Carlow tillage farmer on how he utilises the latest machinery on his 1,400ac enterprise
Catching up on ploughing, planting and spraying after such a delayed start to spring has meant for a busy time for man and machine.
One operator who knows all about the mad rush of the last few weeks is farmer and contractor Kevin Nolan. The 39-year-old has built up a cereal enterprise of more than 1,400ac consisting of wheat, oats, winter barley and winter rape on mostly leased land in and around Carlow town. He regularly achieves winter barley yields in excess of 12t/ha.
When I caught up with him recently he was busy spraying 80 acres in Ballon, Co Carlow with herbicide using a trailed Horsch GS 6000 30m trailed sprayer, a machine performing well in its fourth season.
Kevin is confident lost time this spring can be made up and that hopefully yields will not suffer too much come harvest time. "Mother Nature is very forgiving," he explained. "Yes, it's been an exceptional year and things are later for spring crops but also don't forget winter crops were later as well; I was sowing winter wheat into almost frozen ground up until December 13 with the Horsch drill and Fendt tractor. Having the right machinery allows you to do that. Despite everything, the winter crops aren't looking too bad."
He has a word of advice for weary farmers this spring who are finding the pressure of catching up on planting work to be all too much.
"Rather than breaking yourself trying to get it all done, it could be a wise decision to talk to your local contractor and get help in to catch up with spring work," he explains. "These guys have great kit and can get huge amounts of work done in short windows of weather, so just talk to them if you are feeling the pressure. It might be an added cost but compared to not getting the crop into the ground on time you are still making a saving. The other benefit is you are less likely to have a farming accident because you won't be rushing trying to do everything yourself."
In the next two to three years Kevin can see a time when he will need to buy a tracked tractor in order to deliver the sort of traction ever-widening tillage implements are demanding. At the moment his cultivation system is mostly plough-based (he ploughs around 70pc of his crop mix and uses minimum tillage/strip tillage for the remainder).
However, in the next five years he can see that figure reversing and expects to plough less each year in the interim. "There are two reasons why I think this will happen; the first is labour shortage, which I think is going to become a big issue for contractors and tillage farmers, and the second is for agronomy reasons," says Kevin.
"I'm using an eight-furrow Lemken plough at the minute which I can manage with the Fendt, but if you look at doing more min till work, the cultivator widths can hit 6m and more. At that point I'll be on the market for a tracked machine to give better traction and improved flotation in the field. I remember the Case IH Rowtrac 380 was very impressive on a test drive I got; it could be a potential solution when the time comes."
En route to winning the Zurich Farming Independent Farmer of the Year award a few years ago, Kevin impressed judges with his readiness to embrace technology (from yield mapping systems for harvesting to a lively and regularly updated Facebook page) to drive the expansion of the business.
The next big machinery purchase on the cards is set to be a new 36m Horsch trailed sprayer with an 8,000-litre capacity tank from Kellys of Borris. The latest arrival will allow Nolan Farming to improve output further and widen the window of work available for spraying.
An infectious enthusiasm for machinery quickly becomes obvious as Kevin lists, one by one, the high-spec features ordered on the new sprayer that will allow him to reach the next level; LED lights on the boom to show up fans in night-time spraying; GPS and Isobus compatability; a split screen comfort terminal control; better boom control; and extra nozzles to allow spraying at half normal height.
Wheat is the main crop grown, with Kevin aware of the advantage of having the nearby Teagasc Oakpark facility for research and back-up, especially with Septoria resistance looming. Oats are popular in the surrounding area too, for horse feed, while winter barley helps to spread the harvest out in terms of dates and keeps machinery working for longer. Winter rape has brought some success as well but Kevin labels it a "high risk crop, especially for someone growing it on leased land".
An addition to the crop mix in 2018 for Nolan Farming is maize; 70 acres have been leased this year on which the company intends to sow maize under plastic. Perhaps not surprisingly after the recent fodder crisis, the entire 70 acres have already been sold. Kevin says the potential is there to increase this acreage further in the coming years if demand remains and further suitable leases arise.
The plan is to allow contractors to harvest the maize; he has no intentions of buying maize harvesting machinery just yet.
Installing solar energy panels on some land is an interesting new development for Nolan Farming this year and clearly outside of the core tillage business. But what was the idea behind the move?
