A 12.9t articulated wheeled loading shovel isn’t generally what comes to mind
A 12.9t articulated wheeled loading shovel isn’t generally what comes to mind when one thinks of materials handling solutions for UK dairy farms. For one unit near Ashford in Kent, however, this was the option chosen and the top-of-the-range Caterpillar 924K is saving time and money, and surpassing expectations. David Williams reports.
The Caterpillar 924K Ag-Handler was introduced by the manufacturer during autumn 2014 with standard features to meet the needs of agricultural users. The 14ft silage fork complements the 924K making it a superb machine on the clamp, according to Peter Joules. The Michelin 750-65R28 X-Bib tyres are excellent but replacements are pricey so unnecessary roadwork is avoided where possible.
The Joules family, which trades as PHR Farms, relocated its 380 head dairy herd from Wales to an 328ha (812 acre) estate in Ashford in 2002. Currently milking 1,450-1,500 Friesians, between two herds; one spring and one autumn calving, the enterprise also includes 600 young-stock between the original two farms as well as extra land taken on since, and is considering further expansion.
The all-Friesian herd has been selected for its yields, longevity and cull price says Peter Joules who runs the business with wife Hilary and son Robert. “The demand for the Friesian-cross-Holstein calves is insatiable,” he explains, “and we have a ready market for all we can produce, so sell very few through auctions. The fats and proteins are great and we achieve a decent milk price through Arla.”
Apart from grazing land, approximately 1,400ha (3,500 acres) of grassland is farmed to produce 12,000-14,000t of silage and a muck-for-straw scheme is operated successfully with local arable farms to supply 5,000 straw bales needed annually.
Materials handlers are kept busy on the farm for silage, muck and bale handling, both in the yard and field. “Previously we used two handlers; including a small articulated telescopic handler and a mid-sized articulated wheeled loader,” explains Peter. “When the wheeled loader was due for replacement, the equivalent model had been discontinued, which meant either purchasing something smaller or larger and this caused us to look at other options available. Once we started looking at larger machines the Caterpillar 924K Ag-Handler became a contender, and we borrowed a demonstrator from our local main dealer, RW Crawford, and were immediately impressed with the design and performance.”
Peter’s son, Robert, spent a lot of time using the demonstrator. “It was quiet, comfortable and very easy to operate,” he explains. “Another attraction was that everything comes as standard – there are virtually no options as the standard specification is so high. The fuel consumption is low too, as the 6.6-litre 140hp engine, driving through the 4-speed hydrostatic transmission, operates at very low speeds to produce its maximum 699NM of torque, and seldom has to be revved hard to carry out the work.”
“The 924K is big, but it is very much in the middle of the model range of Caterpillar loaders when one looks at its other main markets,” continues Peter. “This means it works well within its capabilities all the time and we are confident that we are never going to overwork it, so reliability should be excellent and it will hold its value well.”
Loading the huge 40m3 mixer wagon takes little time with the high-capacity toe-tip bucket.
The loader is used most of the time with a toe-tip bucket, as well as with a general-purpose bucket, pallet forks and a 14ft silage fork. Cattle are fed using a 40m3 mixer wagon which is loaded quickly by the 5m3 toe-tip bucket. “We have selected attachments which are slightly wider than the wheels, because this makes operation easier,” explains Robert. “We need only watch the attachment and we know the tyres are clear of obstructions.”
“We have found loader operations much easier than with the previous machine,” he adds. “Because we had to run the engine at higher speeds the hydraulics were always jerky, but the cycle times of the low-revving Caterpillar with its load-sensing system are just as quick but operation is considerably smoother. When that is combined with its quiet operation the 924K is relaxing to use during long working days.”
Peter explains that because operators preferred the previous wheeled loader to the smaller articulated telescopic machine, the high amount of road work it did was an issue. “The smaller telescopic loader was much cheaper to operate but, because it wasn’t as comfortable, we often found the wheeled loader was chosen by staff to travel between farms. The Caterpillar 924K performs well on the road, with its 40kph transmission but, being significantly larger, other machines are taken now in preference, which are a cheaper option. We try to keep it in the yard when possible, although it is proving ideal for field work loading bales where the Smoothride boom suspension soaks up the bumps effectively when we cross tramlines or ruts,” he adds.
Running costs for the big loader are proving better than anticipated. “Caterpillar claims fuel consumption significantly higher than the overall average of the 10.4 litres/hr we have achieved since we took delivery in March,” says Robert. “It has twice the bucket capacity of the previous loader so, as well as being fuel efficient, we save time too.”
Robert says the 924K is proving very manoeuvrable and is capable of being operated almost anywhere, as the yards are all relatively modern and designed for big machinery. However, the Caterpillar is bigger than anything anticipated when the buildings were erected and, when any future construction is carried out, extra space will be provided for even easier operation. Visibility all around is good, he adds, apart from directly behind at the rear where a built-in reversing camera provides a clear view to ensure safety.
The cab is popular with all the operators; well laid out controls providing ease of use and Robert comments that a feature he particularly likes is a totally separate hydraulic circuit and switch used to hitch and unhitch attachments. “Most handlers have a switch which selects alternative circuits for the extra services lever, but this can cause problems if the operator forgets to de-select it after use, or accidentally selects it when carrying out loading operations, allowing the attachment to be released unintentionally. Obviously this isn’t ideal and can cause downtime due to damaged hydraulic pipes and couplings, but the Caterpillar has a totally separate switch on the control panel, away from the main loader controls so it is unlikely that it could ever be activated accidentally,” he explains.
Maintenance is simple, the grease nipples arranged in banks making it easy to see what needs lubricating and when. “We had auto-lube on the previous machine, but it didn’t cover all the grease points so we had to make a special effort to remember those extra points needing attention. The simplicity of the Caterpillar system means greasing takes just a few minutes, and we know it has been done properly,” adds Robert.
An added attraction of the Caterpillar loader was the back-up available from the local main dealer. “We have dealt with Crawfords for several years and the back-up is very good,” says Peter. “Because of the size and type of our enterprise it is important that we have machines available to carry out all the tasks when needed. Matt, the service technician at Crawfords is excellent and, while we try not to call on the dealer out of normal working hours, when there has been a need we have found him not just willing to help, but always happy too. It makes the relationship very easy. The depot is just seven miles from the farm so it is convenient when we need anything, and we have also purchased a new Fendt Katana 65 forage harvester for this season and a 20m Krone Swadro 6-rotor rake, which should help us keep the harvester busy.”
“We are really pleased with our decision to buy the 924K loader,” says Peter. “Its size means it has to be properly operated rather than just driven, and we treat it with respect because running it around unnecessarily is expensive but it does everything the smaller telescopic handler can do, with higher work-rates and it has proved popular with operators. Its weight means it is superb on the silage clamp while its pushing and lifting capability allow it to clear the grass tipped by trailers quickly. It’s in a different league to our previous machine and that was obvious as soon as we started using the demonstrator and why we were so confident we had made the right choice.”