Two specialist trailers are making a significant difference to the efficiency of a large farming enterprise
Two specialist trailers are making a significant difference to the efficiency of a large farming enterprise, offering tremendous carrying capacity and flexibility to perform a range of tasks. Trainee reporter Beth Speakman and David Williams write.
An ‘integrated family farming business’ the Shropshire Group (G’s) has been growing salad and vegetable crops for more than 60 years and now farms 12,000ha (29,650 acres) of land throughout England. The company boasts 20 production sites throughout the country, with farms a mixture of owned and tenanted land, and cropping including traditional cereals as well as maize, salad and root crops – producing over 20,000t of onions between August and May.
Most of the UK cropping is in block rotations for ease of management and operational efficiencies, however the company also has operations in Senegal, Poland and Spain.
GS Shropshire & Sons Ltd farms over 1,400ha (3,460 acres) of land, predominantly around West Dereham in Norfolk. The land includes soils ideal for growing salad crops. The farm grows a wide variety of produce, including wheat, onions, salads, radishes, celery and potatoes. Maize is used to supply a 2.4MW anaerobic digestion plant run by Shropshire Energy UK Ltd, which uses the waste vegetable matter along with whole crop rye and maize, to produce energy for the local village and to heat 48 tunnels in which 160t of mushrooms are produced each week, just 300m from the plant.
Some of the electricity generated by the AD plant is used on-site for the mushroom farm and to run the AD site and pasteurise the digestate by-product prior to application, to PAS110 standard. The digestate is transported to and applied to the fields. Much of the land is also used for production of the salad crops, mostly for supermarkets.
Shropshire Energy UK director and G’s farm manager, Will Forbes, has been employed by the company for over 28 years and understands the issues faced with finding equipment that is diverse enough to meet the needs of a mixed variety farm.
Investment in the right machinery
Will explained that previously the farm had relied on contractors to meet its muck spreading needs, but faced issues of compaction on the land, something which Will explained is always a ‘primary consideration’ when it comes to field operations. The mushroom compost is loaded onto lorries and transported to field sites ready for spreading. “Having entered into a new venture growing mushrooms, and knowing we would have an extra 25,000t of compost to transport and apply each year, we started looking at the options available,” he said. “Our AD plant is fed by three Fliegl feeding bunkers, so we were familiar with the brand and we visited the Fliegl factory to see what the company offered which would suit our needs. We selected two Gigant trailers, with demountable spreader bodies to ensure self-sufficiency with transport and muck spreading.”
Will said the mushroom compost adds organic matter which is beneficial to the land; “On our sandy onion soils, this is particularly important and, being naturally very low on nitrogen, we can apply it at any time, even during the traditional ‘closed periods’,” he said. “In February and March we apply it to our lighter land ahead of drilling and it improves the composition and the soil condition, but we do have to be selective where we apply it as the land has to be suitable for travelling at that time of year.”
The Fliegl Gigant trailers have a capacity of 52m3 or a maximum 25t of compost. The cost over traditional trailers and spreaders was significant, at approximately 55,000 per unit, but the advanced design with innovative features to improve performance and extend versatility easily justified the investment, explained Will. Since their purchase in March 2014 the trailers have performed well and have been used for spreading muck and transporting compost, rye, maize and other produce around the farms. Swapping the trailer back from its standard transport mode to a hydraulic-driven spreader takes two people approximately three hours, with forklift tine holes provided for ease of handling.
According to Will, the added capacity has led to a reduction in time spent both loading and muck spreading, which also reduces demand for the loading machinery, releasing it for use elsewhere on the farm. One issue faced by the farm was the time it took to load the trailers initially. “It took about 14 bucket loads when we used the telescopic handler, but we have recently invested in a large Volvo articulated wheeled loader with a 5t bucket, so loading now takes just a few minutes,” said Will.
The Fliegl’s moving headboard design means that the load is pushed over a sliding floor, and out of the back, removing the need for tipping. This was identified as an important benefit as it means the trailers can be used in low buildings, and it improves safety when unloading near over-head power lines. The speed of the headboard’s movement is adjusted by the operator from within the tractor cab and is described as ‘simple and user friendly,’ by one of the trailer’s main operators, Jamie Smith.
