Milling about in the most high-tech way
Farming is one of the oldest professions, but the development of agricultural machinery has made the job title of “farmer” a rarity. JACO DE KLERK takes a look at South Africa’s agricultural industry.
Agriculture can be defined as the practice of cultivating soil, growing and harvesting crops, and raising livestock. The first people who turned from the hunting and gathering lifestyle to farming probably did so using their bare hands; perhaps even going “high-tech” with the use of some sticks and stones.
However, this gradually changed with the development of tools such as knives and scythes, with wooden ploughs probably being the most inventive tools of the trade for thousands of years. Both man and beast probably shed an ample amount of blood, sweat and tears to produce enough food to sustain the family.
A new world opened up in 1889, with steam-powered equipment and tractors marking the arrival of the first agricultural machines. This gave way to the development of trucks, tractors, combine harvesters and many other vehicles for the farming industry – enabling a fraction of a country’s population to provide food for all. Less than two percent of the US population now works in agriculture, but that two percent provides considerably more food than the other 98 percent can eat.
Achieving this requires some heavy machinery, but sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest difference. One such “little thing” is the Mathis Handibulk Silo System provided by Duncanmec. The silos are designed to transport dry or liquid products in a medium-volume bulk, which is handy if a massive (or full bulk) delivery is unnecessary. This benefits farmers who produce on a smaller scale since it enables just the right amount of animal feed, chicken fertiliser, maize, grain, flour, sugar and other products to be delivered.
The silos can be filled to the maximum legal transportation limit with just about any product then delivered by vehicle straight to a specified site, with most products not needing any special site preparation. Offloading is also easy as the silos are discharged from the vehicle with the use of gravity and a tipping trailer. This can be done by the driver of the vehicle, saving labour and time – with deliveries done as soon as tipping has been completed.
A simple device that shows when the silo is nearly empty simplifies stock management. The farmer will see when it’s time to buy new stock. The units can be refilled on site or hauled away for refilling, which is a straightforward process; simply load the silo onto a vehicle, send it off, and unload it once it’s been filled and has come back.
Other advantages include no product packaging costs, no warehousing costs, advertising exposure on the silos, no product-contamination risk (the silos are inaccessible to rodents and moisture), and elimination of product theft since the silo outlet is locked when not in use and the units can only be moved by special vehicles. There’s also no wastage because of broken bags – and the contents won’t go stale since the first load gets used before the next is filled.
The Handibulk System is relatively new to South Africa, but has been used extensively in Europe for a number of years. It can be tailored to suit almost any “flowable” dry product and also accommodates liquids, making it ideal for agricultural application.
When steam-powered equipment became available in 1889, it was revolutionary. However, the way these machines are powered has changed considerably since then. The engine manufacturing giant Cummins provides a wide range of engines for a variety of applications in the agricultural field – from wood chippers and wheel loaders to combine harvesters and tractors.
“It all depends on the application,” says Hendrik van Schalkwyk, sales engineer (agriculture and handling) at Cummins South Africa. He explains that tractor engines can range from 3,3 litres to 8,9 litres, and that harvesters can start at 4,5 litres and go up to 6,7 litres. “Our philosophy is to provide engine families that meet a variety of applications.”
Farmers can thus select a specific “engine family” for their agricultural vehicle (depending on the size and power that’s needed) and, with a few minor changes of small parts, can have an engine that is suited to their specific needs.
One such engine family is the QSX range, which is designed to deliver dependable, hardworking performance through the use of a dual overhead cam design. This optimises the combustion efficiency and pulling power of any vehicle. These engines are ideal for either four-wheel-drive or scraper tractors, with different ranges between 350 hp to 635 hp (257,42 kW to 467,04 kW). The QSX range has also been designed in such a way that these engines only require servicing at extended intervals – meaning they work harder for longer, with less downtime.
Cummins has advisors to suggest which engine family will best suit the particular application and to what operation parameters an engine should be calibrated. The QSX range has a standard two-year/2 000 hour warranty, with a three-year/
10 000 hour standard protection plan on all major components.
