OJ Neil Contracting Ltd has an excellent relationship with customers across the east of England
Having been fascinated by agricultural machinery from a very early age, Olly Neil was the first member of his family to decide he wanted a career in farming. Now, with a reputation for providing an efficient and reliable specialist agricultural and groundwork contracting and machinery hire service, OJ Neil Contracting Ltd has an excellent relationship with customers across the east of England. By David Williams.
Olly Neil (left) with Andy Gregory.
Helping on farms throughout his teens Olly Neil took a course at agricultural college and then became self-employed offering his services on farms in the Bury St Edmunds area. With his passion for machinery he then took a job operating diggers and dumpers on a landfill site after which he undertook specialist machinery operation with a groundwork and drainage company. For two years Olly operated diggers during the winter and worked for a grassland contractor driving tractors during the summer.
In 2005 he had the opportunity to work with a Suffolk-based liming company and British Sugar applying chalk to farm land. He bought a second-hand JCB Fastrac, a low-loader trailer and a new KRM Bredal spreader and spent the summer and autumn applying chalk and fibrophos. This was the first work he carried out as a contractor, charging by the work done rather than by the hour. At the end of the liming season Olly went back to general groundwork, operating excavators in the Newmarket area, and then in the spring he would be back using his own JCB to pull trailers during the grass work season. “I was willing to work hard and to be there for all the hours necessary,” said Olly, “although the money to be made from hiring my tractor out with me as the driver wasn’t overly profitable.”
Harvesting silage with the Claas Jaguar, two of the JCB Fastracs and Larrington trailers.
In autumn 2006 the JCB was written-off in a road accident and Olly had to hire a tractor for the season but, with an opportunity to carry out groundwork contracting in Newmarket, Olly decided that rather than replace his own tractor, he would invest in a 360-degree tracked excavator. “In hindsight, it was the best thing that happened as the digger was busy right through to the following May, when agriculture would have been quiet,” said Olly. “The digger and a driver were hired to contractors working at Newmarket and it was very profitable.”
With his priority and heart remaining in the agricultural business Olly hired a Claas tractor in for 12 weeks to use with a Bredal spreader applying lime for the spreading season while the excavator carried on working at Newmarket. “When the contractor for who we were working fell out with the client, my excavator and driver remained on site completing the job. We just did what needed doing to finish it, but the client was very impressed with what we had done and grateful for our efforts and he asked if we would be willing to quote to put in a horse arena. We were given the contract and that was our first large construction project.”
The Bredal spreaders are all equipped with self-loading cranes for one-man operation.
With regular chalk spreading each summer and a growing client list in Newmarket the business grew and Olly decided it would make sense to add more services. Building gallops, putting in drainage systems, roads and entrances as well as general groundwork, he found that customers liked dealing with one company which looked after the whole project, and business growth continued.
In 2007 the first full-time employees were taken on, which Olly said was a worrying decision at the time; “Taking on your first full-time employee is a big step as you are effectively guaranteeing him an income every month no matter what the workload is like. However, having both equestrian and agricultural clients we potentially had work all year round. This consequently enabled us to have a permanent team of reliable staff and it proved a successful move. Customers expect to see familiar faces and with the staff being full-time they knew exactly what was expected of them by us, and by the customers. We do have some extra part-time staff during the busy periods but they are regular and we know them well. Our workforce is very good, and we know that our customers have confidence in our team.”
Having started off spreading lime products for one company, the services of OJ Neil are now used by several large liming businesses. In addition to the company’s own spreading work, the company now provides spreader hire; last year three were operated and for the 2013 chalk season this will increase to five. “Contracting is certainly a growth area for us,” explained Olly. “We have picked up extra work every year and when our spreaders are not being operated by us, we hire them to farmers and other contractors.
“Our tractor fleet now includes two new model JCB Fastracs, a 3200 and a 3230, and a Unimog as well as a new John Deere 6210R with the latest DirectDrive transmission. With tractor prices as they are, we prefer to run fewer units and work them hard, hiring in extra machines for capacity at peak times. In a normal year we need four haulage units for our equestrian projects in the winter, but six to seven during harvest. Hiring keeps things simple but, more importantly, profitable,” he adds.
Muck spreader hire
As well as his contracting business, Olly set up a separate muck spreader hire operation several years ago with another local contractor. ‘Eastern Counties Spreader Hire’ has a fleet of GT Bunning spreaders, with both disc and conventional spreading systems. “We deliver them out to users with a Unimog,” explained Olly, “as they are better suited to road work than conventional tractors, with fuel economy better by some 5mpg. Before we had it we sometimes had to unhitch tractors from lime spreaders in the field in the early afternoon to deliver muck spreaders, losing time and earning capacity. Having the Unimog means we can operate much more efficiently.”
