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Brantford plant supported harvest brigade

This is the second instalment in our series on the history of Massey’s Ferguson’s combine assembly plant in Brantford, Ont., as part of the WP100 Series.

WESTERN PRODUCER — “The five years 1971-1975 saw unprecedented growth in the farm machinery industry. For Massey-Ferguson, demand in most markets exceeded production capacity in three of the five years.”

Those encouraging words were chosen for the first paragraph of Massey Ferguson’s 1975 annual report. The early 1970s were good to MF’s shareholders, and the Brantford combine plant was working flat out to meet demand for its combines. The 410 and 510 had catapulted MF to the front of the pack when it came to combine sales in North America.

But despite their success with the 10-series models, MF’s combine engineers weren’t sitting on their hands. By as early as 1967, work had started on yet another line of conventional combines that would replace the 410 and 510. The 410 saw its last year of production in 1972, and shortly before the last 410 was built, in 1971, MF brought a new combine to the market: the 760.

The 760 boasted a 60-inch cylinder, making it by far the largest combine MF had ever offered. It was powered by a Perkins 354 cubic inch engine, and its big 180-bushel grain tank meant longer periods between unloading spells.

The MF 760 introduced a series of five paddle elevators that replaced the feeder chain and moved grain from the table up to the cylinder, a unique option offered only on MF machines at that time. It helped even out the material before it entered the threshing cylinder, which improved efficiency and capacity.

Although the control arrangement inside the cab was similar to previous models, the cab itself offered a better working environment, with air conditioning available.

One reason the Brantford plant even came to exist was the Second World War. The shortage of equipment and labour to harvest grain across the North American plains during that conflict was a pressing problem, leading to the creation of a free trade agreement for farm machinery between Canada and the United States. With that free movement of equipment across the border, the Harvest Brigade was established, following threshing crews northward from Texas to Canada to harvest crops with Canadian-built Massey-Harris combines.

By the 1970s, MF was actively involved in supporting the custom harvesters, which by then had become a fixture in North American agriculture. But now MF wasn’t alone in supporting them. Most of the major manufacturers were making the annual migration north to support the many custom cutters using their machines.

“It really was a mobile service and support entity,” said Kerry English, an MF engineer that started working with the brigade in 1974. ”It started in Texas in the middle of May, in Wichita Falls.”

Why Wichita?

“It had an airport there, allowing the flying-in of people and parts,” he explains. After the harvest began, any parts required were flown in from the Dallas, Texas, parts distribution warehouse until the brigade had moved too far north. Then parts were accessed from the parts centre in Denver, Colorado, and flown to other airports nearer the brigade’s location.

The brigade came under MF’s product integrity department. Engineers from various sections participated on a rotating basis, spending two weeks on the road and then being relieved by others.

“It was labour intensive,” recalled English. After returning home exhausted from nearly non-stop activity, he remembered often feeling as if he didn’t want to ever go back, but that sentiment seemed to quickly fade.

“It gets in your blood,” he said. And engineers often looked forward to going back for another tour of duty.

Meeting the challenges of keeping a fleet of about 300 MF combines belonging to about 50 custom cutters working continuously created a sense of accomplishment for members of MF’s support staff, and providing this support to the custom operators was good for MF’s engineers.

“The brigade was an exceptionally good vehicle for monitoring the performance of new machines,” says English. “But it was hard work.”

English remembered it wasn’t unusual to work through all hours of the day on emergency repair operations. And when the weather was good, the combines were continuously working, only bad weather stopped them.

“I remember a cutter came to the trailer one particularly dry year, and they hadn’t had a day off in 43 days. They were hoping for some rain to give the crews a break,” he said.

And if the cutters didn’t get a break, neither did the MF engineers.

MF’s Brigade program was primarily geared toward new combines still in warranty. But the engineers helped whenever they could, even with older machines. Relying on existing dealers wouldn’t have been practical for most custom cutters.

“Few dealers in those areas were structured to have the support and parts to handle them,” said English.

Many smaller community dealers would have been overwhelmed by the demand for parts and service when a large group of cutters invaded the countryside around them.

“No dealer could afford to have that inventory for the two weeks the cutters were around,” said English. “The brigade route often planned stops in areas where dealer support was weak to help alleviate the problem.”

“Cutters used to say that if it hadn’t been for the harvest brigade, they would have used some other brand,” said English. So maintaining its presence on the brigade trail was critical to MF’s domination of combine sales.

Although other manufacturers had their own version of the harvest brigade, they failed to recognize its importance to sales as early as MF did.

At the start of each season, MF would publish a brochure outlining the route of the harvest brigade service group for the year. Although the route was firmly established, the timetable was not. When the custom cutters moved north, so did MF’s support team and that movement depended primarily on the weather.

The team had a semi-trailer truck stocked with about 2,000 combine parts. “We took everything we thought we’d need,” said English. “Usually, the team had the parts on hand for repairs, but occasionally they would have to order others in. To fan out and cover the widest possible area, an engineer in another vehicle would follow a parallel route northward.

“There was a van in addition to the semi-trailer,” he said. “We used to call it the satellite. It would follow a slightly different route; and it ended up in Great Falls, Montana, at the end of the season. The main team of engineers would finish up in Mandan, North Dakota.”

But the 1970s was a turbulent decade. The oil crisis, high interest rates and falling farm commodity prices were the clouds that loomed on the horizon for the Brantford plant and MF — and everyone involved in agriculture. Nevertheless, MF’s gross sales had risen from US$1.19 billion in 1972 to $2.93 billion in 1976. Net income had been rising too, increasing nearly fourfold during the same period. But then things quickly began to change.

Barely two years later, in 1978, MF’s net income had fallen off a cliff. The company lost $257 million and its debt was climbing, and that was eating through MF’s working capital at a record pace; it fell by nearly half from the beginning of 1977 to the end of 1978.

Massey also shed nearly 10,000 people from its workforce during the same period. The financial storm had started, and the Brantford combine plant was squarely in the middle of it.

Combines accounted for 12 percent of MF’s sales, but U.S. figures for combine sales were showing rapid decline, much faster, in fact, than tractor sales, which were also falling.

In the United Kingdom, MF was increasing market share; but falling farm commodity prices meant overall sales figures for combines were way down. Canadian sales figures were the one bright spot for combines through to the end of the decade, but this was not a large enough market to sustain production levels at the Brantford plant. Worldwide, combine sales were falling faster than any other of MF’s products.

But at the close of the decade, despite a worsening financial situation, MF was ready to keep pace with the competition. The 700-series combines were due to be replaced by updated versions, the 850 and 860 models, which would hit the market in 1981. And since 1978, MF’s engineers had been busy working on the TX900 project, a new machine that represented a radical change from MF combines of the past, a rotary combine.

In the next instalment, we’ll continue the Brantford story. is Saskatchewan's home page. Bookmark us at this link.