"We did a lot of research into payback periods and have decided along with a local businessman to invest in solar farming. It means we are putting solar panels over 30 acres of ground which will be capable of providing around 5 Megawatts of power to the grid. They will pay for themselves in about eight years and have a lifespan of 25-30 years. I see it as a way of de-risking the business by bringing in an alternative revenue stream separate to the tillage side. God forbid if things went wrong or we get a few bad years in tillage it is good practice to have other sources of income."
Nolan Farming uses three tractors to run operations; a 131-registered Fendt 828 Vario with 5,000 hours and extended warranty is charged with doing most of the heavy tillage work; while two 09-registered John Deeres, one a 6630 with 6,000 hours on the clock and the other a 7430 with 7,000 hours on the clock, have proven hugely reliable over the years.
The operation uses reliable local dealers as far as possible including the likes of Kehoes in Camolin, Kellys of Borris and the TFM Kilkenny branch. "The back-up from dealers these days is just incredible," he says. "There are some brilliant young mechanics in the country these days that don't get enough credit."
Kevin is open to trying new brands in the future, but he admits to having a weakness for Fendt and the technology level it brings. "I can't see a time when I don't have at least one Fendt and a John Deere on the farm if I'm being honest. Having said that, I'm always open to looking at different brands. The JCB Fastrac is a machine I could see being useful here at some point in the future as we do a lot of road travel between farms.
"For a job like spreading liquid nitrogen on crops it could really come into its own. I like to buy demonstrator models and that helps a little to keep costs down. My advice for anyone buying new tractors is to opt in for extended warranty cover; not doing so is madness because breakdowns and repairs are so expensive these days.
"We love to look after our tractors and machinery here; when we get students in I make a point of teaching them how to respect and look after kit by giving them their own toolbox and tools. A lot of students from Kildalton that passed through Nolan Farming have since gone on to set up their own farming and contracting operations and I know for a fact many of them still have the same toolbox!"
All combining is currently done with a 162-registered Claas Lexion 760 that is fitted with a 40kmh transmission, shod on Terra Tracs and working with a 30ft wide Vario header. The experience to date has been very good with this combine and features like the CEMOS Claas system and yield mapping are starting to prove themselves with local farmers. Terra Trac gives the edge for tractive performance and "isn't too heavily wearing on the road" according to Levin.
One downside noted by the Carlow man are that the dividers on the Vario header could be better; he is thinking of opting for a MacDon header next time after being impressed by a recent trial. The combine harvester is the biggest single investment in any tillage business but Kevin has learned that you simply need scale to get the job done. He pulls out a calculator from a storage pocket in the tractor cab and taps a few buttons before showing me a number. "If you do the maths it actually works out as 59 acres of crop harvested per foot of combine width - which I think is pretty efficient," he smiles.
Kevin's appetite for using the most cutting edge machinery to drive his operation and increase output has become a sort of trademark and led to big followings on the company's Facebook page (Nolan Farming). But is this a weakness for machinery that could lead to overspending on the latest kit?
"I wouldn't say that," he remarks. "Yes I like having good kit and everyone knows I love machinery. However, the difference is that I have everything costed on this farm and repayments are down to a fine detail. We tend to keep our machines over a good few seasons to make them pay for themselves. The combine is the classic example."
When it comes to family life Kevin is married with three young kids aged 12, nine and six. He tries to keep to a rule whereby Sundays are marked out as a family day off. That isn't possible 52 weeks a year, but it takes something exceptional to make him get into the cab of a Sunday.
"Maybe one or two weeks I might have to miss out, such as when we are in the thick of the harvest, but by and large it is a down day," he explains.
"I'm turning 40 this year and life is just too short to miss out on the kids growing up; I meet loads of older contractors and they often tell me they regret not spending more time with their kids. I don't want to make that mistake.
"I don't know if they will follow me into this business but I can't wait until they reach an age where they can help out on the farm. My daughter will be a fantastic driver; girls always look after machinery better than boys in my experience!"
* Crop mix: Wheat, Oats, Barley, Rape, Maize
* 70pc plough-based; 30pc min till
* Tractors: Fendt 828, John Deere 6630 and 7430
* Claas 760 Terra-trac harvester
* Lemken ploughs
* Horsch cultivator and sprayer, Vaderstad drill
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