Yorkshire: a mecca for machinery makers

Is there something in the waters? Or maybe it’s just coincidence that East Yorkshire has become a hotbed of cultivation equipment manufacturing that increasingly involves farm-based businesses. Peter Hill reports.

It’s easy to see how these things can start. A farmer who’s a bit handy with a welding torch builds his own subsoiler or cultivator or set of rolls; a neighbour is impressed, wants one as well and the seed of a manufacturing business germinates.

Perhaps it’s the success of businesses like Sumo, that have grown from modest beginnings to become part of the agricultural implement establishment, that gives others the confidence that they can also make a go of it.

One thing is for sure, though. Success rarely comes overnight, it doesn’t come without acquiring new skills, and keeping the job growing beyond the afterglow of the first half dozen sales requires hard work and tenacity.

 TerraTech cultivator
 Challenger Agri cultivator

That’s something Tom Croft is discovering as Challenger Agri seeks to attract new business by introducing new products beyond the founding subsoiler range.

“Marketing and sales is hard work; it’s one thing having people coming to you wanting an implement but quite another going out to sell them in a competitive market,” he declares. “That’s why we’re appointing dealers; they have local contacts and know their customers.”

Setting up an engineering business came about because there was not enough work on the 200ha (500 acre) all-arable family farm at Ottringham, 13 miles east of Hull, for Tom as well as his brother and father.

“So I trained as an agricultural service engineer at Bishop Burton college and started doing machinery repairs before setting up a small engineering business 12 years ago,” Tom Croft explains. “We started making simple things like gates and interior framework for portable accommodation and office cabins and then got into vehicle conversion work.”

Fitting winches, carrying frames and protective steel plate to vehicles like the Land Rover Defender and Mercedes-Benz Unimog operated by utility and renewable energy companies has resulted in other projects, like making overhead bale handling systems for biomass energy plants.

That aspect of the business is operated as TJC Engineering Services, while the implement side is Challenger Agri – as good a name as any for implements built to work behind high horsepower tractors.

“Making implements came about almost five years ago when I was asked to fabricate a mounted heavy-duty subsoiler,” he explains. “We didn’t do anything revolutionary, it’s a standard five-leg delta layout with a packer; but we made it as strong and as user-friendly as possible.”

More orders followed after the company made its debut at the 2010 LAMMA show and the Virion 5.0 is still the company’s best-seller, riding on the popularity of broadcasting oilseed rape while loosening soil at depth.

Most of subsoilers go out with a small broadcaster on the back and one unit had an array of three units – two spinners, one for seed, one for slug pellets, and a box distributor for granular fertiliser.

The subsoiler range has expanded in the intervening years to include a hydraulic leg reset option, a three-leg mounted version, a fully-trailed subsoiler design and a semi-trailed set-up that avoids stress on the three-point linkage of tracklayers.

At last year’s LAMMA show, the first move beyond subsoilers was revealed in the shape of the Phoenix cultivator with its familiar layout of deep soil loosening legs, two rows of stubble cultivating discs and a large diameter packer.

“As on the subsoilers, the packer on the Phoenix has our award-winning De-Trash scraper bar, which can be opened in minutes to clear away any build-up of trash and soil,” notes Tom Croft. “We’ve also signed up to the CESAR Datatag registration scheme, so every Challenger Agri implement is protected by the theft deterrence system as standard.”

The worst thing about running an engineering business, he adds, is having to be well organised, particularly with respect to suppliers because of the often long lead times involved.

And the best? “I get a lot of satisfaction from designing and building the implements,” says Tom Croft. “And I get a real buzz and sense of achievement when I drive around the countryside and see my equipment working.”

 Challenger Agri map
 TerraTech cultivator

TerraTech founder Chris Byass builds a range of cultivation implements on his 263ha (650 acre) family farm 13 miles to the north-west of Hull.

“We have a mixed farm growing arable crops and producing beef, and I still help out when possible – but more of my time is taken up with the engineering side of things,” he says. “My interest in engineering comes from my grandfather and after school I studied for a degree in the subject at Harper Adams before returning to the farm for six months.”

An opportunity to join the design team at Farm-Force Engineering set his career in motion as the business set about expanding its product range to boost sales.

“It was very much hands-on work; I was involved in a lot of projects,” says Chris Byass. “But then the business went through a difficult period and I took up a design post at Sumo before Farm-Force was liquidated.”

As a member of the product development team, he was at the heart of Sumo’s plans to expand a product range that was finding increasing acceptance at home and abroad.

