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Contractors spend €15m on forage harvesters

Dairy expansion at root of 66pc rise in outlay on silage-making machinery in 2019

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The Krone Big X harvester will participate in the world silage cutting record attempt in Trim

The Krone Big X harvester will participate in the world silage cutting record attempt in Trim

The Krone Big X harvester will participate in the world silage cutting record attempt in Trim

So far this year, 58 new self-propelled forage harvesters have been sold in Ireland - an impressive 66pc jump on equivalent sales last year.

The figures are according to the latest data compiled by the Farm Tractor & Machinery Trade Association (FTMTA).

Given that we are now approaching third-cut territory for most farms, it is unlikely that any further forage harvester sales will take place this year. Last year 35 new self-propelled forage harvesters were sold.

For the most part sales of these mammoth machines, which cost an average of €250,000 plus VAT each, happen in the early months of the year when contractors are preparing for silage season - 54 of this year's 58 harvesters were bought by the end of May.

The figures show that Irish contractors have splashed out a remarkable €15m buying new self-propelled forage harvesters in 2019. Such confidence in the market is to be applauded, and the news will be heartily welcomed by the machinery trade. But it jars with the farming mood in relation to beef plan protests and Brexit-related uncertainty.

So what are the forces driving these impressive sales numbers? And can it last or is it a one-off?

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New Holland's FR 920 silage harvester

New Holland's FR 920 silage harvester

New Holland's FR 920 silage harvester

Anecdotal evidence suggests the spike in harvester sales has little to do with the beef sector, but rather all comes back to dairy farm expansion.

Silage contractors, I speak to say they are inundated with requests from the country's 17,000 dairy farmers for work to get done once the weather comes right, and that farmer expectations in terms of machinery output are getting higher.

Self-propelled forage harvester

2014: 6

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Stock Image

Stock Image

Stock Image

2015: 35

2016: 32

2017: 38

2018: 35

2019: 58

Farmers want work done as soon as possible and in ever-narrower time frames when the weather comes good.

So many of those dairy farmers have boosted their herds significantly since quota abolition. As a consequence, some are feeling intense pressure to have enough fodder on the slab over winter to feed animals.

Land is being bought up by ambitious young dairy farmers who are keen to boost cow numbers further. Extra land is being rented where buying isn't an option.

The relentless drive for expansion is putting pressure on land, and as a result, dairy farmers are taking and buying ground further from home.

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This means longer draws for hauling silage, which has two knock-on effects; firstly, it creates a need to do more and in less time; and secondly, long draws necessitate a swing back towards self-propelled silage systems that are capable of tackling 15-20 acres per hour, rather than a slower wagon silage system.

These trends are playing out against a backdrop of the disastrous winter and spring fodder crisis of 2018 which further crystallised farmers' demand for bigger feed reserves.

That demand is being passed on to farm contractors, who are expected to make increasing volumes of pit and baled silage.

And now these sales figures appear to confirm that contractors are looking to the latest new silage harvesters to answer that demand.

FTMTA chief executive Gary Ryan (above) agrees that the spike in sales this year can be attributed chiefly to dairy expansion, but he also thinks labour shortages have played a part.

"Rising cow numbers is definitely a key reason," he explains. "Farmers want more silage made in shorter windows due to weather pressure, but there is also demand from farmer customers for better-quality grass going into the pit.

"A second element at play this year is that contractors seem to be under pressure for labour - we saw reports earlier in the year looking for machinery drivers from Australia and New Zealand.

"Contractors are trying to get more work done with less people and on this evidence are turning to mechanisation for the answers."

Mr Ryan thinks the sales statistics also show the general approach to machinery ownership is gradually changing in Ireland.

"Contractors can't afford downtime due to pressure to get the job done, so they are keeping machinery gear fresh and looking more at costs of machine operation rather than ownership of a machine," he says.

The trend of sharply increased contractor spending on silage making machinery is not confined to the self-propelled harvester market; sales of acre-eating self-propelled silage mowers are also experiencing a record year.

Stephen Scrivener (pictured), marketing manager with Farmhand Ltd, said his company have sold a record 20 Krone Big M self-propelled silage mowers across the island of Ireland this year.

Sales registration data suggests the majority of these huge 450hp grass mowers have been sold in Northern Ireland. Last year Farmhand say they sold 13 of the same mowers, while in 2017 just three were sold.

"Contractors are investing in the latest machines so they can maximise output in a market scarce of labour," said Mr Scrivener. "One person driving a modern self-propelled harvester can now match the output of multiple trailed harvesters or silage wagon drivers.

"We are also seeing that contractors are expanding their acreage in line with dairy herd expansion, and many contractors are now moving into multiple machines to keep up.

"Harvest windows are narrowing and the need to get work done immediately is driving the demand for high-output self-propelled machines.

"We have had a record year on Big M orders with 20 units sold across the island; this represents over 20pc of the worldwide market for Big M sales. We believe the reasons for this are similar to harvester sales: shorter harvest windows, less labour and demand for more output."

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