7 February 1997

BIG PLOUGHS IN FAMILY

When it comes to big ploughs, Gregoire-Besson certainly appears to have carved out a niche for itself. Andy Collings reports from its French manufacturing headquarters at Montigne-Sur-Moine

Based 25 miles to the south-east of Nantes in western France, Gregoire-Bessons Montigne-Sur-Moine plough making site is now in to its ninth decade.

Like the wine growers in the nearby Loire valley, the company appreciates that maturity often results in fine products.

It was at the turn of the century that the grandfather of current managing director, Patrick Besson, started his blacksmith business, providing a repair and build service for local farmers.

But aspirations went farther than those of a normal smithy when in 1920 a single-furrow, reversible plough, designed to be drawn by horses, was built.

Successful sales led to the creation of a major plough manufacturing business, one which now produces 2500 a year and has a 180m francs (£20m) annual turnover.

But while ploughs remain the core business, it was realised, in the early years at least, that seasonal demand for ploughs left times of the year when work-loads were low. Hence the decision to make potato and vegetable planters.

Planters and discs

More recently, plough manufacture has become an all-year-round operation, but construction of the planters still continues, with such implements generating about 5% of the companys turnover.

Gregoire-Besson has also moved into disc harrow construction after the purchase of a factory at Bergueneuse 62 miles east of Calais. The range includes both tractor-mounted and trailed versions, with tandem and offset models available.

Disc harrow sales now account for about 10% of the companys turnover.

With ploughs remaining the companys most important commodity, the Montigne-Sur-Moine plant now employs 125 full-time staff. Much of the metal fabrication is performed in-house but nearby sub-contractors are employed to produce specialised castings and mouldboards.

Each plough is built entirely to order, which, bearing in mind the number of different permutations in terms of bodies, mouldboards, shares, etc, that can be specified, would appear to be a sensible route.

Patrick Besson would be the first to admit that space is at a premium in the factory, despite the addition of several new buildings as the business has grown.

"It has almost come to the point where we need to start an entirely new manufacturing site," he says. "There are times when we are at peak production when there is hardly room to move."

And who could disagree? Final plough assembly takes place down the side of a building, the middle of which is used for parts storage and the other side as the paint shop.

Ploughs are not the most manoeuvrable pieces of kit at the best of time and one could only be impressed by the handling agility of the Besson staff as they swung, turned and twisted heavy metal with almost nonchalant ease. And not one was limping.

For Gregoire-Besson, like many other plough makers, design has changed radically over recent years. Items such as variable width furrow and mechanical or hydraulically controlled break-back of plough bodies are now incorporated as a matter of course on most of its models.

But it is in the large semi-mounted department which Gregoire Besson shines. A range of articulated ploughs – up to 14-furrow models are available – have provided the company with a reputation envied by many. On the home, French, market, for example, Gregoire-Besson leads the pack taking a 35% share of semi-mounted sales.

"We always try to design our ploughs with the operator in mind," says Mr Besson. "A plough which is easy to operate will always produce more work in a day than one which is clumsy and difficult to use."

Mr Bessons design team is also in contact with tractor manufacturers: "There is no use building a plough for which there isnt a tractor capable of using it in terms of power, hydraulic and electronic capabilities."

One of the latest semi-mounted designs comes in the form of the SP HR 95 (on land) and the SP ER 95 (in furrow) model. An articulated build, available in 7-12 furrows, it is equipped with a lift, turn and lower sequencing system.

Activating a switch on arrival at the headland first lifts the hydraulic linkage followed shortly by the ploughs wheels and lastly the rear plough section, all of which is designed to leave a reasonably level headland pull-out line.

Next, the ploughs offset is closed and the bodies are rotated into the upright position. As the tractor turns, the operator can steer the ploughs wheels to create a tighter turn.

Once in line with the entry, the bodies are fully rotated, the offset pushed out, the front is lowered, the wheels lowered and the rear section lowered into work.

It is interesting to note that the rams which raise and lower the rear plough section are set in a float position once the plough is in work to allow land contours to be followed.

For the UK, Mr Besson reports that sales are proceeding well, even though Gregoire-besson (UK) was only established in 1991. Based at Carlby, Lincs, and under the direction of general manager, Bill Immink, the company has expanded to employ seven people and gain a UK market share of between 7 and 10%.

So, what for the future? "We must stay flexible," explains Mr Besson. "If the plough market collapses in favour of minimal tillage techniques, we must be ready to provide the market with what it requires," he concludes.n

Innovation for the latest plough design. Note the independently raised and lowered rear section which helps to produce a more even headland line.Patrick Besson (inset right), the current managing director of Gregoire-Besson is the founders grandson.

In-cab box for the SP HR 95 plough controls the ploughs lift, turn and lower sequences.

Cramped for space on the final assembly line, but the ploughs keep rolling out the door at a rate of between 10 and 15/day.