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Conor Halpin
Conor Halpin
Journalism intern.
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‘It is not going to be possible for farmers to try to pay us an extra 10-15% for doing work’

As part of this week’s Agricultural Contractor of the Week segmentThat’s Farming, profiles Bobby Doherty Agri Services. His son, Alastair, discusses taking over the reins of the business, simplifying their service list during the financial crash, making 11,000 bales, cutting 2,500-acres of pit silage, and increasing input costs.

Bobby Doherty established his agricultural contracting business over 50 years ago by offering a slurry spreading and tillage service to Donegal farmers.

The tillage service revolved around undertaking land preparation works for farmers before planting potatoes.

Bobby used a Fordson Major tractor and a Massey Ferguson TVO tractor with a Fleming 500-gallon slurry tanker and a KRONE rotavator.

He is now semi-retired, and his son, Alastair, manages the business alongside whilst running a 130-cow Holstein Friesian dairy herd on a 250-acre enterprise.

“I had a passion for machinery and tractors when I was growing up. I spent most of my childhood sitting in tractor cabs with everybody else,” Alastair Doherty told That’s Farming.

“Agricultural contracting was definitely a route I was going to take. It was a no-brainer that I was going to be doing it because anytime I was off school, I was away in the tractors.”

“I went to Letterkenny Vocational School, and worked at home for many years when I left there. Then, in 2007, I went to Teagasc Letterkenny to complete my Green Cert, and I received the national student of the year award.”

“When I came home from there, I went farming full-time, and in 2012, I branched into dairying.”

“My father used to have a dairy farm years ago, but he stopped it, and I started it again. However, we were beef farming for many years in between that too.”

Bobby Doherty Agri Services specialise in slurry spreading, ploughing, harrowing, reseeding and a full pit silage service.

Bobby Doherty Agri

Bobby Doherty Agri employs two full-time employees and extra workers during peak times, serving a 35-mile-radius of Ramelton.

The business provides services including slurry spreading, ploughing, harrowing, reseeding, a full pit silage service, including mowing, raking, tedding, wrapping and baling.

The company built its customer base through word of mouth and advertises its septic tank clearance service through social media.

“We used to keep diggers, but we do not anymore. In 2006/2007, we stopped the plant hire work when the crash came because there were bits of work available, but there was not enough to keep me in it.”

“We simplified the business, and we said we would stop digger work and focus more on sorting out dairy farmers.”

“It works well for us because we are dairy farming ourselves, and we have a good knowledge of what is going on.”

“Customer retention is important. I like to know my customers. 95% of our clients are repeat customers.”

Bobby Doherty Agri Services specialise in slurry spreading, ploughing, harrowing, reseeding and a full pit silage service.

Umbilical slurry spreading system and baling services

The Donegal-based contractor makes up to 11,000 bales, and annually 2,500-acres of pit silage and has just shy of 120 clients availing of his slurry spreading service.

Alastair introduced an umbilical system slurry spreading service to the business and purchased his first system in 1996.

In 2010, he invested in a second umbilical slurry system to the fleet.

“A lot of farmers want to use the Low Emission Slurry Spreading application method because it has low emissions and a low nitrogen take up. It is becoming busy.”

Alastair claims Bobby Doherty Agri was one of the first contractors to offer silage and slurry spreading services in Donegal during the early 1990s.

“We were cutting 4,000-acres of pit silage 20 years ago. There were only two self-propelled harvesters in Donegal then, and now there are probably 22 harvesters.”

“We bought our first self-propelled harvester, a CLAAS Jaguar 840, in 1999 because we were getting so much work.”

“A lot of farmers used to cut their own silage around here, but they were all stopping then because they had no help.”

Bobby Doherty Agri Services specialise in slurry spreading, ploughing, harrowing, reseeding and a full pit silage service.

Farm machinery

His tractor fleet includes a Massey Ferguson 6290, a Massey Ferguson 6465, a Massey Ferguson 6470, a Massey Ferguson 6480, a Massey Ferguson 7485, a Massey Ferguson 6616, a Massey Ferguson 7718, and a Massey Ferguson 698 2WD.