According to Van Schalkwyk, Cummins invests substantially in research and development. “Key research is done in reducing emissions, improving efficiency and making our product more cost effective. Engine power density is also increasing; we’re getting more power from smaller engines.”
However, power means nothing without traction. According to Neville Medley, national manager of farm and earthmover tyres for Goodyear, the company manufactures a wide range of cross-ply agricultural tyres locally at its manufacturing plant in Uitenhage. The company also imports a broad range of radial ply and other cross-ply agricultural tyres. “We offer the full range of agri tyres,” says Medley, “from tractor, harvesters and trailers to forestry, industrial and other specialised machinery used in the agricultural sector.”
If one considers, as Medley points out, that South Africa’s tractor parc of vehicles 20 years old and younger includes more than 70 000 tractors, from 20 different manufacturers, and is made up of more than 468 models, one can appreciate the complexity of the industry.
Tyres in the agricultural sector are also used in a variety of applications, which adds to the complexity. Medley says that some tractors do very little or no “road work“.
“It isn’t uncommon to come across tyres with hardly any tread wear after more than ten years or many seasons,” he says. “Harvester tyres typically ‘perish’ before they wear out. On the other hand, other farming applications, such as produce road hauling, results in rather rapid wear.”
The trick is to select the right tyres for a specific application.
Goodyear has a number of field specialists who work with dealers and farmers to educate the agricultural sector on how to select the right tyres for each application, the aim being to preserve tyres for an optimum life span.
To combat the rapid wear road hauling has on tyres, radial-ply tyres are used – they significantly prolong tyre usage compared to cross-ply tyres. “Radialisation is rapidly becoming a reality,” says Medley. “The old cross-ply technology is being replaced with high performance radial tyres.”
Radial tyres provide a wide range of benefits, including better road traction and improved fuel efficiency. Medley explains that no-till or direct planting – a way of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil through ploughing – requires tyres that are multi-functional, strong and durable, and that can handle the higher draw-bar pull and torque that larger high-horsepower tractors require.
HIGH SPEED TRACTOR TYRES
Another trend in the agricultural tyre industry is a leaning towards “high speed” tractor tyres. “This is to accommodate the higher operating speeds of modern tractors,” says Medley. “The speed capabilities of modern tractors have crept up from 45 kilometres an hour to over 60 kilometres an hour.”
Because end-users’ new-tyre needs vary so substantially depending on which specific part of the agricultural industry they’re in, predicting their immediate tyre replacement requirements can be a challenge. “With such a wide range of both machinery and tyres in operation, coupled with the long lifecycles of radial tyres, maintaining stock levels ‘just in case’ is a very expensive and working-capital-intensive exercise,” says Medley. “Few dealers carry stock, or even have any knowledge of what the working agri tyre pool is in their district.”
The longevity of agricultural tyres is thus limiting the stock agricultural tyre manufacturers are carrying – but this doesn’t mean the market for these tyres is dying. It’s just changing.
“The future for agricultural tyres will see fewer tyres doing more work,” says Medley. “This will require high levels of technology in tyre construction materials and designs. The technical tyre requirements will continue to be determined by advanced and highly sophisticated tractors and harvesters, and agri tyre manufacturers will need to continuously develop the technology to efficiently transfer tractor power to traction power.”
But the agricultural tyre industry isn’t the only thing that has sufficient traction: “Our tractor parc indicates that South African commercial agriculture is at least on par with any developed country in the world,” says Medley. “Some of our farming conditions, and the general farming environment, may be very different – but as an industry, we must be rated as ‘best in class’.” He also emphasises that we have to consider that South African farmers receive no subsidies, so other countries’ farmers may be considered to be advantaged.
However, the contribution of agriculture to GDP in most countries is declining, whether subsidies are awarded or not, and South Africa is no exception. “In 1960, agriculture contributed to over 11 percent of South Africa’s GDP,” says Medley. “This dropped to just over three percent in 2009.”
Despite this drop in its contribution to GDP, agriculture still plays an important role in our economy.
“It generates exports and provides a self-feeding platform for our country,” says Van Schalkwyk. “Although only a small amount of our land can be farmed, estimated at around five percent, we are very blessed to have fertile soil that can be farmed and used productively.”