I recently revisited the Tipperary-based contractors Moloney Agri, who some readers might recall were the winners of last year's Farming Independent/Zurich Insurance Contractor of the Year award.
I wanted to find out what impact, if any, winning the award had on the family run contracting business as well as what the big issues will be for 2015.
Moloney Agri are a family-run outfit based in Clogheen, Co Tipperary. The business is an agricultural contracting and tree care company formed over 40 years ago by present owner Jim Moloney. The company directors are Jim Moloney and his son, Thomas.
Services provided include saw and flail hedge cutting, fertiliser spreading using GPS guidance systems, slurry spreading, round baling and wrapping (for silage), and baling of hay.
The tree care side of the business has customers of all types, from the landowner with a few acres to large companies.
The business is mainly focused on agriculture, but has also diversified into tree care to spread the workload during the year to ensure machines are kept busy at all times.
Indeed, when I called to see the team at the end of February they were busy cutting hedges ahead of the spring deadline for nesting season, although some hedge cutting can be done on the grounds of Health and Safety.
Thomas Moloney explained that about 65pc of their tree care work is done for farmers, but some tractors have been modified with special railway gear to accommodate tree work done for semi state companies such as Irish Rail.
Modifying the tractors required a lot of special work to allow the tractor to travel on the rail tracks.
Each tractor is fitted with a rail bogey similar to what you might see under a train. This allows the tractor to travel a railroad and cut hedges to ensure trains can pass smoothly.
Not surprisingly, the specialised nature of this work means it can usually only be carried out at night time when the trains aren't running.
This sees the team working a lot of nights, often only starting at close to midnight, so the tractors have also been fitted with extra lights.
"All drivers have to undergo a lot of training before we can do this work, with some drivers having to do up to ten different training courses," explained Thomas Moloney.
"GPS reports, time sheets and maintenance records have to be kept and submitted on a weekly basis for each machine.
"And we have regular safety audits. The insurance costs are quite high for this work and the machines have to be independently certified by a company in England."
The team use saw and flail hedge cutters, as well as NPTC City and Guilds certified chainsaw operators to a high safety standard. As well as local farmers, they have successfully won contracts from companies such as Irish Rail, Coillte, Eircom and Roadbridge.
A prerequisite of winning such contracts is having a top class safety plan in place and this includes operator training, machinery certification and relevant insurance.
All of these requirements take up significant time and resources but it is not something this outfit take lightly.
Investment in new machinery is accepted as being crucial for maintaining performance and customer confidence.
That said, the benefits and cost of each new machine purchase are carefully considered before a decision is made; if a cleaner or cheaper second-hand model will suffice, then so be it.
Last year the team invested in a new New Holland tractor, a Moffett saw hedge cutter, a Welger baler, an NC road sweeper and a McConnel 8085 teleVFR flail hedgecutter from local dealer M&S Machinery in Cashel, Co Tipperary
New purchases to date this year nclude a made-to-order Moffett Bushmaster saw that Thomas Moloney was using when I called to see him.
"It's been going very well for us, we've been big fans of the Moffett gear over the years for saw work and McConnel for flail work," he said.
"The reach is excellent and I have a few modifications made to it such as a safety camera in the saw head that allows me to see out onto the road," he says.
" I've also made a few changes to the tractor, a six cylinder New Holland TSA 115. Road travel is really smooth because I have features like front axle suspension and a holding saddle to take the weight of the saw arm between jobs.
"We fitted the tractor with a specially modified roof window so the driver doesn't have to strain his neck looking at his work during long days on the job.
"Staff comfort and safety is very important for us, workers will always give you more if you provide the right conditions."
So what did winning the Contractor of the Year award do for the business?
"We got a lot of recognition and good will out of it - it certainly helped us when we were tendering for new jobs," said Thomas Moloney. "We are also going to be on the Rare Breed - A Farming Year, a farming programme on UTV next year on foot of winning the competition, so it's been great for getting the name out there."
In terms of advice for the budding young contractors of the future, Thomas Moloney says they could do a lot worse than spend some time abroad working with an established, reputable contractor to see how the game is played.
"I did it myself a few years ago, with the Osters and Voss team in Germany. They are one of the biggest contracting outfits in Europe.
"It was only 10 days shadowing, but I was with the boss and I learnt so much in terms of how they manage the finance and pricing end of their business that it was an invaluable days.
"The experience allowed me to bring home some ideas for our own operation; things like paying close attention to diesel, service and maintenance costs.
"That allows you to have the figures necessary to price a job accurately enough to make a profit but fairly enough to keep the customer happy."
The Tipp man's brief stint in Germany certainly paid off.
En route to winning the Contractor of the Year award last year, the Moloney team impressed the judging panel- which included an inspector from the Health and Safety Authority - with their relentless focus on machinery safety and logical approach to keeping a good cash-flow through the business.
A job diary is kept recording all work done on a daily basis, and this is then transferred to invoices on a client or job basis depending on the clients requirements.
Accounts are sent out as soon as a particular job is finished.
Maintenance and repair of machinery under warranty is carried out by the relevant dealers but the rest is carried out in house at the team's impressive workshop.
The team keep maintenance and inspection forms for each machine. A weekly machine inspection list is also kept for each machine.
If pushed, Moloney Agri say they have a preference for four cylinder tractors where suitable because they have lower depreciation rates than six cylinder models.
They are big New Holland fans, as seen from the fleet list above.
Machines are generally not replaced for a minimum of six years. Grassland machines are generally replaced after six seasons; tractors are often kept for longer as they tend to be more reliable if well maintained.
In relation to expansion plans, the Moloney team feel slurry spreading is one area that has the potential for growth.
"A lot of farmers have invested in bigger storage tanks but have not updated their slurry tankers because they feel the contractor can spread and cover the ground faster, especially as farmers are quite busy during the spring time," says Thomas Moloney.