Trade focus: Is a quad the best ‘tractor’ a stock farmer could have?

Each year there is always a small buzz of excitement as the tractor registration figures are released; the farming world can see which of the major players took the top spot.

However, there is one major supplier of agricultural vehicles whose name never appears; yet it would probably wipe many others off the map if its products were categorised (by the Government) as tractors are.

That company is Honda; its machine is the quad – or ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) if you prefer.

Quads are the ‘Cinderellas’ of the farm machinery world. Hard-working and often neglected, they have become indispensable tools on many farms; yet, for some reason, the agricultural community isn’t quite as much in love with them as they are tractors or other vehicles.

One reason for this may be that they are often just a sideline for dealers – retailers that specialise in ‘proper’ tractors. There are relatively few firms that offer quads as their flagship product line.

One exception to this apparent rule is Agriband of Bandon, Co. Cork. Like many in the machinery business, the firm’s roots stretch back to the import of UK tractors in the latter half of the last century.

It was in 1976 that the entity was founded by Michael Hurley; he later sold it on to two of his staff – Gerard Lordan and Michael O’Neil. It is these two gentlemen (pictured below) who still own and run the business – not just as a Honda dealership, but also a general farm machinery supply outlet.

Despite the vast stock of machinery parts and accessories carried in the shop, it is the sale of quads and associated equipment that comprises the main chunk of the business.

It has not always been so; Michael explained: “In the early days there was ‘duty’ on quads – something like €2 per cubic centimetre of displacement.

It wasn’t until this was lifted in the early 1990s that they became a viable purchase for farmers.

Even when subject only to VAT, take-up was slow. “It was the utility companies and those with the biggest need that were the first to buy,” added Michael. “Farmers, in general, took longer to accept them.”

Thankfully, Honda’s range of quads is relatively straight-forward. There are three main engine sizes; with a few limited options within each size.

Quad manufacturers arrange their models by cubic capacity, rather than power, so – in Honda’s case – the buyer is left with the choice between 250, 420 and 500cc engines. The 500cc units churn out just under 29hp.

Available features include electronic gear-changes, power steering and even independent rear suspension on the top model.

It might be thought that the conditions under which quads work would debar them from having anything more than basic electrical components, but Gerard reassures us that they are ultra reliable. He explained:

The biggest problem with quad electrics is not water but rats – especially if they have been used for carrying meal.

Winter feeding of stock is certainly a task suited to a quad’s low ground pressure, so how big a problem is it? “We’ve had a few looms that have been chewed through,” he replied, “but we got them all rewired.”

Other than vermin the major problem appears to be neglect. “In the great scheme of running a farm they are not the most expensive machines; some farmers seem to regard them almost as disposable items,” Gerard commented.

Despite the reluctance of some quad owners to have them serviced regularly, he said: “It’s the last machine they’ll do without and, in the spring, we’ll have three or four courtesy machines available to replace those that are brought in for servicing – even for a day.”

Despite having petrol engines the running costs are still very modest.

‘A litre of fuel per hour’

“We tell buyers that, over the course of a year, it will usually work out at approximately a litre of fuel an hour,” Gerard noted. “A full service costs in the region of €120, with oil and filters.”

These are hardly big figures, but what about repairs? Eddie, who tends to the workshop, points out that “if something like the electric gear-selector fails, it usually just needs cleaning; we’ve only ever had to replace one and that took 10 minutes.”

Naturally, one of the great benefits of a quad is its versatility. It may not be the tool for a hard day’s ploughing (only the lightest of grass harrows is recommended) but there are 101 other tasks that have been found for them over the years.

Sowing grass or cover crops, slug pelleting and spot spraying are the three most common jobs, which can be tackled with accessories mounted on special carrying frames. Fertiliser spreading and transport tend to be those that require a trailer of some sort.

Implements to accommodate these jobs are sold new or used; Agriband also deals in refurbished items. Honda, itself, does not get involved in after-market extras.

“It just supplies the basic quad; it leaves it up to the farmer to do what he will,” remarked Gerard.

Three types of quad user

Gerard points to three distinct groups of users in his region.

Those to the east are on level ground; they prefer the smaller 250cc models. Moving west he says that, in that area, the “understanding of a quad is that it’s a 500cc machine”.

In the middle, it’s the 420cc model that attracts most customers. Sales tallies reflect these divisions.

Over the last 20 years, Agriband says that it has seen a big increase in quad sales; it has positioned itself to take full advantage of it.

It sees the swing continuing, as dairy herds get bigger and more reliance is placed on contractors for the major machinery operations.

“We see some machinery skills and self-sufficiency being lost on farms,” noted Gerard. Dairy farmers, in particular, are moving away from tractor driving – he believes – and focusing more on the details of managing the herd and the grass. He reckons that the quad will become ever more important – as a tool for this work.