Alfred J Vance & Sons provides a keen agricultural contracting / plant hire service to customers throughout Donegal. We dropped into the company base at Carrigans, close to Lifford, to get an insight into the history and current activities of this successful family business, which is renowned for providing a prompt and efficient solution at all times.
It would be no exaggeration to state that Alfred J Vance boasts a wealth of experience of agricultural contracting. He started in this line of work aged 16; he’s 71 now – that’s 55 years of unbroken service to farmers across the Donegal region.
The Vance name is extremely well known across Donegal and beyond, having diversified beyond contracting into plant hire, including a lot of work for Donegal County Council. Competitive prices are quoted on a wide range of work and Alfred has at his disposal one of the finest and largest fleets of tractors and machinery in the north west.
Reflecting on the genesis of the business, Alfred’s son John notes: “Alfred started off mowing hay with a Ford Minor Tractor and through time using a Fordson Major Tractor with a Ransome Threshing Mill and a Jones Baler. As time progressed he worked with 3 Six Cylinder Fordson Majors spreading lime with Bredal limespreaders. He bought his first new Bredal limespreader B46 in 1971. He iworked with a Ford 4000 and 5000 Preforce fwd, and unto a Ploughmaster 95, a Roadless 115 and a County 1164 with which he used a MK1 Kidd Double Chop Forage Harvester. As the years past and the business grew Alfred worked with Ford 4600s, 6600s, 7600s, 6610s, 7610s, 7710s, 7810s, 8210s, TW15s, TW25s and TW30s. In the mid-seventies, he branched into County Council work – with site clearing etc. – and that aspect of the business just grew from there.”
The range of services provided now covers everything from contracting to septic tank desludging to sewerage work and road works. “We’ve been working for Donegal County Council since 1976 and also work for various companies, farmers, businesses and do a lot of private jobs. We’ve worked for the OPW and Irish Water and would be well known outside Donegal through our membership of PAC (Professional Agricultural Contractors). We don’t turn down any job. We worked for the ESB and for Eircom for ten years as well and have a very diverse range of customers across the board.
“We started working for Donegal County Council when the good summer came in ‘76 and have been with them ever since. We got a lot of work with them in the early ‘80s when they built a lot of bypasses and we’d enjoy a good working relationship with them.”
Between tractors, diggers and other pieces of machinery, John estimates that Alfred J Vance & Sons has a fleet of in excess of 50 machines at its disposal. Alfred & Sons currently operate 40 tractors, all New Holland. The founder of the business has always preferred to operate Ford/New Holland and has a good mix of models and sizes in the fleet, including 5640s, 6640s, 7740s, 7840s, TS110s, TS115s, 8360s and 6020s, 100As and TM150s, 155s and 175s.
Having an excellent New Holland dealer in the area is a major help! “Cowan Tractors in Mannorcunningham are a very good dealership,” John confirms. “We have been with them for over 20 years and they provide great products with a very good back-up service. You can’t go wrong.”
On the agri contracting front, the range of services provided to farmers across County Donegal includes – but is by no means limited to – ploughing, lime spreading, mowing, baling, silage cutting, slurry and manure spreading and hedge cutting.
In terms of the catchment area serviced, John notes: “For the County Council, we cover all of Donegal so you could go 80 miles in any direction. For the agricultural work, you could go 40 or 50 miles. Wherever the work is, you will go. We are only five miles from the Derry border and we also spread a lot of lime in Northern Ireland.”
When it comes to fleet maintenance, repairs and servicing, the Vances do a lot of the work themselves “under the stars”, while Cowan Tractors is also on hand to handle the bigger jobs.
Gainful employment is provided to eight full-time staff as well as four casual workers – not to mention the indirect employment generated. “The County Council would usually have at least 20 of our tractors at any given time and these are fuelled and manned by their own drivers.”
Alfred & Sons oversee as fresh a fleet as possible, with all machinery maintained in good working order. “We’d have two-wheel drives going back as far as ’93-reg but generally the tractors would be 2000-reg up. It’s not practical to be going out spending money on brand-new tractors in the current climate. Things have tightened up and people are trying to cut down on costs. A high-quality used tractor makes much more sense.
“We have 10DL and 11DL tractors and we’d also have 12DL and 11DL rubber tyre diggers. But the age of the tractor genuinely isn’t an issue once it is maintained properly. A five-year-old tractor will perform every bit as well as a one-year-old one.”
John has been involved in agricultural contracting / plant hire all his working life. “I’m 44 now and I left school at 14 and started cutting silage and spreading lime,” he recalls. “I’m here 30 years now and this is my life. There’s nothing else I’d rather do. Likewise, my younger brother Alan, who is 37 now, has been part of the business since he was 13. I suppose we are born into it and this is what we live for. Alfred himself is still very much a part of the business. He’s still the boss around here and he’s just gone out in the pick-up with a set of wrenches as we speak…”
Twenty-fourteen has been a decent year for the business, all things considered. “The Council work was a little quieter due to increased competition and price cuts, but we enjoyed a good year at the lime in the Spring time and the silage later in the year. We spread over 10,000 tonnes of lime last year and have done over 6,000 so far this year.
“But it’s hard to get the money in. There’s no problem getting the work but it’s becoming harder by the year to get money in. They’re all the best of men but sometimes some of them just don’t seem to have the money, which places strain on us because we have to pay for machinery and fuel and we have to pay our men too.”
Customer loyalty remains strong in the agricultural sector. “We have cut silage and spread lime for some customers for up to 45 years,” John reveals. “Some customers come and go but the majority of them are loyal and we’d be working for the sons and daughters now of farmers that we worked for back in the 1970s.”
Looking to the future, the plan is to keep the shoulder to the wheel and continue providing an exceptional service. “We’ll keep doing what we’re doing,” John concludes. “We’ll keep the fleet as fresh as we can, update things when we need to, and continue to provide a top quality service. That’s what we’re known for and that’s why we’ve been around for so long.
“We have always strived to provide the best possible service to the very best of our ability. We also provide a very prompt service and that has become increasingly important in agricultural contracting. Years ago, people might have given you a week’s notice whereas now they want the job done straight away. We do everything we can to accommodate them and, thankfully, it works out most times. We have six lime spreaders at our disposal and we understand that the modern farmer wants the job done as soon as possible. Nine times out of ten, that’s what he gets.”
Alfred J Vance & Sons,
Plant Hire & Agricultural Contractor,
Tel: 074 9140103
Mobile: 087 2628258 / 086 8331088
Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 2 No 5, October 2014