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Wickhambrook: How Claydon Drills has revolutionised the finances of arable farming

06:00 17 August 2014

From left, Oliver, Jeff, Spencer and Frank Claydon of Claydon Drills.

From left, Oliver, Jeff, Spencer and Frank Claydon of Claydon Drills.

Archant

On a farmyard in the depths of the Suffolk countryside, a farming family has developed a remarkable diversification which is taking the agricultural world by storm. Claydon Drills is revolutionising how farmers farm with its innovative approach to drilling seeds. SARAH CHAMBERS visited its production plant at Wickhambrook, near Newmarket.

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Deep in the heart of the East Anglian countryside lies a production plant like no other.

A 40-strong workforce in the village of Wickhambrook, near Newmarket, creates world-beating agricultural machines which are now exported to 24 different countries and are changing the face of farming.

At its helm is farmer-cum-engineer Jeff Claydon, who is supported by his brother, Frank, its technical director, and sons Spencer, the firm’s commercial director, and Oliver, its director of operations and design.

“We have diversified into a completely new technique in farming,” explains Jeff.

Building the business has not been without its struggles, he admits, but it’s clear the team is beginning to reap the benefits of all its hard work as the distinctive yellow and black machines the firm has created and patented head out into more and more fields. Other agricultural machinery innovations created on the Claydons’ farm have preceded them, but it is Jeff’s seed drill invention which has really broken the mould. The first series was launched in 2002, a hybrid version came out in 2009, and the firm is now on series 3.

Claydon Drills makes both seed drills and straw harrows, varying in price from £12,000 for the cheapest harrow to a six metre wide seed drill costing about £70,000. A new nine metre wide drill is currently in development and that will come with a price tag of about £100,000.

The team at Claydon Drills all have a farming background, and it’s very much a family-oriented business. Denise, Jeff’s wife, is company secretary, and the couple live on site. Oliver, 33, and Spencer 32. live at Wickhambrook and Tuddenham respectively.

Charlie Eaton looks after UK and Ireland sales, Ed Perry is production manager and Mat Bowe works in research and development.

Frank does a lot of the practical testing and development of the prototype machinery on the family farm, and this gives a sense of how close and how hands-on the process of inventing and refining these remarkable pieces of UK engineering is. The farm remains a working and profitable one which makes best use of the technology being built on its doorstep.

The technical momentum behind the business is Jeff, who has been turning his hand to new farm inventions throughout his working life, and now son, Oliver.

Oliver, who attended West Suffolk College before studying engineering at Brunel University, was in his final year when his father came up with an idea for a new drilling machine which would turn out to be a major breakthrough for the business. He came back post-graduation in 2003 and the idea was that he would remain for a year while they got the concept off the ground. In the end, he never left, and is now heavily involved in design work on new prototypes.

Spencer also studied for a BTech in engineering in Suffolk before heading to Sheffield Hallam to study it. He changed courses and instead majored in banking and financial services and after graduating went to work for other companies, including SABMiller in Sheffield, before joining the family firm.

When Spencer arrived in 2009, the company was turning over about £1million a year and since then has been on a recession-busting roll. He took on the commercial role and sales soared from £1.8m in 2011, to £3.8m in 2012, then £7.8m in 2013.

“We are going for over £10m this year and we are a little bit different. Generally when the public are doing very very well, we (the farming sector) are not doing very well. It’s kind of counter cyclical,” he explains.

“There’s a reasonable supply of wheat in the market, so the wheat price is coming down. Farmers need to concentrate on what’s going to save them money and that’s what our machine is about.”

The drilling plant which Jeff has designed does away with the need to plough or cultivate the soil, representing a saving for farmers in time and money and a knock-on effect in helping the soil and therefore the environment.

Jeff was motivated to design his machine in the early 2000s in response to the low price of wheat. When the crop plummeted in value to £60 a tonne, he put on his thinking cap in order come up with a design which could save him around a third of the costs involved in planting it.

“We couldn’t make any money farming so we started to look at alternative ways of growing the crop,” he explains.

Today, on the family farm, the Claydons reckon to save around £80,000 on labour and machinery costs that would be incurred if they used a conventional plough-based system.

Claydon Drills uses a hook-shaped mechanism, or tine, to create a hole in which the seed can be planted, and, potentially, quantities of fertiliser can also be channelled. It means that inputs can be carefully controlled and limited far more precisely to what’s needed. The idea is to disturb only sufficient soil to plant the crop and enable it to thrive.

Meantime, through a series of workshops for farmers, the firm explains how the soil should be treated after the previous crop has been harvested and before the new one is planted.

In the past, explains Jess, direct drilling didn’t work very successfully; the seed would get too wet and would “drown”. Claydon Drills’ tine goes in about 4in deep, allowing for good drainage, which is needed because of the particularly wet conditions in the UK. The tine also puts air into the soil, which is important, as a ratio of about 15 to 20% air is needed in the soil or nothing will grow. It reduces compaction of the soil and leaves the remains of last year’s crop right on the surface, meaning the nutrients and organic matter are all present too.

Birds are able to pick up the seeds left on the surface at the end of the year, and it’s therefore also a more wildlife-friendly system, so much so that in 2009, it scooped the LAMMA Show environmental award.

A straw harrow is used to manage the straw left behind after combining and break it up so that weed seeds will grow. The weeds are then sprayed off with a chemical before the crop seeds are direct drilled into the soil.

“Everyone is ploughing and using at least two or three passes through the ground to do it. We go once through the drill so it’s at least half or even a third of the cost,” says Spencer. “Most people are ploughing over the whole profile of the soil at 12 inches deep and beating the clods up to create a fine soil. With ours, it doesn’t touch a single thing more than where the roots are going to grow and the seeds are going to be sown, so you are only disturbing a tenth of the soil.”

He adds: “All these big companies are now trying to bring out ‘me too’ products. We are experiencing that now, but we have a patent on our technology.”

Jeff has been inventing machines for decades and started the business with the Yield o meter, a yield recording device for combines, back in the 1980s. Other technology followed, but the big breakthrough was the drill. To date, the company has sold 550 drills and 260 straw harrows in 24 countries, and since 2009 has expanded about 700%.

Jeff and Frank’s great, great grandfather farmed at the other end of the village, and his son, Tom, bought the farm in the late 1920s. Jeff and Frank’s father, Eric, bought it off the executors in the 1950s. The original farm was 250 acres but today the family owns some 400 acres and farms about 1,000 acres in all.

It still trades as E T Claydon & Sons and is farmed in partnership with Jeff and Frank’s mother, Peggy. Jeff still does the spraying while Frank does the drilling, which keeps them actively involved in the farming side.

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