Noel and David Neilan run a busy contracting operation at Castlecoote, Co. Roscommon, whilst also running a drystock farm.

The Neilans are best known for silage harvesting (using wagons and balers), but also undertake slurry spreading (including an umbilical system), hedge-cutting and digger work – amongst other tasks.

Speaking to AgriLand this week, Noel and David gave us an insight into the contracting business.

How loyal are you to particular brands?

We like New Holland tractors; we run four of them – a T7050, TM175, TM165 and a TM140. We bought them all second-hand – generally as fresh models from England. They perform well and we are likely to stick with them.

We also have a Case IH MXM190, which would be more or less identical to a New Holland TM190, and an older MX135. There are also two Fiat [Fiatagri] tractors here; both play an active part in the business.

Neilan silage contractor

Who is your preferred dealer?

We use WR Shaw for parts and service for tractors.

We deal with Malone for our silage wagons and McHale for the balers. That’s one of the reasons why we chose Irish-built machines – so you can get in contact with the factory or get hold of the right person.

For example, during the busy silage season, Malones will get parts to you or leave them out for you – to keep you going after-hours. That’s great peace of mind.

We also deal a lot with Eddie Naughton Agri Supplies. That’s where we bought the rake, for example. He’d never leave you stuck; even if you needed a pipe fixed at 11:00pm, he would get you going again. He provides a great service.

Neilan silage contractor

What is the best tractor you ever had?

That’s an easy one; it has to be our [New Holland] TM175. We bought it in England eight years ago, when it had about 4,500 hours on the clock. We paid just €21,000 for it at the time, after the sterling conversion.

While New Holland’s TM175 and TM190 models might have had some issues early on, this tractor has served us very well. It has now put up over 11,000 and we plan to keep it a while longer.

The only real problem we had with it was to do with the electric spool valves. We’ve since done a modification and converted them back to a simpler system, which works better.

What is the worst tractor you ever had?

They can all give trouble and they can all cost money. I don’t know if there is one that I’d single out. We did have an older Deutz-Fahr tractor about 10 years that caused a bit of heartache. The hydraulic pump failed because a small ‘key’ broke; that led to the whole back-end of the tractor seizing up. In the end, it cost over €9,000 to put right.

What is your favourite piece of machinery?

The Lely Hibiscus 715 CD rake that we bought from Naughtons has made a big improvement to the whole silage operation. It has sped everything up; we tend to pick 20ft swaths with the wagons and balers – so a good rake is essential to keep everything else running well.

The machine itself is also nice to use.

What is your least favourite piece of machinery?

I had an old double-chop silage harvester many years ago. I used to joke at the time: ‘You would spend the whole day cutting and the whole night sharpening’. It was tough going.

What is your latest purchase?

The New Holland T7050. We bought it last December with 6,200 hours on it. It now has nearly 7,100 on the clock. It has the Power Command transmission and is easy to drive.

We did have to split the tractor to replace a damper plate – we did the work ourselves and it took 8-10 hours – but otherwise it’s shaping up well.

Neilan silage contractor

Oldest machine still in use today?

We have a couple of classic/vintage tractors, but the oldest one that still works at day-to-day contracting is our Fiat [Fiatagri] F140. It’s a 1997-reg model; we’ve had it for about 10 years. It mightn’t have the features that some of the newer tractors do – the young lads prefer the more modern ones – but it’s a dream to rake with.

Apart from some raking, it also does a bit of mowing, agitating and whatever else needs doing.

How long do you keep tractors and machinery?

It depends on the tractor or machine. We try to sell them on and replace them while they still have value – before they start to give major problems.

We’ve had our MX135 for 14 years; we had the engine overhauled a while back and it’s still going well.

We’ve had the JCB Farm Master 416S for eight years; it’s going well, but the differentials in the axles gave a bit of trouble. I would say that the loading shovel is really a one-operator machine; it’s not suited to having different drivers hopping up and down off it.

When we change it, we might go for another one or maybe a Volvo – but a JCB is a bit cheaper to buy.

Neilan silage contractor

We’ve had our Big M [Mk 1] for two seasons now. It’s a 2002 machine. When we bought it, we needed another mower. We were originally going to buy another second-hand tractor and a new 10ft unit. Then we came across the second-hand Krone; it was actually working out €20,000 less than our first option [another tractor and a new mower], so we decided to go for it.

Neilan silage contractor

Do you buy new or second-hand?

We tend to buy the important machinery new – like the wagons, balers and rake for example. The two Malone wagons – Trojan MT-52 models – were bought new. One was bought in 2011; the other in 2012.

Neilan silage contractor

The balers – two McHale F5500 models – were bought new in 2014. They replaced two previous F550 machines.

We don’t buy new tractors; we can’t afford to do that here. Instead, we buy fresh, second-hand models.

Do you buy genuine or spurious (generic) parts?

We often buy genuine parts, especially in the case of McHale and Malone machines.

If you’re busy, you get what you can to get machines going. But if you’re working on something over the winter, you have more time to shop around or decide what to do.

Most useful item in the farm workshop?

The welders; we use MIG and stick versions. They are essential – not just for repairs but for fabricating things around the farm.

Any home-built inventions or changes to your set-up that stand out?

We fabricated a grass [swath] wuffler. We more or less built it from scratch; it has a rotor and tines – to throw out a swath of grass and speed up wilting. We don’t use it much nowadays – with the other machinery we have – but we still have it. Actually, it’s on loan to a neighbour at the moment.

What is your favourite machinery job?

It has to be digger work; we have two 13t Hitachi Zaxis tracked machines [excavators]. You can get on with operating the machine without all the stress that comes with other jobs – like silage.

What is your least favourite machinery job?

There’s nothing that stands out; if things are going well we’re happy to get on with any job.

Neilan silage contractor

Any classics in the yard?

The two Fiat [Fiatagri] tractors – an 85-90 and an F140 – are the oldest tractors that still work day-to-day at farming and contracting. But we do have a couple of ‘collectible’ tractors.

One is a [white] David Brown 880, which has been restored; the other is a Ford ‘Pre-Force’ 4000 from the late 1960s – work hasn’t started on it yet. It might end up being an expensive one; we’ll know when we get into it.

What classic tractor should still be in production?

I’ve always thought the likes of a Zetor Crystal 12011 was a great machine – in its day.

It could go all day and stay cool in the hottest of weather. Those tractors did some amount of work. They wouldn’t be very comfortable by today’s standards – but they were good for their time.

What would you buy if you won the lottery?

If money was no object, we probably wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing!

Thoughts for the future?

There’s a living to be made from farming and contracting at the moment – but we’d be worried about the future. Where is it all going? Are enough young people coming through to keep things going? We’d be concerned where things will be at in another 10 years.

Neilan silage contractor

Machinery includes:

Tractors: New Holland T7050, TM175, TM165 and TM140; Case IH MXM175 and MX135, Fiat (Fiatagri) F140 and 85-90, plus a couple of classic ‘collectibles’

Loading shovel: JCB Farm Master 416S

Excavators: 2 x 13t Hitachi Zaxis

Mowers: Krone Big M (Mk 1), plus Kuhn front mounted and rear trailed units

Rake: Lely Hibiscus 715 CD

Wagons: 2 x Malone Trojan MT-52

Balers: 2 x McHale F5500

Wrappers: McHale 991B, plus a Goweil unit

Slurry equipment: Major 2,400-gallon tanker, Abbey 2,200-gallon tanker, 2 x Redrock agitators, Slurry Mate umbilical system

Hedge-cutter: 6.5m reach (telescopic) McConnell