The push-off unloading system also increases capacity while maintaining a low centre of gravity through the lower bed height, which is 20-30cm lower than that of an equivalent conventional trailer. “The sliding floor design is excellent,” said Jamie, “as we are all too used to the problems which can be caused when there are blockages or breakages in chain and flight systems, and the considerable lost time digging them out to carry out repairs.”
Extending the trailers’ versatility, the farm invested in maize augers for the rear, which allow unloading directly into lorry trailers to transport harvested crop from the field. Hydraulic-driven, these have been a big success and provide significant time savings, transferring the contents of the trailers in approximately 10 minutes.
The trailer’s flexible design includes demountable bodies to suit different tasks, and a potential future purchase is a tanker body, which would be used to transport liquid digestate from the farm’s AD plant. With 22,000 litres capacity, this would be an efficient means of transporting the slurry, while the wide tyres would allow the trailer to travel well on farm tracks and fields for application using a dribble bar or an umbilical system.
The company uses a pair of Fendt 936 Vario tractors to tow the trailers and has all its tractors fitted with auto-steer through an RTK network to ensure accuracy of applications. Will explained that the Fendt tractors were chosen for their economical performance and the supplying dealer’s after-sales service. Despite their all-up off-road weight approaching 48t, the Fliegl trailers are proving economical in terms of fuel use, with diesel consumption averaging 3-4 litres for every hectare of spreading.
The tractors are fitted with Fendt’s VarioGrip built-in tyre pressure adjustment system, which Will said makes a significant difference to the farm’s spreading operation as the tractor tyres are inflated for road work, to transport the heavy loads at high speeds, and then reduced in-the-field to maximise traction and minimise ground pressure. The trailers are equipped with 700/50R26.5 tyres, which were the widest available, requiring extended mudguards, and operating at 10-20 psi. These travel very well, even on soft ground, and cause little rutting, while also performing well on the road, explained Will.
The trailers also feature height-adjustable drawbars, for use with tractors of various sizes. The hitch height affects the angle of the trailer bed, and Jamie explained that he has found the trailer performs best with a slight downward tilt to the rear as this helps the unloading action, while the universal ball hitch option chosen is proving noticeably smoother in use, despite the trailer’s weight, than a conventional hook.
Jamie said the trailers ride well on the fields and on the road, even in tricky conditions, but he admitted that he is ‘selective’ about which ground he would use them on, given their size. He also commented that, while the trailers are very ‘user-friendly’, they require a skilled operator and ‘experienced judgement’ to get the best from them, and to achieve the desired spread rates.
The trailer’s tri-axle assembly is adjustable forward or back by 1.0m, which alters the weight distribution between the trailer wheels and the tractor. Operated from the cab, using the tractor’s hydraulic services, this feature is used frequently as moving the axles forward makes manoeuvring the trailer easier, assisting turns off narrow lanes into tight field gateways. In the field, the axles are moved backwards, transferring weight to the drawbar and increasing traction.
Farmers Guide saw one of the spreaders at work, spreading mushroom compost on to a field of stubble. Spreading performance was excellent; the compost was shredded thoroughly, and an even spread was achieved across the maximum 12m width, even though the 20t load was applied in just 6-8 minutes.
Despite the trailers’ complex design and the demanding work regime, reliability has been excellent so far, and there has been just a minor problem of the headboard sticking occasionally, in its centre travel position. The issue is easily sorted with a tap on the brake, but Will said Fliegl is currently looking into the issue.
“We have been very impressed with the back-up from both Fliegl, and from the supplying dealer, Thurlow Nunn Standen,” commented Will. “These are the first trailers of their type in the UK so the dealer is learning with us, but we are delighted with the back-up provided to date.
“We have over-specified with our choice of trailers,” he continued, “with the objective that we minimise time spent applying the compost and digestate. The large tractors on the farm are in demand, particularly during peak periods, and these large spreaders mean we can complete spreading in just a few days, releasing the tractors for other tasks.”
The trailers’ design has resulted in interest from other farms and contractors in the local area wanting to hire them for their own haulage and spreading needs. “Being able to convert the Gigant from a trailer to a spreader in just a short time means there is potential for taking on extra work, and the maize auger transfer system has attracted considerable interest from contractors,” he explained. “One possibility we are considering is to offer a contract spreading service for other farms in the area, applying their own manure, which would help make the most of the machinery and labour we have available during quieter times,” he said.
For us, the versatility of these trailers easily justifies the investment. They are saving us time and improving the efficiency of our operations,” he added.