Farm of the Week: High-tech team approach to get the job done

Leslie Brown feeds some of his Hereford X Limousin cattle.  Picture: Gary Longbottom.Leslie Brown feeds some of his Hereford X Limousin cattle.  Picture: Gary Longbottom.
Leslie Brown feeds some of his Hereford X Limousin cattle. Picture: Gary Longbottom.
Agricultural contracting became one of the largest growth sectors of farming during the 1970s and farm manager's son Leslie Brown counts himself fortunate to have started out at that time.

Today his contracting business consists of a fleet of tractors, combine harvesters, destoners and potato harvesters, cultivation and grassland machinery, and a team that he talks of as his biggest asset. His contracting business also led to him becoming the farmer he always wanted to be based at his tenanted Westholme Farm, Winston in Teesdale from where he farms several hundred acres.

It’s not often Farm of the Week ventures out of the traditional three Ridings’ county boundary but a significant proportion of Leslie’s business is conducted in North Yorkshire and he’s only a short haul into County Durham. He started contracting from humble beginnings.

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“I bought a John Deere tractor when I was about 17. I was working for my father, Cliff, on the farm he managed at the other side of Winston. I never really wanted to work for anybody but myself and I’d always enjoyed working with farm machinery, particularly drilling.”

Taking the plunge when he was 19 Leslie left his father and set up a business that now employs a team of a dozen full-time employees and extends to 20-plus in summer.

“Looking back to 1976 when I started I’d have to say there was a lot of being in the right place at the right time that led to where we are now. In the 50s, 60s and 70s farms could no longer support the number of people they had. Farming was changing dramatically and having to employ people full-time was a concern, but one of the biggest changes that helped my business was the swing from spring to winter cropping.

“It brought about a bigger requirement to get crops sown over a shorter period in the autumn and that’s when farmers came to us to get all their ploughing and drilling done. Through the 80s and early 90s the growth in our sector was phenomenal. Some years we were doubling what we had undertaken the previous year.”

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The shift saw Leslie make another significant step. Having seen his business accelerate during the rush for autumn cultivation he turned his attention to what farmers might be looking for in spring. It was to be an inspired move.

“When we bought our first potato destoner there were very few others in the area with one and although we didn’t do too much work with it in its first year we had to hire one to help us out with orders in the second year and from then on we purchased a new machine each year for a number of years. We still have a fleet of eight destoners today.

“We were also asked to enter into providing a potato harvesting service that we started in the late 1980s with similar success.”

Combine harvesting became an early part of Leslie’s contracting in 1978 when he started out with a secondhand New Holland 135. He now runs three Claas and three New Holland combines. The tractor team includes New Holland, John Deere, Fendt, Case and a couple of tracked Challengers for primary cultivation.

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Potato work makes up around 25 per cent of the business with around 30 per cent silage-related and the rest all arable work, but Leslie is keen to stress it is his team not the machinery that makes the difference.

“We have a really good set of people who are working in an environment that they seem to enjoy. The technology that is now involved make the job interesting and more comfortable than it used to be. It gives an interesting skillbase and because we use full RTK autosteer systems, in addition to the accuracy they bring about, you also get the added benefit of the operator coming off the machine at the end of the day a little fresher than previously.”

Steering systems, yield and moisture meters are all part of the agricultural contractors’ armoury and Leslie believes there’s more to come from his business.

“Two of our combines are fitted with full yield mapping and there is potential for us to use precision farming techniques even more. We will do that wherever we can show our customers that improvements can be made.”

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The most recent addition to Leslie’s business is a woodchip machine. His team are now on the road chipping clean timber as far as the M62 for biomass boilers that power everything from poultry enterprises to farms and estates.

“It brings in additional work during winter and is developing into another niche market. It’s all about making sure we are being efficient in everything we do, including an additional sideline we’ve developed recently by selling-on our own tractors and farm machinery.”

Leslie spent the first six months of his life in one of the farm cottages at Westholme Farm where he farms today but hasn’t lived there since. He and wife Lis work alongside each other in the business. Lis also runs two holiday cottages, one in Piercebridge and the other not far from the Fox Hall Inn on the A66. They live away from the farm.

“I’ve farmed here since the early 80s when we worked for the owners. I was offered the tenancy in the 90s and with other land we have acquired the acreage has increased. It’s mostly arable and we grow quite a bit of wheat, barley and oilseed rape, but we also have livestock. Presently we have 150 head of cattle running a Hereford X Limousin suckler herd. It’s a closed herd and we generally sell through a buyer on a Hereford scheme with some occasionally going to Darlington livestock market. We also have around 200 breeding ewes all Mules put to either the Texel or Charollais.”

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Leslie’s father is still going strong at 86 and despite Leslie’s leanings towards farm machinery his roots are still also entrenched in livestock.

“I hadn’t had anything to do with sheep for 20 years until dad sent me a few down to get me back going, but it all just clicked back in. There must be something in the genes.”

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