“I decided to leave and set-up TerraTech because I saw an opportunity for a more bespoke approach, producing a standard implement but then allowing customers to change things like packers according to whatever they feel best suits their land,” he explains. “It’s worked out pretty well so far; we probably do 50:50 standard and bespoke implements.”

This year’s LAMMA show will be TerraTech’s third appearance with a growing product range that started out with front-mounted and trailed presses to suit both mintill and plough-based systems, and now includes subsoilers, Cambridge rolls and cultivators.

Among the best-sellers is one of the most recently introduced implements – the Multi-Cult one-pass cultivator with low-draft subsoiling legs preparing the way for two rows of surface cultivating discs and a packer.

“We built the first as a one-off order just a couple of years ago but it’s now one of our most popular designs,” says Chris Byass. “Like all our implements, we build them to work behind high horsepower tractors but also make them pleasing to the eye.”

Also doing well are the Combi-Harrow seedbed cultivator – packer, rigid tines, spring tines, levelling board and crumbler – and the Roll-On folding roller with paddle type levelling tines. New developments, which are helping to diversify the product range, include a grab and shears combination to mount on an excavator for safely controlled tree felling.

Designing new machines apart, Chris Byass says the best part of running the business is visiting a customer, seeing one of his machines at work and hearing that the customer is pleased with the job it’s doing.

“That’s very rewarding,” he comments. “But it’s very frustrating when orders don’t come early enough and we have to turn them down.

“We don’t build machines for stock because of our bespoke approach to the finished specification,” he emphasises. “And we can’t build a cultivator with two or three weeks’ notice when we’re flat out already.”

 TerraTech map
 Cultivating Solutions cultivator

It takes just a half hour drive north to Driffield where arable farmer Richard Scholes has set up his new agricultural machinery business.

The venture started three years ago realises an ambition to turn ideas dreamt up when involved in the 600ha (1480 acre) family-owned arable farming business into commercial products.

“Bespoke items of machinery were often designed and created for the farming business but they were only ever one offs,” he says. “Then I had the opportunity to start a new machinery manufacturing business from scratch with the aim of inventing, designing and manufacturing machinery that currently does not exist.”

Having ideas is one thing; turning them into commercially viable products is another and with no manufacturing resources, contracting out the fabrication work was explored first.

“It quickly became obvious that this was not going to be suitable in terms of cost, practicality, control of quality and finish, and response times,” says Richard Scholes. “Consequently, I set about building a small team of employees possessing the right skills to control the entire production process from start to finish.”

The company started modestly with just one employee but has quickly grown to a team of 10 that can turn ideas quickly into 2D and 3D computer aided design (CAD) concepts, build the final implement and get it into the field. Some specialist parts – such as precision engineered items – are sub-contracted out to professional businesses before being fabricated into the final implement at the company’s factory near Driffield.

Most members of the team have a background in practical farming as well as agricultural machinery manufacture, which helps them keep in touch with what’s needed in crop production and the aim is to bring to market things that can make a real difference to a process, in terms of saving time, doing the job better and increasing profit.

The RapidLift toolbar launched the business; it fits on to cultivator drills – notably the Väderstad Rapid – to provide deep soil loosening with little surface disturbance ahead of the regular tilling and sowing discs.

The main application was initially for one-pass sowing of oilseed rape as an arguably more precise and effective alternative to broadcasting. But it also offers a one-pass system for cereal crop establishment and because the toolbar is carried on a replacement drawbar, the system is easily installed on existing drills.

RapidStart is complementary in that it places liquid fertiliser while sowing but the Titan PowerDrive launched at last year’s LAMMA is a more radical idea – even if the cultivator it is applied to is not.

The Titan is a trailed tine, disc and packer combination with the novel option of a powered packer roller to help drive it through the soil.

“The hydraulic drive assist typically supplies the equivalent of up to 100hp – so you can run a wider cultivator than would otherwise be the case and increase productivity for a given size of tractor,” Richard Scholes points out. “Or you can downsize the tractor if you don’t need the power for other operations.”

This idea is typical of the innovation that he aims to incorporate into his machines, not only to bring customer benefits but also to differentiate the fledgling business from existing manufacturers.

“Simply making a copy of an existing machine is not what we’re about,” says Richard Scholes. “Bringing innovation into the field is what I enjoy most; it’s also what we do best.”

Spreading the word is the hardest part, he adds: “It isn’t easy to get the information across to potential customers when global manufacturers generally take centre stage and we have to balance expenditure on publicity and new product development.”

 Cultivating solutions map

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