Trade focus: ‘Formal sharing won’t work; it will lead to arguments between neighbours’

Gary Ryan has been the chief executive at the Farm Tractor and Machinery Trade Association (FTMTA) for 10 years now – a period that has seen the relentless evolution of farming pursue its sometimes unpredictable path.

He recently discussed many pressing topics with AgriLand. Among these was the concept of formal machinery sharing.

This came under fire from Gary; most likely sparked by recent suggestions from industry commentators that some farmers don’t actually need a tractor of their own.

“It just won’t work in Ireland; machines will get damaged and remain unfixed. This will very soon lead to arguments between neighbours.”

Machinery rings never took off as envisaged in the UK; Gary sees even less scope for them working here. “They might work in some tillage areas but where grass is concerned all the farmers will want the machine at the same time. If only one gets his turn, with changing weather, then others may resent it for years.”

Another noticeable trend is the continual increase in the horsepower of tractors.

Image source: Shane Casey

Nowadays, according to Gary, 120hp is a typical ‘average’ size. That’s up from around 100hp, when he took over the reins of the FTMTA. Unit sales, however, are well down from their peak of around 5,000 in 2007 (but well up from the tally of 1,395 in 2010).

“What we are seeing is the total [cumulative] horsepower figure rising, but shared among fewer tractors,” he noted. He added: “The availability of credit from manufacturers, or ‘brand finance’, has encouraged this trend.”

The traditional trade in used tractors from the UK has not significantly upset new sales here in Ireland he feels, but he does see growing sales of telehandlers and rough-terrain loaders impinging on demand for new tractors.

He explained: “300 telehandlers are sold into Ireland each year – around 20% of these are for the agricultural sector”.

Image source: Shane Casey

He also notes that this trend is difficult to gauge, as the majority of these vehicles remain unregistered.

There is more material handling to be done in yards than ever. Dealers will need to start selling them as machines in their own right, rather than relying on a front-end loader sale with each new tractor.

Other pressures within the market include the growing number of ‘value’ brands, which are being offered at competitive prices. Yet Gary does not see them as undermining the mainline manufacturers.

He explained: “A farmer has to be sure of the service and parts back-up. They buy the whole package; not just the tractor itself.”

This is becoming more important as pressures on the smaller farmer increase. “Many have a day job and a family, both of which may be demanding more and more time. That farmer doesn’t want to spend the weekend fixing things.”

This applies to all machinery – not just tractors. “A farmer used to be able to repair most machines on the farm, but that sort of skill is fading. Now they are looking for reliability and simplicity instead.”

Something of a boom

The self-propelled forage harvester market is one area that’s enjoying something of a boom at present. Gary explained: “There is an element of renewal driving this trend; the old harvester fleet is being replaced.”

Image source: Shane Casey

Yet that is not the only factor; increasing herd sizes and narrower harvesting windows also influence the decision to go for bigger machines.

Whenever discussing contractors and silage harvesting, the question of labour availability is never far behind.

“It’s just not there as it used to be. Lads have gotten better-paid jobs elsewhere. They are not going to give up their holidays to work unsociable hours for limited reward.”

Gary went on to say that he knows of one contractor who pays a rate which is “simply illegal for a start”.

Machinery sales

Tractors are, as Gary points out, “big ticket items that are easily quantifiable”. Yet the machinery trade is about so much more than just the power-unit up front.

“Slurry tankers and balers have had a good year, as have tedders and almost all grass machinery in fact. Grass is, after all, our main crop.”

Image source: Shane Casey

He is also wary about some of the equipment we see here from some foreign manufacturers. He said: “They love to test their products here, but we are a very small market. Those products are often built for other countries.”

Two major concerns

Two major concerns facing Irish agriculture at the moment are the fodder shortage and, in the longer term, the tillage crisis. “We went straight from a long winter to a drought; fodder reserves are now low – with no opportunity to recover,” he said.

Many farmers have spent huge amounts on keeping their animals fed. That is affecting machinery sales, despite the reasonable milk price.

He would welcome a viable bio-fuel crop for Irish tillage farmers. He is intrigued, although doubtful, of the plans to build a sugar beet plant in the south-east.

“My biggest worry is that farmers will have forgotten how to grow it. They remember the money it brought in, but not the work involved in producing it.”

However, he wishes the project well – not least because “it was hard on machinery and good for the trade”.

Image source: Shane Casey

Altogether Gary remains upbeat about the machinery trade. He points out that there are some really well motivated and insightful people operating in the business, but they will need successors.

That, he feels, is where the FTMTA has taken a lead – in providing the staff for the future.