By Madeline Fisher, Associate Editor, Crops and Soils magazine
May 2, 2012 -- Colorado State University precision farming expert, Raj Khosla, was on one of his frequent trips to India last December when an odd piece of roadside farm equipment caught his eye. The machine was clearly a combine, but sitting on top of it was a tractor.
“I said ‘What the heck is that?’” laughs Khosla, who has conducted more than a dozen precision agriculture workshops across India during the last five years. “It was funny and amazing, and I was really intrigued.”
It turns out the machine was a “tractor-mounted” or “tractor-driven” combine, and it’s becoming more and more popular in India. The combine is compact, for one, making it suitable for Indian farm fields that typically range in size from just 0.5 to 10 acres. And the tractor is easily taken down at harvest’s end (it’s hoisted on and off the combine with a small crane), allowing farmers to use it in other field operations during the rest of the year.
“What they’re doing is increasing the efficiency of the equipment they have on the farm, by having multiple uses of the same machinery,” Khosla says.
Most importantly, harvesting in India has traditionally required land owners to find, hire, and retain 40 or more workers during the month-long harvest, and this has gotten much harder to do in recent years as people migrate from India’s countryside to its cities, says M.B. Patil, a collaborator of Khosla’s at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Raichur, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
Not only does a combine harvester help farmers contend with the growing labor shortage, explains the UAS plant pathologist, but it can also save them money. Local pigeon pea-, sunflower-, and wheat-farmers, for example, will rent the services of a tractor-driven combine for 2,000 rupees ($40 U.S. dollars) per acre—about half of what they’d pay to employ laborers to bring in the harvest.
UAS, Raichur, owns two tractor-driven combines at present, and Patil estimates that about 600 more are now in operation across Karnataka. While the machines are still expensive for many Indian farmers to purchase—they typically cost 23 to 25 lakh rupees or $46,000 to $48,000 in U.S. dollars—the state government will subsidize 30 to 40% of the price. And those who can afford to buy machinery typically share it by offering services to other farmers.
The Standard brand of harvester is a popular one in many Indian states, including Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka, according to the company that makes it, Standard Combine of India. Another maker of compact combines, the Germany-based company CLAAS, originally developed its product CROP TIGER—outfitted with tracks—for harvesting rice from wet, paddy fields. It later released a wheeled version for harvesting grain.
Other manufacturers of tractor-driven combines include the Indian companies, PREET AGRO Industries and Panesar Agriculture Industries, as well as the Japanese company, Kubota, and some of them also sell self-propelled combines for small fields. Local farmers tend to favor John Deere tractors, Patil says. But Mahindra is an Indian company that also makes tractors suitable for top-mounting on combines. The company sells compact and utility tractors throughout the United States, as well.
Farmers in northeastern Karnataka have found combines to be especially useful for harvesting pigeon pea, sunflower, rice, and wheat, says agricultural engineer K.V. Prakash, Patil’s colleague at UAS. Local growers are also looking for machinery to harvest the region’s other major crop, cotton, which today is still picked by hand. Along similar lines, many of the region’s most advanced rice farmers now transplant paddy fields with machinery rather than manual labor, in response, again, to the labor scarcity, Patil says.
Mechanized agriculture is in fact taking off in India, creating tremendous potential for remaking complex machinery into small, simple to use, and affordable units, Khosla adds—not only for basic operations like harvesting, but also for advanced farming practices. He and Patil are now working together on a Precision Agriculture Project in Karnataka, for example, which they hope will eventually help the state’s farmers improve yields and profitability, and reduce use of water, fertilizers, and other inputs.
The project is focusing initially on mapping the variability in soil properties, crop health, and other parameters in local farm fields. But its ultimate success will depend on getting farmers to embrace new technologies such as GPS units, nitrogen sensors, and variable rate applicators. Here the tractor-driven combine is helping pave the way, Patil thinks, by teaching farmers and local officials that new equipment and devices can be helpful and should be used.
“They may be a bit expensive,” he says, “but I think with the confidence of the authorities in our project and of farmers in our work, no one will prevent us from getting these tools in India and using them for small scale farming systems.”
Images courtesy of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Raichur.