The task of loading lorries with feedstock for an AD plant falls squarely at the feet of two industrial high-reach handlers for one Hampshire grower.

For Apsley Farms, the challenges of growing enough maize and rye to keep its 6.5mW AD plant producing energy is one that sees the farm growing crops within a 30-mile radius of its base at the 404ha Faulkners Down House Farm, near Andover, Hants.

It needs some big handling capacity as the plant consumes around 110,000 tonnes of feedstock each year for power generation, which is extracted from around 4500 acres of maize and 4500 acres of rye. Most of the feedstock is clamped using temporary storage that can be sited on field headlands close to where the crops are harvested.

This gives the flexibility to haul feedstock back to Apsley Farms as required, to keep its clamps topped up, as its Edward du Val explained: “We use AgBags to clamp forage where we harvest, to simplify logistics and storage. This lets us put around 3500 tonnes into bags in a 12-hour shift, using two foragers and just six tractors and trailers.”

This short-haul approach keeps tractors and trailers off local roads, reducing the impact on the local community, and affords the flexibility to haul crop back to base using walking-floor articulated lorries, only when it’s needed.

“When we started to look into ways of bringing crop back to the plant, lorries quickly became the only viable solution,” said Ed. “With 27-tonne payloads, we could move a lot of material quickly and economically – you just wouldn’t entertain doing this with tractors and trailers.”

At peak times, the farm’s four walking-floor articulated lorries move 16-20 loads/day. And to make the most of transport efficiency, these lorries rarely run empty – each trip to collect forage sees a load of solid digestate taken out to the farm ready for spreading.

“All we had to do was work out an efficient process for loading the lorries,” he added. The farm started to load its lorries using a telehandler, and with a 21-tonne excavator on the farm, it too was put to use, sitting on top of an AgBag to see how suitable it could be for loading lorries.

“Everything we tried was slow, cumbersome and unnecessarily complicated,” he said. “There was too much driving about to load a lorry and that created ruts and mess. So I took to the internet and sought inspiration from how other markets approached materials handling and I really liked the German market’s approach to using wheeled excavators.

“They tow trailers to and from job sites, and it got me thinking about how we could work smarter.” It was a process that eventually led him to construction machinery firm Liebherr, who had a pair of Liebherr LH30M materials handlers in its yard, that had recently come back off hire. These high-reach machines are more often seen in scrap yards, waste transfer sites and recycling centres than they are on farm, but the productivity potential appealed to Ed.

“These are like wheeled excavators on steroids,” he said. “They use a long-reach boom for lifting, rather than digging, and with an elevating cab to create a better view of the work area, I could see how beneficial these could be for loading lorries.”

A deal was done and the two-year old, low-houred machines arrived at Apsley Farms three years ago. The standard industrial twin-wheels were replaced by ag-spec' flotation tyres, and the end of the lifting arm was equipped with a five cubic metre capacity clam-shell bucket.

Now with more than 4000 hours on their clocks, Ed is struggling to see a better way of handling forage into bulk transport. “The performance is superb – we can load 27 tonnes of maize in just seven minutes. That’s faster than most farms can load a grain lorry. Perhaps the only drawback is having to move them using a low-loader.”

The LH30M boasts a 14m reach, and with a hydraulically elevating cab, is able to put the operator’s line anywhere up to a working height of 5.4m, which simplifies loading of high-sided vehicles.

It has also made them think about AgBag locations, as there’s enough reach to re-handle silage from two bags side-by-side. "We can also reach over a hedge too, as long as there’s a track or road on the other side for lorry access – you couldn’t do that with a telehandler or wheeled loader,” he added.

View from the cab

Operator Andy Spreadbury has plenty of praise for the LH30M materials handler. “It was a little scary at first, but you soon get used to the high seating position, which makes loading lorries easy,” he said.

“There’s plenty of power and the hydraulics are smooth and powerful too,” he says. “The engine only runs at 1700rpm, so it’s quite a calm environment.”

Having spent time on excavators in the past, Mr Spreadbury says the joystick controls were easy enough to grasp. “Using a clam shell bucket – and on a 360-degree rotating headstock – is just different to using a bucket,” he said. “Though you can be quite precise with the controls.”

The handler also has a built-in dynamic weighing system, which lets him total the payload as the clam shell swings over the walking floor trailers. “The lorries have on-board weighing too, but it gives me an idea when handling wetter or dense forage crops,” he added. “I need around 25-26 buckets of rye to fill a lorry, but only 16-17 of maize.”

Liebherr data

Model: LH30 M Industry

Operating weight: 26-32 tonnes

Engine: 7-litre, four-cylinder Liebherr D934

Power: 190hp at 1700rpm

Front end: 7.8m boom, 6m stick

Maximum lift height: 13m

Maximum reach: 14m