MAKING MUNDANE SPECIAL…
Hands-on practicality. That is the crucial design element that turns an apparently
hum-drum item of livestock equipment into a best-seller. Peter Hill profiles two
British manufacturers with a flair for innovation and practical design
* Ritchey Tagg
An ear tag is an ear tag, right? Not as far as the team at Ritchey Tagg is concerned.
"Consider the design and materials used for our Dalesman cattle and sheep tags," says John Robinson, UK sales manager. "They combine to produce a long-lasting tag that is strong but flexible, easy to read, easy to apply and will stay in the ear. It may look simple, but it is certainly among our most innovative and practical products."
Numeric tagging for the national cattle database, and the requirement to register the birth origin of all sheep from the beginning of next year, has been a mixed blessing for tag manufacturers. They have brought unprecedented demand for tags but also a need for significant investment in registration and production facilities. In the case of the cattle database, it also brought some frantic activity to meet a tight deadline.
"Although we were geared up for the cattle scheme to some extent, the sheer volume of tags required at short notice when the scheme was eventually finalised meant, literally, working around the clock at times," says John Robinson. "But we learned a lot, and were much better prepared for the sheep identification scheme."
In all, more than £250,000 has been invested at Ritchey Taggs Yorkshire Dales base at Masham near Ripon, in staff as well as state-of-the-art tag manufacturing and marking machinery.
"Quality staff and good equipment go hand-in-hand," says Mr Robinson. "We needed better computer systems, more injection moulding and the latest laser marking equipment to produce the large number of tags the industry requires. But also competent staff to ensure all stages of the production and dispatch process work effectively."
Specialist teams have been formed to look after each stage, from registration of cattle and sheep flock numbers to tag manufacture, printing and dispatch.
"Registration and printing needs to be accurate to avoid sending out incorrect tags, which wastes both time and money," he adds. "But we also need capacity and production efficiency to meet orders that often come in at short notice."
Although tag sales account for a significant proportion of the privately-owned companys turn-over, Ritchey Tagg is also active in the field of livestock husbandry equipment, all of which is related to the management of stock.
Here, again, innovation and practicality are the watch-words. After all, a marking paint or stick that does its job really well is just as important to a shepherd as the most sophisticated electronic weighing equipment.
"In this sector, we keep a look out for successful products wherever they are produced, as well as developing our own," says John Robinson. "The lamb resuscitator is a good case in point; we found it in New Zealand and its become a welcome addition to our range here, though I still think people dont appreciate how good it is."
Delivering a measured quantity of air to inflate the lungs of a lamb, kid, calf or foal, it is surely a more agreeable way of kick-starting a new youngster after a difficult delivery than mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a cold, wet night!
Cattle crushes that are safe and easy to use; gates that swing back and forth thousands of times with little sign of wear and tear; feed rings that withstand the urgent attentions of a horde of hungry cattle.
These are just some of the design and manufacturing criteria for a broad range of livestock handling, containment and feeding products made by one of the biggest companies in UK agricultural engineering.
"Our products are in use every day by livestock farmers up and down the country," says Jack Jackson, sales & marketing manager at Industrial & Agricultural Engineers. "They may be relatively simple products but they still have to work well, withstand rough treatment and meet the farmers expectations."
The business has grown from modest beginnings to an operation that racks up annual sales of £17.5m, makes 1500 crushes, a similar number of sheep hay racks, and 40,000 cubicle divisions a year and, during the peak autumn production period, turns out 2500 gates a week.
Progressive design, relentless new and improved product development, and efficient distribution appear to be hallmarks of the business. For the latter, IAE runs a fleet of seven articulated trucks and four smaller rigids, mainly for delivering finished products to 450 dealers nationwide, but also to move components between the companys four production facilities.
For product development, the company maintains a dedicated R&D team and has use of the chairmans farm to check that design theory stands up in practice. Cattle crushes, which IAE has produced for the past 15 years, pose the greatest challenge.
"We have to cater for different sizes of cattle, different handling tasks, and different preferences on the part of users," says Mr Jackson.
IAEs variable width crush provides a neat solution to handling cattle of widely differing age and size, while the requirement for safe belly clipping access has most recently kept the design team active. Designing crushes so that different types of yoke can be manufactured on different crush bodies helps accommodate the accessibility demands of different tasks and user preferences.
As a business, the company is having to face up to a market that is holding up remarkably well in terms of volume, given the straightened times that most livestock farmers are facing at present, but at the expense of margins.
Cost cutting and plugging away at export markets are among the solutions.
"Export sales, at around 4% of the total, are not vast but we are making some progress with increasing sales to France and Germany, and steady business with Norway – which is our biggest overseas customer," says Jack Jackson.
Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Belgium and Holland are also among the companys export destinations, with opportunities emerging in Poland and the CIS states. Diversification into industrial fencing some time ago is now being followed by a move into the equestrian sector, producing steel framed stable partitions.
Cost cutting in the long term will result from an ambitious re-structuring plan which should see the business consolidate its four facilities at Leek, Cheadle and Milton on to an 8ha (20 acre) brownfield site at Stoke-on-Trent.
"At present, we have to move some components from one plant to another for final assembly, and we have 50 artic trailer loads a week shipped out for galvanising," explains Mr Jackson. "Consolidating all operations on one site, including our own galvanising plant, will improve efficiency enormously." *
Ritchey Breath of Life resuscitator has been developed from the New Zealand original to cater for different animals. Adding a suction mask removes mucus from airways before pumping oxygen into the lungs.
Founded in 1971; privately owned.
Employs 65 staff.
Produces identification tags for livestock and industrial uses; stock marking paints, sprays and sticks; electronic weighing systems; liquid feeders; lubricants and disinfectants; calving, lambing and farrowing aids, dressing and grooming, footcare, vaccinating and drenching equipment and supplies.