Eastern Counties Spreader Hire runs a fleet of GT Bunning spreaders.
Last year 20,000t of chalk and lime were spread and Fibrophos applied to 6,000ha (15,000 acres), and during the coming season Olly is expecting Fibrophos application to increase to 10,100ha (25,000 acres), and there is the expectation of more chalk product to apply too. In 2012 Olly was awarded a contract by Anglian Water to spread 15,000t of sludge cake.
“We run three Bredal spreaders which we will use for ash-based products this year, and have ordered two Gustrower spreaders to be delivered in time for the chalk spreading season, so we are ready to meet the expected demand. Gustrower spreaders were chosen for their steep hopper sides and the chain and slat floor system which is ideally suited to feeding the chalk product,” explained Olly. “The Bredals are fitted with Jas P Wilson Botex self-loading cranes and there is a dozer blade on each tractor. This means we send just the one tractor out with its spreader, one man carrying out the whole operation without needing an additional loader. It works so well for us; I just cannot understand why other contractors haven’t done the same.”
Maize and grass silage
OJ Neil Contracting has always been involved with grass silaging but in recent years more maize silage is being produced, mainly for energy production in anaerobic digester plants. This year the company will harvest 1,200ha (3,000 acres) of maize for a local plant as well as a new AD plant 15 miles away, and there is maize to cut for livestock feed too. “We are busy right through from May,” commented Olly, “cutting and chopping grass, then with spreading work and after that harvesting the autumn maize.
The JCB loading shovel working on the silage
“For the 2013 season we have 25 per cent more maize to cut than last year so we have invested in a brand new Claas Jaguar 970, with more power than the three year old 950 model we were running. The service we receive from Claas is absolutely excellent and we didn’t even consider any other make of harvester as the replacement. We have a Kemper 12-row header ordered for the new harvester to help us cope with the large area we have to harvest. The new harvester will have automatic steering as watching a 12-row header takes a lot of concentration and it is important that the driver can watch the silage trailers, as well as the crop.
“AD maize complements our livestock round, as we harvest at different dry matter percentages and by spreading drilling dates and using different maize varieties, the two crop uses don’t clash. The increased work means we are upgrading our machinery for dealing with grass silage too, and this year we are investing in a Claas Liner four-rotor rake to replace our previous two-rotor model.”
On the silage clamps a large JCB 434 loading shovel and a Claas Xerion are used to keep up with the high rate at which the maize is brought in. The 434 loader also loads lime, muck and chalk and is used for many of the groundwork contracts.
For transporting silage a fleet of Larrington trailers is used. “They are ideal for maize but we use the same trailers as dump carts in the winter, for moving soil and rubble. They get abused, but we service them regularly and they withstand the work well. I would have no hesitation in replacing them with more Larrington trailers when the need arises,” explained Olly.
Other equipment includes two 13t 360 degree excavators which are used for groundwork, but are also ideal for loading sludge into spreaders in the fields.
Groundwork operations for one of the company’s regular Newmarket clients.
“Most of our kit works all year round easily justifying the investment,” explained Olly. “The mix of work means we select machines which are suitable across the enterprises, for example; the Bredal spreaders are used for sand spreading on the gallops too, as well as for applying top soil on football pitches. For one recent contract we applied 400t of soil on four pitches and with their spreading performance they were ideal.”
In December 2012 Olly took on an operations manager to help organise the company’s activities. Andy Gregory started work full-time in December and is solely responsible for Eastern Counties Spreader Hire alongside the day to day running of the contracting business, both equestrian and agricultural. “It has enabled me to ensure that as we grow, we maintain the quality of work we achieved when things were a little less hectic. I enjoy liaising with all our customers and having Andy has meant the whole process from initial enquiry through to completion of work is structured,” explained Olly.
For the future Olly intends to continue offering specialist services, and will expand the business to meet the demand. “We will stick to what we know and what we do well,” he said. “We want to be known as a company which does a few jobs very well rather than being average at a lot of tasks. There is the potential to increase the work we do with renewables and maize. Within three years we went from harvesting no maize at all to 1,200ha (3,000 acres) without buying out any other businesses or taking over someone else’s patch so there is a demand for our services. We will have a large stand at this year’s Suffolk Show promoting all the services we offer.
“We see potential too for more sludge cake spreading for water companies. We did this for the first time in 2012, and when working with the utility companies, our experience within the construction and groundwork industries is a benefit. We know what standards are expected in terms of attention to detail and adherence to health and safety requirements.”
Left: Olly Neil’s new logo to celebrate 10 years of business.