“JS Farm Services in Donegal completes most of the maintenance work. Some servicing work also goes to Donegal Tractors in Letterkenny and D&M Farm Services, Derry.”

“We also complete a lot of the maintenance ourselves. We service some older tractors and fix any external problems such as hydraulic pumps.”

Other machinery includes a CLAAS 890 self-propelled forage harvester, a VOLVO L90 wheel loader, KUHN – FBP 3135 – round baler-wrapper combination, two Kane halfpipe 20ft silage/grain trailers and two Kane 14ton trailers.

Bobby Doherty Agri Services specialise in slurry spreading, ploughing, harrowing, reseeding and a full pit silage service.

Other equipment 

He also has an 18ft classic silage trailer, a Kane 12-ton 16ft trailer and a Redrock 16ft grain/silage trailer, several butterfly Kverneland mowers, KUHN rakes, a JCB 414s wheel loader, and an NC 300-series dump trailer.

In addition, he owns a Herbst low loader, an Amazone ZA-V spreader, a Kverneland 4 furrow reversible mounted plough, a Kverneland power harrow and a Watson land roller.

His slurry equipment includes three Abbey 3,000T tandem-axle tankers, a HiSpec 3,500-gallon tanker, a Redrock 3,000g and two Umbilical Slurry Systems (with 3,000m of piping between the two sets).

Other equipment includes two Doda HD35 pumps, a BAUER pump, and two Redrock Mega Flow pumps.

Challenges

In Alastair’s eyes, the challenges facing agricultural contractors include the increasing cost of fuel, parts, machinery, fertiliser, the government’s introduction of the government’s carbon tax, environmental regulations, and contractor rates.

“We put our slurry spreading price up by 10%, and we are studying it to try to see what is what, but everything is rising in front of us.”

“When you put up your price this week, next week it might not be good enough. We find ourselves now that when we do a job, we count our costs before we put our price on it first and try to work it that way.”

“The biggest worry is farmers are paying out so much money for fertiliser that sometimes we worry, we are not going to get paid when we should. In my view, that is a serious challenge this year.”

“Also, the amount of extra money it is taking to fill a fuel tank is double the price that it was twelve months ago.”

“It must be a psychological thing, but it does not seem to be as lasting as long as it used to be either,” he laughed.

“I cannot see a lot of farmers sticking it in business this year. Costs are going to be too high, and it is not going to be possible for farmers to try to pay us an extra 10-15% for doing work.”

“I feel dairy farmers might be alright as they are getting their price for milk. However, it is a different story with pig and beef farmers.”

Tractor prices 

Alastair plans to keep his machinery up-to-date and said if he does expand, he will do it carefully – due to contractor rates.

“I cannot see many agricultural contractors doing it in the next while with the amount of machinery and money needed.”

“For example, the price of a tractor is €150,000 – €160,000 and slurry tanker prices are going up by 40%.”

“I believe for a person to start agricultural contracting; they would have to have no sense whatsoever. I cannot see too many starting it, and I cannot see agricultural contractors stopping it.”

“Moreover, I am not looking too far into the future. I am taking it year by year to see what happens. If you asked me that question 12 months ago, it would have been a different story, but, that is where we are at today.”

“I believe agriculture is going to change big time. This old attitude of doing a farmer’s work, and they are paying you in November when they get their Basic Payment Scheme envelope is going to disappear.”

“A lot of smaller contractors with a round baler and no other machinery are also going to feel the pinch very shortly.”

“Also, a lot of farmers who buy their own machinery and do a couple of neighbour’s work, you will see that dying out because machinery has become too expensive.”

“It was not strange for a farmer to buy a round baler 5-6 years ago. However, that is not going to happen now because the investment is too big,” the agricultural contractor concluded.

To share your story like this Donegal ag contractor, email Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming, – [email protected]

See more agricultural contracting profiles

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