Looking ahead to LAMMA 2008

With a varied workload that spans all year round, JJ Contracting needs reliable kit that does not cost the earth. Dominic Kilburn reports on their Zetor Proxima Plus that was launched earlier this year.

Versatility of smaller tractors a real plus for contractor with diverse jobs

IF THERE was an award for the contracting business with the most diverse operation in the country, then JJ Contracting of Walpole St Peter, near King's Lynn in Norfolk would be near the top of the pile.

Operating a fleet of eight tractors from its fenland base, the company takes on work ranging from verge mowing and hedge cutting through to harvesting lavender – and a lot more in between.

“We try to get work all year round,” says John Lee, who has owned and run the business with his partner, Jan since it started in 1991.

“You can't afford to have kit standing about in the yard and not being used,” he says.

Judging by the hours kept by the business in 2006, there was little ‘standing about' for their men, or machinery.

Last year, over 22,000 acres of field work were completed, including pre-planting cultivations for potatoes and carrots, a season-long blight spraying campaign, carrot drilling, autumn field cultivations, lavender spraying/harvesting/carting and finishing off with lifting strawberry seed stock in November and December.

Add to that a few thousand kilometres of verge and hedge cutting for both Norfolk and Lincolnshire County Councils and you have a full year.

This season has seen the arrival of two new tractors to the fleet. The first, Zetor's 88hp, four-wheeled drive Proxima Plus 8451, which was launched at LAMMA last January and, latterly, a two-wheeled drive 68hp, Proxima 6421.

“Any machine we buy we tend to test very well,” says Mr Lee. “We expect our tractors to do 1,500 hours in a year and I wouldn't be surprised if these two, smaller tractors, end up doing more work in a year than larger ones in the fleet, due to their size and versatility.”

At first glance there appears to be little difference between the original Proxima range and the new Plus. But Zetor claims that there are 600 new components and over 100 new features.

The three-model Plus range has new four cylinder, turbocharged and intercooled engines from 88hp to 109hp, offering 37 per cent torque back-up. Because the engines reach their operating temperature more quickly, says Zetor, this means they are quieter and more fuel-efficient.

The Plus tractors share a new 16 x 16 two-stage powershift transmission with electro-hydraulic shift and mechanical synchro shuttle as standard.

To handle the increase in power, new axles – front and back – have been fitted.

The 8451 went straight into bed-tilling for JJ Contracting, ahead of the carrot drill in the spring, 88hp providing ample power says Mr Lee for the single bed tiller.

Verge cutting kept the tractor busy from May through to July before harvesting Norfolk lavender in August and returning to verge and hedge cutting in the autumn.

“It's completed 900 hours since its arrival in May and has dealt with some tough conditions, particularly with the verge mowing where it gets a lot of gear work and forward/reverse shuttling,” says Mr Lee. “But we bought it to do specific tasks like that and it's surprising the torque back-up you get – it just doesn't want to give up.”

Mr Lee believes that value for money played an important part in his decision to purchase the tractor.

“In terms of the price we paid for it and the cost of operation, it has to be value for money. OK, the cab may not be quite so luxurious as other brands, but we buy what suits the job.”

With that in mind, Mr Lee specified climate control and air suspended seats for both Proxima tractors in the knowledge that “a happy operator is a productive one”.

JJ Contracting's Simon Allsebrook, who sometimes spends up to 12 hours a day in the 8451, agrees that the tractor very much suits the job in hand. “The layout in the cab is really simple, with easy-to-operate controls and it offers the good all round vision required for verge mowing and hedge cutting work.

“Noise levels could do with coming down a little, which I think Zetor is looking at for next year, but on the whole this tractor has really surprised me. It'll take whatever you throw at it,” he says.

Diesel consumption too has been a bonus this year, says Mr Lee, with levels of use half that previously notched up by the two 135hp tractors the Zetors replaced.

“That's another benefit of having smaller tractors – two days of hedge cutting and you're still on the first tank,” he says.

With extensive use of the forward/reverse shuttle during verge mowing operations, steel work around the lever's casing wasn't strong enough initially to cope with demand put upon it, says Mr Lee but local dealers P & SM Johnson fixed the problem and it has worked well since. “The 6421 which arrived in July hasn't missed a beat.

“Our very first tractor we bought when we started the business back in 1991 was a 95hp, Zetor 9540 and we clocked up 4,500 hours with practically no trouble at all. We're very much hoping for the same result with our latest machines,” says Mr Lee.

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