AGRICULTURAL contractor, Colin Murdoch, has swapped his winter downtime for non-stop snowtime by leasing his fleet of four CLAAS advanced technology tractors to an award-winning automotive testing facility in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
The Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG) allows vehicle, tyre and component manufacturers to continue their winter evaluation programs during the European summer, slashing years from new product development timelines.
Resembling something from a James Bond movie, the privately-owned $50 million complex includes an array of test tracks, flats, gradients, circles and supporting infrastructure.
From June to September, test crews from around the world converge on the site to test prototype vehicles and components under harsh winter conditions far away from the eyes of the media – and each other. The relatively short season, combined with the high costs of transporting vehicles, equipment and staff to New Zealand, means test crews often work around the clock. In turn, more than 80 SHPG staff work a 24/7 roster to make sure the snow and ice is groomed to strict specifications.
SHPG Operations Manager, Kerry Poots, who has more than 20 years’ snowfield experience, has played a key role in the introduction of specialist snow grooming equipment from North America and Europe over the past four years. These include two Fliegl ASW 160 ‘push off’ wagons from Germany, two Stark snow blowers from Finland and two Dubie track groomers from the USA.
Colin Murdoch says his involvement came about by chance. “Kerry was sure that tractors and specialist equipment would do a better job than the grader and roller they were using at the time, and I happened to know one of the night supervisors,” he says. “We did 300 engine hours in 2013, 700 the next, 1400 last year and I think we’ll do about 2000 hours this winter.”
Colin’s tractors are serviced at CLAAS Harvest Centre in Wanaka each June before being driven up to the proving grounds, a 90-minute trek that climbs from an altitude of 300 metres to 1500 m. Once there, the tractors’ agricultural tyres are replaced with imported snow tyres. “The tyres make a big difference,” Colin says. “We can go anywhere and operate safely at any speed. We’re operating three times faster and twice as wide as the graders.”
Manufactured snow is loaded into two Fliegl ASW 160 ‘push off’ wagons, each towed by a 264 hp CLAAS AXION 850 tractor. Normally used to transport silage or compost, the twin-axle trailers are capable of holding about 22 cubic metres of snow weighing up to 16 tonnes. During unloading, a forward-mounted hydraulic ram pushes the snow through twin hydraulic spreaders, which evenly shred and disperse the icy load up to 22 metres.
Two 184 hp CLAAS ARION 640 tractors, fitted with Stark snow ploughs on the front and Dubie track groomers on the back, are used to prepare the tracks to exacting international standards. The cabin’s heater, wipers and lighting systems maintain high levels of comfort, visibility and safety, despite the sub-zero operating conditions. During the rare moments of downtime, electric engine block warmers are used to make sure the tractors are ready for action at any time.
At the end of the season, the tractors are driven back to Wanaka in time for the silage season. The winter program has enabled Murdoch Ag Services to significantly increase its machinery pool, as well as providing welcome employment opportunities for some of its staff. “There’s no way I could justify having four tractors if they are going to sit in the shed for nine months of the year,” Colin says. “We employ about 10 casuals during the silage season but I’d like to get this up to four full-time staff with casuals as required. “The silage season kicks off in the last week in October and is pretty much finished by mid-January, while the balage season finishes in April. The winter work provides four of my drivers with another 10 weeks’ work between June and September. It’s pretty full-on though – it goes 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 10 weeks straight. Some of the younger guys stay up there but I live in town, so for me it’s a 4 am start and I’m not home till 6 pm.”
Murdoch Ag Services operates a fleet of high performance CLAAS fodder harvesting technology, a JAGUAR 850, two DISCO triple mower-conditioner combinations, a LINER 3100 and a VARIANT 385 round baler. Most of Colin’s machinery was supplied by CLAAS Harvest Centre in Wanaka, which represents CLAAS, AMAZONE, JCB, Fliegl, Grégoire Besson, Trioliet and other leading farm machinery brands.
Since opening in 2013, the business has quickly grown to six full-time staff, including Sales Representative, Lex Jocelyn, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the farm machinery industry. “I worked as a sales representative with CLAAS Harvest Centre in Otago for about 10 years before I left to do other things,” Lex says. “Steve Scoles [Dealer Principal of CLAAS Harvest Centre Otago] asked me to come back when he opened the Wanaka branch. “The new branch has been very successful and I really enjoy it.”