Making headway in a dense maize of contracting
Limerick firm Shines light on its novel plastic sowing technique
Sam Shine, of Samco Agricultural Manufacturing, based just outside of Adare, Co Limerick, spent 20 years as an agricultural contractor before developing a system -- the Samco 3-in-1 in 1998 -- for sowing maize under plastic while also applying a pre-emergence herbicide.
Sam continues to get support both from his local AIB branch in Adare and Enterprise Ireland on export markets and hopes to build a factory near Adare Village.
"We are continuing to find new markets for our products and, at the current growth rate, expect to double our workforce over the next three years," Sam says.
Here he gives us his thoughts on the life of a contractor and details the journey he has made into the designing and manufacturing of both farm equipment and plastic film.
Sons Robert and Gordon are also involved in the business that now employs 16 full-time staff and exports its products worldwide.
"To run a contracting business costs an awful lot of money, and money is getting expensive now," Sam says. "Today, the costs of operating a business, including diesel, are massive. I think contractors need to be more focused on invoicing and collection of money.
"The running costs of an operation are huge and many don't know what their running costs are. They don't know how much it costs to keep them on the road during the season. That's where they fall down."
With credit control, Sam says: "The farmer will use the credit if he can get it off the contractor. Basically, he will use the contractor's bank if he can. The trouble is that it can lead to a lot of problems organising the financial side of the business."
Looking after machinery is also crucial, according to Sam.
"When you are not using a machine you need to be maintaining and repairing it, it's a never-ending battle.
"Contracting is like trying to fill a rusty 45ga barrel. If you stop the work, the barrel goes empty. The more you put in the more comes out, it's a never-ending battle."
Sam also feels that there were many who got into contracting who maybe shouldn't have.
"Farmers need a reliable contractor and as money became freer and more available, there were some that got into the business that maybe shouldn't have."
Interest rates were far higher when Sam went into contracting.
"When I started contracting in 1979, I bought a Veenhuis 1,300ga slurry tanker that cost £3,000. The interest on that tanker cost me another £1,500, at an interest rate of 18pc. Back then the price of equipment was nothing. But when you added the cost of the interest it became expensive."
He contrasts this with today's rates of 5-6pc, which he feels would have worked for everyone if they were managed properly. "But the finance companies didn't manage it properly, they kicked it around to everyone."
Describing the difference between contracting life and manufacturing life, Sam says: "As a manufacturer, you can plan your day because you are not dependent on the weather. You can close the door at 6 o'clock.
"In the contracting, you can make all your plans for men to go at slurry, for men to go at different jobs and then when it rains everything changes, and you have to be really creative to keep the men busy. Whereas, manufacturing can close the door and it doesn't matter what the weather does because the work is in-house."
On his experience as a contractor, he says: "What I would say is that, being a contractor for 20 years, it hardens you, it teaches you a lot of things about business and how to deal with people, and how to deal with employees.
"It teaches you those things because you have to be able to manage men and you have to be able to oversee them.
"Contracting taught me a lot about hydraulics, wiring, [and] mechanics, whereas my son Robert went to college for four years to learn that.
"Now we have the mix between modern technology and experience. Where the computer says 50mm should do, I would consider that maybe we should be on 70mm on the thickness. It has taught us about designing a machine that physically can't be stopped or that has to be 100pc reliable, because the worst thing that can happen for a contractor is to have a breakdown. That's why in the last years when we were contracting, we focused more on the (silage) pickup wagon."
Wagons can handle foreign material far easier than a self-propelled harvester with perhaps little or no effect.
"I think the wagon system worked very well for us," Sam says. "We had one big wagon, a 240hp tractor and a 14t loading shovel and it worked perfect.
"There was time to put the silage in the pit and to roll it properly, squeezing all the air out. We charged an hourly rate and it encouraged farmers to grow quality silage rather than a bulky crop. Silage has really gone backwards instead of forwards here."
"In Northern Ireland, they talk about nine or 10 tonnes to the acre of quality silage."
Sam originally started sowing Maize in 1991 and had a few good years then a few bad years because of the weather.
He says someone suggested a French maize seeder that sowed the maize under plastic with holes punched in the plastic to allow the crop through.
The theory was the plastic created a mini greenhouse environment for the plant to flourish. The problem, though, was that the seed and plastic alignment had to be precise so that when the crop developed it would grow up through the punch holes in the plastic.
