An entrepreneurial agricultural contracting business has enjoyed a 30% increase in turnover after introducing an innovative land forming service.
AMS Contracting in Chichester, West Sussex, is currently the only contractor in the UK using the Mastenbroek-supplied Trimble® FieldLevel IITM system to generate cut and fill maps for farmland.
Established by Ashley and Myles Strange in 2011, AMS Contracting began life as a specialist big bale contractor, but significant competition and low margins forced the brothers to look at new opportunities.
Fate works in mysterious ways they say, and at the time of considering their future, a local farmer approached them and asked if they could reinstate a field that was prone to ponding. The field on the Chichester Plain, which had previously been used to grow potatoes, also suffered from rutted headlands.
Ashley and Myles decided to take the job on and started to look into how they could best level the land and remove the ponding.
“The condition of the field wasn’t the best,” says Myles. “It had been subjected to torrential rain and made harvesting a real issue. In fact, half of the crop had perished in the ground, and it was too wet to lift. It was so bad that even some of the headlands were suffering from ponding. We wanted to do the job but didn’t quite know how to go about it. So, we started to have a look around at what other people were doing.”
The brothers’ research took them online, and by chance, they came across several American and European videos showing scrapers being used to form agricultural fields.
“What we found was the exact technique that we wanted to employ,” says Myles. “The only problem we faced was sourcing the GPS software that the contractors in the videos were using. However, it is a relatively niche area, and it didn’t take us long to find Mastenbroek’s website.”
Headquartered in Boston, Lincolnshire, Mastenbroek has been designing and manufacturing self-propelled drainage trenchers since 1977. Since then the company has grown into a globally respected name in trenching, ground stabilisation and groundwater control.
In 2010 after working in partnership with Trimble®, the two companies introduced a new GPS system, which was far more accurate than laser-based systems. Based on Trimble's Field Level II technology, Mastenbroek's GPS system boasts several benefits over laser-based technology: much quicker field surveying times; reduced drainage installation costs through more accurate movement of top soil for cut and fill; no need for regular calibration; and issues arising from dust, rain, fog, snow, wind or other related weather conditions are eradicated.
Myles’ enquiry was directed to Fred Clarke, Technical Sales Engineer at Mastenbroek. “Myles called us in early 2017, and the Trimble® system sounded like the perfect solution to what AMS was aiming to achieve. We sent an engineer out to meet them and look over their set-up. It was a straightforward process to get them up and running, and by June 2017 they were good to go.”
Mastenbroek supplied and fitted the Trimble® control system to AMS’ tractor and scraper. Drivers received thorough training on surveying fields on a quad bike and machine control for scraper.
Initially, Mastenbroek supplied the Trimble® FieldLevel II system with a TMX-2050TM Display System. The easy-to-use TMX-2050TM display features a large high-definition touch screen with sharp visuals and a choice of FmX® Plus or Precision-IQTM display applications to suit specific farm practices.
The TMX-2050TM display was supplemented with the Trimble® WM Sub Surface drainage software in 2019, allowing AMS to also plan their agricultural drainage projects and control their trencher.
“The Trimble® system is incredibly intuitive and features an excellent user interface, so training the guys was straightforward, and the operators soon became familiar with the functionality,” says Fred.
With the Trimble® system producing a topographic map is a straightforward process. All the operator has to do is drive around the boundary and the interior of the area. The data received is used by the onboard design screen to calculate the cut and fill map and provide the volumes of soil to be moved depending on the design parameters the operator sets.
Once a suitable design is made, the display automatically controls the scraper to the correct elevations. A live display shows where the material has to be cut and placed, ensuring the correct amount of material is moved only once during the job, which increases efficiencies and reduces the overall cost.
With everything installed, surveying the redundant potato field took less than an hour and armed with a survey AMS Contracting was able to use its scraper to trim excess soil and deposit it in areas that needed to be formed.
“We did look at bringing excavators onto the field, but that was going to be a very expensive option,” says Myles. “It would also be a very inaccurate way of achieving a level field; in fact, it probably wouldn’t work. With the Mastenbroek and Trimble® system we are just removing the top 25mm of the soil, it’s hardly anything, but when you have a large field, it soon mounts up. There is no way we could be so accurate using a bulldozer.”
AMS’s client was delighted with the results and went onto to plant wheat in the field. The crop performed exceptionally well. Levelling the land also had a positive effect on a previous blackgrass problem.
“Our client said that at one point you couldn’t see the crop for the blackgrass. After the land was levelled, it practically disappeared.
“The farmer was delighted with the results, and we were talking to him about introducing a new drainage plan to the field based on the information gleaned from the survey. Sadly, he passed away before we could do the job for him.”
The success of this first project did lead to other jobs for AMS Contracting, and today, nearly a third of the company’s turnover comes from land forming projects across the South East. It hasn’t been all plain sailing though.
“Land levelling is quite a difficult sell,” says Myles. “I don’t know why, but the technique is not as common in the UK as it is in the United States or Europe.
“We’ve been very lucky so far, and lots of farmers have put their trust in us, and word of mouth from delighted clients has undoubtedly helped.
“I don’t think people are aware of the benefits of land levelling and it’s important to remember that not all fields can be formed and not every area of a field has to be worked on. This is one of the many benefits that the Trimble® system brings to growers; they can clearly see the land's topography and where it needs to be altered to maximise yields.
“As well as arable farmers, we’ve also helped fresh fruit growers, creating fields that look like billiard tables! Land levelling can turn some of the least productive areas of land into the most productive.”
And with turnover up 30% since introducing its land forming service it would appear the technique can increase productivity for agricultural contractors too.