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Machinery: Gearing up in hard times

At the foot of White Mountain and just a few miles outside New Ross, Co Wexford, is the agricultural contracting business of Michael Ryan. Established more than 30 years ago, Michael and many like him have seen big changes in the agricultural contracting scene, particularly in recent times.

Michael runs the business with his wife, Mary, and in the wings is son Micheál who is doing his Leaving Cert this year. Off-peak, Michael has two people working full-time for him, and this swells to six during peak times.

Michael went into contracting when still at home on his father's farm.

"The original business started in the home place with my father John after the cows went down twice with TB," Michael explains.

"We got out of cows after that."

On the machinery front, Michael's main tractors back then were Fordson Majors. "At the start, we used to spread dung with a Fordson Major tractor and trailed JF rear dung spreader. Loading was with a trap loader on a Major," Michael explains.

"We ploughed, tilled, sowed and then cut the corn. That time everyone had five to 10 acres of corn. All was harvested with two Claas Matador combines.

"Two years later, after starting contracting, we moved into silage harvesting with a Tarrup double-chop harvester and later onto a Tarrup 602B precision chop harvester with an engine on the drawbar."

Michael sold that unit years ago but says it is still in use.

Beet was also plentiful back then and Michael sowed the crop with a Massey Ferguson 135 and four-row Armer Salmon drill. Harvesting was with an early yellow Armer Salmon belt lift harvester and a 674 International.

The loss of beet here in Ireland was a major blow to Michael's business.

"We started the beet campaign in September, doing up the machines and went right through to January," he says. "We lost a third of our turnover with the beet going. We pulled 800 acres of beet and sowed two thirds of that."

In an effort to replace the beet work the Ryans bought a hedgecutter. However, they are not convinced that there's money in the business.

"It's really just something to do for the winter," Mary explains.

To a certain degree maize harvesting has replaced beet in the winter, though Michael still harvests about 150 acres a year of Magnum and Cyrus beet for fodder. He also grows 25 acres to sell, but this year the frost killed off the last 50 acres of Cyrus. The fact that there is no compensation for fodder beet loss is a sore point with Michael, particularly since potato growers are receiving aid.

Also concerning Michael is the pulling of malt barley contracts from the smaller customers.

"The bigger growers of corn will usually have their own combine; we would have a fierce amount of 25 to 60+ acre customers with malting contracts. If he's gone we're gone," Michael states.

"An awful lot of people are saying they're not going to sow, even feeding barley at €85/t it just doesn't work out. I really feel someone should step in and do something about the malt contracts."

Despite the bad year, Mary says collecting money hasn't been as difficult as she feared.

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"I honestly thought it would be worse -- customers might split it, but they are paying it. If they didn't we might as well close the doors and shut down the business," she says.

"Farmers are never out to do you, they might be under pressure but they will pay you. The problem for us is gathering up enough to make the payment on the tractors and machines," Michael maintains.

Michael invested steadily in machinery over the past few years and even in 2009 managed to finance two new tractors, but he is unlikely to do so this year.

"With the uncertainty in farming at the moment we won't be replacing any machinery this year," Mary says.

"This leads to a bit of a catch 22 situation where you risk higher repair bills and down-time on older machinery," Michael points out.

"Down-time is the biggest problem with tractors and machinery in this business when they get old; farmers are not going to wait for any length of time if you have a big breakdown in the middle of the silage. They will just get someone else."

Currently Michael runs all John Deere tractors -- an '09 plated 7430 and 6930, an '07 plated 7530 and 7430 plus an '00 plated 6910. He likes the compact power package that the John Deere 7430 and 7530 models offer.

Other 'propelled' kit includes an '08 JCB 416 loading shovel and an '07 Claas 870 self propelled silage harvester plus two older John Deere combines, an 1188 and a 2054.

Like the early years, Michael provides all the traditional contracting services, albeit with modern kit. The JF trailed dung spreader has been replaced with a very large Bunning rear discharge spreader.

Other services include baled silage, either with conventional wrapper or combination baler-wrapper McHale Fusion. Michael was worried about buying the McHale combination machine because most baled silage in Wexford is baled in the field and hauled in unwrapped on trailers and to be wrapped with a static wrapper in the farmer's yard.

After a trip to the McHale factory in Mayo, he was so impressed with the facility and McHale people that he took the leap of faith required and purchased a Fusion.

"It was the first, or one of the first in McHale Fusions in Wexford, now 85pc of our wrapping is in the field."

Michael also sows and harvests maize. He has a six-row Samco maize seeder for sowing maize under plastic, another Irish-made machine.

Last year, Michael invested in a Horsch four-metre trailed min-till pneumatic drill. This machine puts down both seed and fertiliser together, replacing an earlier drill, which put down seed only. Michael's customers expressed a preference for the combination type drill application which prompted the change.

For next year, Michael is on the lookout for a second hand, five-metre power harrow for the maize ground. A four-metre unit might do though and he says he could not justify a new one just for the maize ground.

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