In 1994, rainfall was so high during the planting season, according to Sam, that the sower often got stuck and stones would knock the seed-to-hole alignment off. Some plants were sown completely under plastic and Sam says that these grew much better than those open to the elements through the punch hole.
This sparked off the total cover idea and the seeds of the Samco system were planted.
To do this, he developed a machine that would sow maize corn seed, spray a pre-emergence herbicide and lay a thin layer of degradable plastic over the crop.
To perform these three jobs effectively and efficiently, there is an awful lot going on in a Samco 3-in-1 machine. Its design required all of the electrical, hydraulic and mechanical experience Sam had gained in his years as a contractor to produce a machine that worked.
The seeder units Sam sources from Kverneland Accord use a vacuum from a PTO-driven fan to pick each seed up in a metering wheel and drop it into the ground. The seed rate is adjustable and a seed monitor and hectare counter record progress.
A hydraulically operated system performs the 'cut and burying' functions of the machine required to initially lay -- and finish -- the film. Each individual row unit can follow the contours of the ground independently and spring-loaded discs assist in performing the burying function of the film.
On the small two-row machine, the sprayer tank is mounted on the machine, while on the two larger models this is carried on the front of the tractor. The pre-emergence herbicide is sprayed both inside and outside the plastic for weed control.
These 3-in-1 machines incorporate an enormous amount of technology to carry out all of the required functions and are a credit to Sam and his sons.
Today, Samco Agricultural Manufacturing Ltd continues to develop its 3-in-1 machines and manufacture two-, four- and six-row 3-in-1 maize seeders capable of planting forage maize, ground ear maize, grain maize and sweetcorn. Sowing capabilities for the machines are five, 10 and 20ha respectively per day, says the firm.
Prices range from €10,000 + VAT for the two-row machine to €45,000 + VAT for a six-rower.
Prices may vary with specifications depending on customer requirements. All come with a two-year warranty. This was evident at the Adare facility as there were a couple of machines that were being fitted out with extras to suit local (and environmental) conditions. Another machine was being supplied without the Kverneland Accord maize units because the customer wanted to fit his own specification seed units with electronic metering.
Historically, the plastic film that Samco used and supplied was manufactured in Gorey, Co Wexford, but after that company was bought out, that supply source came to an end.
In 2004 the firm decided to design its own plastic for the Samco system and, with the assistance of Shannon Development for research and development, went back to the drawing board.
In conjunction with the Polymer Development Centre at Athlone Institute of Technology, which had the only equipment in the country to help Samco test its plastic for weather resistance, strength and puncture, ingredients to manufacture the plastic were sourced in America, with the colouring coming from Kildare firm Clarion.
"Making plastic is a bit like making a cake, there are three main ingredients and the colour. These are blended to give the qualities required," Sam says.
When developing its plastic film, Samco had to find a firm that could manufacture the plastic.
"We needed a firm that could manufacture a seven micron-thick plastic through a 'blow-ing' process. This process produces a plastic that is equal strength in all directions," Sam says. "But there was no one in Europe that could produce it."
A firm in China was found to be capable of producing the plastic to Samco's requirements and the company formed a joint venture with the Chinese firm to produce plastic for them.
Its first product was Samco Grey 7 Micron Plastic, which features the Samco patented pinhole design and meets all the other criteria set out at the start of the project.
The Samco grey has now been joined by green, white and brown. "The different colours suit different regions of the world," Sam says.
The firm now has a turnover of €7m producing equipment and plastic.
"Plastic now accounts for more than 85pc of that turnover, it's a very important part of our business," Sam says. "We supply it to our machines all over Ireland, and the world."
Samco also makes it for John Foley, of Maizetech Ltd, in Bunclody, Co Wexford (www.maizetech.ie), with whom Sam has had an association for years.
"John Foley is the man that really put us on the road in Ireland, he physically went out and promoted the product and system."
John covers an enormous area of the country advising maize growers on suitable varieties and herbicide applications.
For the future, Samco has developed bio-degradable plastic and are preparing trials with plastic film made from sugar extract (from sugar cane), residue from oilseed rape and pure starch from maize. We hope to follow his progress here.
For Stories Like This and More
Download the Free Farming Independent App