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From Baling To Biogas

Setting up a contracting business is no straightforward task, especially when you’re starting from scratch. So what’s the big secret? Along with loads of luck, tenacity rates as a fundamental requirement, as proven by Norfolk couple Steven and Sarah Suggitt. In just six years the Suggitts’ operation has grown from a one-man muckspreading band — Canadians would call this manure spreading — to a full-on contracting business with big baling, foraging and muck handling at its core plus a biogas plant on the horizon.

When he started out in 2003, Suggitt had one John Deere 7710 tractor, a Bunning rear-discharge spreader and a TH62 Caterpillar telehandler. Most of the year was spent mucking out cattle sheds for a local large-scale beef producer. But when that work was done, he went knocking on a few doors, making it his business to avoid poaching other contractors’ work. Instead he offered to carry out tasks that farmers would usually do themselves. It was a strategy that seemed to pay off. He demonstrated that he could do the job more efficiently than the customers could manage themselves, and he also avoided stepping on other operators’ toes in the process.

“We were up and running, and word soon got round. People gave us a chance to prove ourselves,” says Steven. “That’s the most critical time — you’ve got to put everything into it to show that you’ll do the best job possible. That way people are prepared to pay for a quality service and keep coming back.”

The contract workload continued to grow so that an extra member of staff was soon required. Then in the second year the opportunity arose to take on another ag contractor’s baling round. “It was a solid customer platform to start from, and once again we were avoiding upsetting other operators in the area,” he says. “On top of that, our existing muckspreading customers soon started asking about the service, and before we knew it we had 30,000 bales to do.

“In fact, it actually worked both ways. Our newly acquired baling customers also began to enquire about us carrying out their muckspreading.” Having set out with a single New Holland 980 baler in that first year, the business quickly upgraded and invested in two NH BB930As for the 2006 season. Up until this point all the bales had been carted with a JCB Loadall and trailers, but it soon became clear that a chaser would be a far more efficient option for fast field clearance. As a result, a Heath MultiChaser joined the fleet in 2007. This machine now handles the lion’s share of the baleshifting work, although JCB telehandlers are still required for back-up and stacking duties.

HOG DIVERSIFICATION FAILS

While business was developing fast on the contracting side, the Suggitts had also set up three pig finishing units. These slotted in neatly with the firm’s core workload of muck and straw handling. “At the peak we were pushing through 20,000 animals each year. That was great for bolstering our cashflow, but did cause some distraction from the contracting work,” admits Sarah. “Then, as the pig market took a major tumble in 2007, the numbers coming in dropped off, so we decided to call it a day and concentrate our efforts on the core business.”

All this time Suggitt Farm Services had been accepting more work for mowing and silage-carting operations. As things progressed, the Suggitts became more and more involved in this side of the business and, in 2007, were eventually offered the opportunity to take on what is probably East Anglia’s biggest silage round. “We thought long and hard about it. We didn’t want to jump straight in because it is a tough game, particularly in an area where dairy farms are so few and far between,” says Sarah. “However, the idea did fall in quite nicely with another of our plans. We had been very keen to get into renewable energy, and biogas seemed the most logical route to us.” With a forager on the books, the Suggitts would then have the opportunity to chop and clamp crops to feed a digester.

BETTER OPPORTUNITIES IN BIOGAS

Last year they both spent a lot of time investigating all of the options and, after a trip to Austria

“We’ll be growing corn from May to October and triticale from October through to April. The plant will produce about 20,000 tonnes of nutrient-rich substrate that can go straight back onto the ground as fertilizer.”

to see a plant in action, were convinced. As a result they decided to put in planning for a unit close to the local town of Attleborough and signed a deal to carry out the foraging round. While the planning process for the biogas plant rumbles on, this spring saw the firm’s new John Deere 7450 forage harvester in action for the first time, chopping grass for local dairy and beef producers. Along with this workload naturally comes a sizeable area of forage corn, so corn drilling has recently become a further addition to the services offered by the company. A new eight-row Accord has joined another second-hand unit, sowing around 1,500 acres for local farmers and a further 600 acres for the crops that will act as feedstock for the digester. It is expected that this area will double once the plant is up and running.

“We’ve gone for a new disc-drill because that will allow us to go straight into stub ble, grass or tricky, capped seedbeds,” Steven says. “Two drills may seem like overkill, but it’s a secure way of knowing The planned biogas plant will use BioG technology developed in Austria. A sepa rate company — SS Agriservices — which has been set up in partnership with friend Graham Stammers, will manage

that we’ll keep all our customers happy. And with the extra digester fuel crops next year, the two drills should be working flat-out.” the plant and the forager.

“It’s a slow process,” says Sarah. “It has taken over a year for all the site surveys, traffic surveys, landscaping and access plans to be carried out, but now everything is in place and we’re waiting on the final go-ahead from the council.”

The 1.2 megawatts (mW) per hour plant is budgeted to cost in the region of 3.8 million (around Can$8 million.) As for payback? Churning out 8,600 mW each year, this all-important period is estimated to be just five years. The Suggitts have bought the site — a poultry rearing unit — and have secured the surrounding 200 acres on a Farm Business Tenancy.

“By growing at least a proportion of the feedstock close to the plant, we won’t be disturbing the local population when hauling silage in,” says Steven. “In total it will take about 25,000 tonnes each year — that’s 15,000 tonnes of corn and triticale grown by ourselves, and we’ll be bring ing in around another 10,000 tonnes of brewers’ grains from Greene King. A small amount of turkey muck from the birds on site will add to the mix.”

In all, some 600 acres will be used to grow the fuel crops, with the aim of double-cropping. “We’ll be growing corn from May to October and triticale from October through to April. The plant will produce about 20,000 tonnes of nutrient-rich substrate that can go straight back onto the ground as fertilizer.”

Although digestate leaves the fermenta tion vessel as a slurry, a liquid separator will be used when needed, depending on whether material is to be spread on site or hauled away. Running on the methane produced within the digester, the huge 1,600-horsepower V16 Jenbacher genset will pro duce a lot of heat, and this can be used to dry the substrate further.

“We then have the opportunity to sell it on as a dry fertilizer, as a fuel for biomass burners or, as they do in Europe, for use as animal bedding. Other options are to supply the local hospital with the excess heat, dry grain with it in the summer, or build glasshouses to grow vegetables out of season.”

SUMMARY

Being prepared to push beyond the usual boundaries has allowed Steven and Sarah Suggitt to expand their contracting business at a fast rate.

By their own admission they have made mistakes along the way, but sheer drive and determination have propelled the firm rapidly from a one-man outfit to a full-scale contracting operation. A diplo matic approach to gaining new business has avoided them treading on the toes of potential competitors, while a keen acceptance to take independent advice has helped the couple to capitalize on others’ expertise.

With a biogas plant on the horizon and a new silage round, the business looks set to grow — and grow.

Nick Fone writes for profi, a leading European

farm machinery magazine. Visit the website

at www.profi.com.Grainews readers can go

to www.profi-int.com/grainewsand sign up

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