Making a dividend to pay to maintain high standards of kit, is the way forward for JA Gilston Agricultural Contractors, based in Co Durham, who feature in our Contractor’s Yard series.

Founded by John Alastair Gilston, in 1981, at the age of 18 years old, it has been a lifetime commitment in making it the success it is today. Now run alongside his son, James and with two full-time employees, as well as a secretary, who works one day a week, and and engineer working flexible hours.

Although now trying to specialise specifically into forage harvesting, there are still a number of services the team have on offer, which run alongside a variety of council-run contracts for grass and winter maintenance.

Their contracting business is run parallel with their farming enterprise, in which they run 450 breeding ewes and a 60-cow suckler herd, which they hope to build on. On top of that, they buy in 600 store lambs annually to fatten and sell the following year.

A little bit of background?

"I was brought up on the family farm, and wanted to go out on my own, so I purchased my own sheep clipping unit and with the money I made off that I managed to secure my first tractor and Econ hedge cutter," said John.

"It was super busy to begin with and I soon landed myself a council contract which, in time, has found me more work. We now have a few jobs for winter maintenance and a tractor pulling a gritter – and we still have the same contracts at the moment after all these years.

"A few years later, in 1988, I purchased a self-propelled rape swather, which was a big investment at the time. But, in the first year it took off and I managed to cover 700 acres in Northumberland and 700 acres in Co Durham. I used to sleep in my caravan and just keep going for two weeks until the work was done.

"From there on I have continued to just keep adding to the business as we can afford it and ensuring the kit will pay its dividend to us," he added.

What areas do you cover?

Mainly Co Durham, but we will go out of the area if the job is worthwhile. We want to satisfy as many of our customers as we can, as well as expanding our customer base to its full potential."

What keeps you busiest throughout the year?

"We're trying to specialise in forage crops – grass, wholecrop and more recently maize – and through the winter we'll rely on our council routines as well as the farm.

"We've moved away from relying on just the summer jobs to make up for the whole year. It is vital that we are busy all year round to keep both our labour and machines busy."

How often do you change your tractors?

"We don’t tend to have a set time period, we just need to ensure we have the work to account for the price. The team have more recently got into buying good secondhand vehicles to cut costs, yet still get the same job done."

What dealerships are you using?

"We tend to go for the machinery we need, as opposed to relying on the same dealership as we always want to make sure we are getting the most out of our investment.

"However, using the local dealerships – Ripon Farm Services, Lloyds, Rickerby, JG Paxton and Sons – that we do all provide an excellent service when is required, otherwise we wouldn’t return. You have to be getting the most for your money."

Best and worst bits about contracting?

"When the full silage team is out and everything is going right with no breakdowns … that is the dream. Leaving a place and customers commenting on the excellent service is what we like to hear.

"However, when the weather is not playing ball, the job is never so easy. That leads to everyone being on our case for the one or two sunny days with a two-week rain forecast.

How do you cope with customers when the weather hits at peak time?

“... Pass the headache to James, I might say things I regret,” joked John, adding some customers are understanding but not all, unfortunately.

James added: “You just have to get on with the job and have to sort something out. It is always surprising how things work out in the end, we're getting expert at shuffling work around and we usually do succeed.”

What advice would you give to a new contractor?

“Go and get a job with someone else,” joked John.

James added: “Stick to what you know best, don’t try and jump ships when you don’t have the experience or knowledge.”

Is there a lot of demand for local contracting?

"There's always going to be a need for contractors. A farm will struggle to justify a full silage team for themselves – not only do you need the kit, but you need to have the men to operate it," said John.

"Finding reliable and able staff to run modern kit isn’t easy – there are not many able folk out there with the expertise behind the new technology.

How important are your staff to your business?

"That's easy: No staff, no business."

Interests outwith contracting?

Drinking beer for James, whilst John has collected 10 vintage tractors over the years!

What struggles come with contracting?

"You have a lot of overheads before you even begin the job and working out the costs to ensure a job is viable can be a struggle," added John.

"The on-going price increase of machinery is always going to be a struggle for any contractor, we have to ensure we have enough work for a piece of kit to justify the money," said James.

"We've always got to plan ahead to make sure it is worthwhile."

What changes have you witnessed over the years?

"We gave up silage many years ago because we didn’t cover enough acres to make it payable, yet we have now built our business around it," pointed out John.

"When we took on the farm 13 years ago, we went back into silage work to keep our own costs down as well as getting additional work to make it pay.

"At that time we just bought a secondhand New Holland forager and three years ago we made the biggest investment our business had ever made by purchasing a Claas Jaguar 860 self-propelled forage harvester."

How are you diversifying?

"We've got to be versatile or we wouldn’t survive and have to find work to keep us busy all year – we can’t just concentrate on the summer months."

John said he wanted to try and ease off the business a bit, and start to slow things down, however James wants to push on and expand. It's a familiar family challenge.

“I want to give him the support and encouragement to do what he wants, as it is a great career for anyone! His dedication to work and love for the farm, shows that there is no reason for him not to succeed,” said John.

James added: “We want to expand our silage team further, as well as venturing into more slurry work. The farm is a great part of the contracting business, as it keeps us busy on wet days ... we can always find jobs to do there and it occasionally provides an additional income.”

Has the pandemic had any impact?

"It has been a funny strange old time and although we are both very thankful for our health, we have been lucky that the virus has not affected our business. The wheels have to keep turning to keep the industry going," said John.

"But, we would prefer life just went back to some sort of ‘normality’ now."

What are you missing most under the current lockdown?

"The pub! Not getting out to socialise and speak to everyone is the worst, there is just no craic anymore," they both agreed.

The future of the industry?

"We are heading into very uncertain times, there is never anything certain in life and that makes it difficult to plan ahead," said John.

"We would like to think there will always be a need for farmers as we feed the nation at the end of the day. It will be an extremely sad day if the government and consumers choose imported produce over their own fresh UK products.

"But, as long as there are farms, there will be contractors, and we have to make sure of that…"


Harvesters: Claas Jaguar 860 forager; John Deere 2058 combine; New Holland TX62 combine; and two Shelbourne Reynolds rape swathers. Plus Quickcut GO wholecrop header and Claas RU600 maize header.

Tractors: John Deere 6215R; three John Deere 6920s; John Deere 6420; Ford 8240; and a Ford 7840.

Sprayer: Multidrive 6185 sprayer

Handlers: JCB 414s loading shovel; JCB 536-60 telehandler; JCB 3CX digger

Grass implements: Pottinger Novacat 3007T mower; Lely Hibiscus 915D rake; two Bailey 15-tonne trailers; two Marshall 12-tonne trailers; Albutt 10-foot push-off buckrake; Massey Ferguson 185 square baler

Drills: Vaderstad rapid 300s; Kuhn/Accord combination drill; Mashio Gaspardo six-row maize drill

Ploughs/cultivators: Two Kverneland EG85 five-furrow ploughs; Simba Cultipress; Kuhn 3.5m power harrow; Dowdswell 3.5m power harrow; and Vaderstad Rollex 650 shatter board roller.