Newry-based Hillis Contracts is an exceptional fourth-generation agricultural contracting business which calls upon three-quarters of a century of experience to invariably deliver unrivalled solutions. We spoke to Ryen Hillis to find out more about this longstanding family operation which provides prompt and professional silage, baling, hedge cutting, ploughing and slurry services to farmers across counties Down, Armagh and Louth.
Although the genesis of Hillis Contracts goes back 75 years, they are currently enjoying a period of growth, having recently expanded the baling side of their operation to provide customers with an even bigger and better service. “Twenty-twenty was in fact one of the busiest years we have had because we got into baling in a big way and it really took off,” reflects Ryan Hillis.
“We invested in a new McHale baler and kept the knives sharp and people were really interested in that service. We expanded in a big way and did 6,500 bales during the year, which was a good bit of additional work.”
Ryen fronts the fourth-generation family operation alongside his father Ray. “My grandfather Maurice and great grandfather Hedley would have been contracting before us. Dad started during the ‘60s and I’m here ten years now myself,” he points out.
Renowned near and far as an exceptional silage outfit, having provided uninterrupted service to generations of farmers within a 30-mile radius of Newry down through the years, Hillis Contracts is a versatile, flexible and multifaceted contracting company which also offers the keenest hedge cutting, slurry and round baling solutions as well as a veritable host of other services.
At the heart of the operation is a fresh, modern and immaculately-maintained fleet of machinery, including no fewer than ten New Holland tractors. These are consistently replenished and upgraded to ensure optimal performance at all times.
“We bought a new T7 185 at the start of May. We change them as much as we can, within reason. You have to do this if you want to provide a good service. We also invested in the new McHale F550 round baler for baling and wrapping in 2019.”
Elsewhere in the fleet one will find New Holland TC56 and TX34 combine harvesters; two McConnel hedge cutters; an NC tanker and two Red Rock tankers with Slurrykat fittings; and a Claas 250 baler. Other services provided include sowing cereal, ploughing, reseeding, sawing and site clearance, putting up gates and fences, digger work, collecting quarry stone, etc. “We have a JCB shovel, two Kverneland reversible ploughs and two Accord drills,” Ryen notes.
To make sure that every job is finished efficiently, safely, in double-quick time and to the highest possible standard, Ryen and Ray – two down-to-earth characters who were the stars of a refreshing and enthralling episode of FarmFLiX in December 2019 – have surrounded themselves with good men:
“At the height of the summer, we would have up to 15 men here,” Ryen confirms. “In the summer time, we could have five trailers, a shovel, two mowers and three combines all going. While myself and my dad do as much of the work as we can, it takes a brave team of men to get through everything.
“We are lucky to be able to call upon the services of hard-working, knowledgeable and experienced men, some of whom come in from other contracting teams. The majority of them have been with us a long time, such as Chris Kelly, who drives the harvester and has been here 30 years. We look after them and they look after us. Markus Watt is another who has been with us for 15 years – he does a lot of the maintenance and night-time and breakdown work, including welding, repairing flat tyres, etc. My uncle, Hector is also part of the team.”
As for the secret behind Hillis Contracts’ enduring success and viability as an ongoing commercial concern for three-quarters of a century and counting. Ryen states: “I suppose it comes down to quality, reliability and speed. We get the job done and we always try to do it to the highest standard that we possibly can. Most of our customers have been with us for a long time and now that we have the balers and are providing that expanded service we are picking up new customers, too. FarmFLiX was good advertising for us but there is no better advertising than the word of mouth that comes from doing quality work. It’s a small country and word spreads fast. People get to know you and will let others know if you look after them.”
Going forward, consolidation is important but Ryen believes further growth could be on the cards. “We’ll keep expanding, keep the machinery up to date and keep pushing on,” he reveals. “The weather has got very bad, with summer and winter both getting wetter, and that’s presenting an obvious challenge. We had a very wet summer and assumed the winter might be drier but it didn’t happen that way.
“It’s so wet coming into October / November that farmers don’t want you on their land. We bought a set of wide floatation wheels to allow us to get onto the wet ground for hedge cutting this winter and they have proven to be a fantastic job.
“With the weather, the window of opportunity seems to be getting smaller and you are constantly working against the clock trying to get it all fitted into a tight schedule, with everybody under pressure. But we’ve effectively doubled the silage outfit size, going from four to six trailers and adding a second baler and second rake so that we can do more when it’s dry.
“Having two of everything also means you are under less pressure if something happens to break down,” he concludes. “At the end of the day, you need good gear ready and available as soon as it’s needed because, when the time comes, farmers don’t want to be kept waiting.”
Hillis Contracts Ltd.,
28 Ringclare Road,
First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 9 No 3, May/June 2021