Farm Ireland

Wednesday 22 November 2017

'We ended up becoming the banking facility in the locality'

Richie White was recently elected chairman of the Farmer Contractors of Ireland organisation. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Richie White was recently elected chairman of the Farmer Contractors of Ireland organisation. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Richie White's Slievenamon Agricultural Services crew pictured cutting silage near Drangan, Co Tipperary. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.

On November 3, 2011 in the middle of the night, a number of machines were seized from Slievenamon Agri Services.

"We were behind on payments, but we had paid off €60,000 in the previous 10 months, and our total loans remaining came to less than €120,000, so this was not a crisis situation for the bank," explains Richie White, one of three brothers running the contracting business.

Richie went public about his plight, where the bank sent in repossession men, who came in through a neighbouring farm into the White's farmyard to seize a loader and three tractors, some of which didn't even have finance outstanding on them.

The brave stance paid off, with the bank returning all the machines and apologising to the family for the way the situation was handled.

"We haven't heard a dickie bird out of them since. But it was ridiculous, and a situation that the bank created for themselves.

"They had pulled stocking loans and overdrafts from loads of farmers in the area, a lot of whom would've been clients of ours.

"We ended up becoming the banking facility in the locality. These were good customers of ours, and we knew that they would be good for the money. But milk price had collapsed in 2009, the banks pulled their lending, and we got caught in the crossfire," explains the Tullowcussane man.

Five years later, the Whites are going better than ever, with business up by 40pc as dairy clients look to contract out more of the workload.

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But not content with 12 hour days, Richie White was elected chairman of Farm Contractors of Ireland (FCI) in recent weeks, a role that will see him spend at least a day a week working on behalf of the young organisation's 200-plus members.

"I must be a glutton for punishment, and it's been a hard slog getting FCI up and going, and I'd hate to think of all the hours that have gone into it so far. But I think that it is necessary to ensure the role that contractors play is recognised at every level in Ireland, from the ground up to government."

The organisation was formed in 2012 by contractors looking for other options from the long established Professional Agricultural Contractors (PAC) .

When asked if he is frustrated by the fact that there are now two bodies competing for members and resources to represent agri contractors, White claims that the situation doesn't cost him a thought.

"We've teamed up with the EU's umbrella group for rural contractors called CEETTAR, which actually has 250,000 members across Europe. They've been great, helping us stage national conferences like the one we had in Cillín Hill in Kilkenny last March," he says.

FCI also run an annual BBQfundraiser and are pushing to secure funding from the National Development Plan for training of young drivers for part-time positions during the summer months.

"That's the biggest problem we have at the moment - getting help that is skilled enough to drive modern machinery.


"We'd have a full-time crew of three lads in addition to myself and the two brothers (John and Martin), so these lads are well able to drive the more complicated gear like the harvesters or mowers, but we still need lads to pull trailers and tankers during the summer months," says the south Tipp man.

He points to a three-year part-time course that has existed in Germany for over 10 years that is aimed at giving people that work with large machines qualifications to do so.

"This has helped ensure that contracting is viewed as a real profession in Germany. The Danes also have a well established body to represent contractors that we could learn from," says Richie.

However, the contractor leader admits that large machinery on small country roads at this time of year are often a public liability.

"Everything is a lot faster now but the biggest cause of collisions is lack of visibility, and I think that landowners should be made cut their hedges and verges to ensure that this issue is tackled," said White.

He also says that it is important that councils maintain even verges for tractors to pull in on.

"Tractors are reluctant to pull in because some of the ruts would send you out through the windscreen," he says.

During his two year term, White hopes to highlight the importance of farmers' partnerships with their contractors.

"That's the way I see everything going. If you look back 25 years ago, our customers were 40-50 cow men. Now they are 120-400 cow herds.

"And the more dairy cows, the more silage that has to be made, and slurry and fertiliser to be spread. That means that farmers have become more reliant on contractors to share more of the workload in these operations.

"The most profitable dairy farms that I've been on have very little in the way of machinery.

"Silage, fertiliser and slurry spreading is routine, but we find ourselves doing more and more work on grass reseeding, spraying paddocks for docks, and even work such as feeding cows. I've had a good number of farmers ask me in recent weeks if we'd be interested in doing the winter feeding of the dry cow with a mixer wagon.

"That's something that would really suit us in terms of keeping work in front of lads during the winter months, so we're thinking hard about that at the moment. The opportunities are growing all the time, but there's still only so much that you can do in the day."

GPS the way forward for fuel and labour efficiency

The Whites have a built up a large machinery fleet during the 20 years that they have been in business.

No less than nine tractors grace the yard, headed up by a beefy 250hp Claas 840. It is flanked by two Claas 650s and a Claas 640.

In addition, a 230hp 6499 Massey, two John Deere 6930s, a Case Puma 165 and a New Holland 155 complete the range, which vary in age from a couple of months to 10 years.

"Our first tractor was a Valtra 8100, and I think we wanted to try them all out, but we're probably heading towards a scenario where we have just two brands in the yard to simplify repairs and maintenance," comments Richie.

GPS has also been added to two tractors at a cost of about €10,000 each. While the Whites haven't done the exact costings on it, they believe that it is the way of the future in terms of minimising fuel and time input into each job.

Two Claas self-propelled harvesters are kept on hand, but it is the 2015 870 model that does the majority of the work at the moment.

"We'd be covering about 150ac per day, which would be about 10 hours of cutting, but in reality the day starts at 7.30am and doesn't really end until 10.30pm To be fair, my wife doesn't see much of me at the moment!" he laughs.

The big Claas tractor powers a new 30ft butterfly mower combo, while the brothers also run an older self-propelled Claas mower unit and a 20ft Kverneland front-and-back unit. Six Redrock trailers and a 70H Volvo loader, along with a series of tedders and rakes make up the rest of the silage outfit.

The Whites also operate two Samco maize sowers, covering 500ac. However, this is well down on the 1,000ac that they were planting in previous years.

"The maize area has fallen, but it's nearly all under plastic now, ensuring that it is a higher quality crop. Wholecrops have also held their own, and I can see a place for both of these crops on farms in the future," he says.

Another new addition that has proved to be a big hit this year is the dribble bar system for their umbilical slurry spreading set-up.

"Some lads didn't really know what to expect when we arrived in with it this year, but nearly all of them remarked on the difference it made compared to the splash-plate.

"Cows were able to get back out to graze it quicker, and it seemed to produce a better boost, probably because you are losing less of the nitrogen being volatilised in the air," says Richie.

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