Replacing equipment

17 Sep 2014

We have just bought a new toaster. The old one had a broken handle and so it had to go. I could not help but be reminded of the contrast between replacing this slightly faulty toaster with mind-sets when we were first married in the 1970s. Then we would not dream of replacing a piece of household equipment with a slight fault. Indeed I remember going down town in Chelmsford to get a replacement heating element for our ailing toaster. Then there were glorious, but shabby and shambolic, backstreet shops selling spare parts for all kinds of electrical equipment. Sure enough in a back room of one such shop was the replacement element for the toaster, stored in a dusty cardboard box. All I had to do was to take it home and using a soldering iron remove the old element and fit the replacement. I suppose it took up half of a Saturday. Then weekends often also involved servicing our car; a relatively simple and straightforward task.

The same philosophy used to apply to farm equipment. At that time large arable farms, perhaps those above 400 hectares (1,000 acres), generally had a substantial workshop and a full time mechanic. Some of these workshops were shambolic but others as immaculate as they could be in the circumstances. At that time farm machinery was far simpler, yet seemed to require constant attention and maintenance. I remember particularly that there was at least an hour spent greasing a combine every morning during harvest.New farm machinery

Nowadays, our car is so complicated that it is impossible for me to service it. Likewise, farm machinery is also much more reliable, but complicated enough that it has to be maintained by off-farm specialist mechanics.

In general arable farms are now equipped with a narrow range of relatively new machines. However, what are the short term prospects for the machinery trade with the market price of combinable crops now being below the cost of production? It seems likely to me that most specialist arable farmers could continue a year or two at least without replacing any machinery - but will they?

During the bad times at the turn of the millennium, the machinery trade was partially sustained by the necessary increase in the productivity of arable farming, including the changes in primary cultivations that were taking place. In particular, sales of large tractors and primary non-inversion cultivators seemed to be the order of the day. This may not be true this time around but the move by some farmers towards controlled traffic farming is stimulating some machinery replacements. Now, at last, not only is the width of cultivators more likely to fit in with this practice but also combines as well. The latter have in the past been commonly difficult or impossible to fit into a controlled traffic system.

I’ve been asking farmers about their views on machinery replacements in the context of the current commodity prices. A minority have said that they will continue to renew and upgrade machines regardless of the current financial situation. However, they add that if things get particularly nasty they could probably continue their businesses for five years or so without any machinery purchases.

The majority have told me that the current farmgate prices will result in some reduction of machinery purchases. A couple of farmers have said that they will stop replacing non-essential machines. I have a problem with this; should there be non-essential machines on farms or have I slightly misinterpreted the description of ‘non-essential’?

There generally appears to be the intention to keep core equipment up to date but the timings for replacements may slip a year or two. This is particularly true for new combines where I’m told that the relative prices of one and two year-old machines have declined and so the replacement costs have increased.  

One or two farmers have told me that black-grass (well I had to mention it at some stage!) may result in changes in their machinery strategy. The introduction of significant areas of spring cropping has changed the machinery and labour profiles on their farms and they are considering what this may mean for machinery complements in the future.

However, one thing is for sure. No arable farmers are contemplating employing full-time mechanics when eating their toast in the morning!