, with so many cogs, variable speed motors and buttons, it would make your head spin.
It was creating a feed of cleaned daffodil bulbs that dropped on to a series of conveyors and elevators until it reached a box filler, complete with waiting forklift.
Needless to say, the notion there was way over €1m of machines required to harvest a crop worth a fraction of that amount is an unsettling thought. Let me clarify that I own less than €100,000 of this gear.
While some might curse the fact that their farming neighbours are far bigger, more successful and better mechanised, I’ve tried to turn this reality to my advantage by buddying up with Ivan and Frances Curran, who run one of the largest potato farms locally. They have the very best of kit and, possibly more importantly, a good, experienced crew of lads to operate them.
Naturally, farmers will be wary of subjecting their kit to the demands of any other grower, but there were also good reasons why this partnership would work.
While the spud harvest can stretch out for four months, it doesn’t really get going for another three weeks. By that stage, all my daffodils should be well harvested and air-drying in a shed. So the daffies have the potential to force that million euro kit to work a little harder for a few weeks extra.
While a straight-up contractor payment is the most common form of compensation, access to fresh land is often a more valuable commodity to the well-established tillage farmer. I had land to bring to the table, while the Currans had the kit, and so the arrangement formed.
It mirrors some aspects of the dairy partnership which my family have with our other neighbours, the Leonards. While a huge amount of trust is involved, it can work, and if it does, it is a fantastic way to share workloads and the investment required to reach a commercial scale in modern agriculture.
An oddball crop like daffodils might easily fit around the more traditional Irish crops because of alternating harvest periods, but it left me wondering if there was scope for more partnerships between farming neighbours.
Everyone knows the old argument that machinery pools are fine until everyone wants the machine at the same time. But even neighbouring arable farmers, who have identical requirements at harvest and sowing, could surely coordinate to ensure that one focuses on autumn sown crops, while the other works on spring alternatives.
Or if both want winter-sown crops, plans could be hatched to map out a harvest that would be spread out over a sequence of say barley, OSR, wheat and beans. Especially when you’re talking about €1m for a new combine, baler and two large tractor and trailer rigs to get the crop harvested.
And there’s more to it than just the money. When I compare the hassle and worry of keeping our old harvester going with Curran’s state-of-the-art kit, it’s a timely reminder of how enjoyable farming can be when stuff works.
Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farm enterprise in Meath, elmgrovefarm.ie.