Business Maverick


Agricultural tech – a tractor these days sure ain’t your oupa’s tractors

Agricultural tech – a tractor these days sure ain’t your oupa’s tractors
The Steiger 500 tractor on the left towers over more traditionally sized models. Bothaville. 14 May 2024. (Photo: Ed Stoddard)

The machines on display at the big Nampo Harvest Day exhibition held every May are always impressive. Their size, price tag and evolving technical capabilities are simply eye-popping. This year Daily Maverick checked a couple of the tractors. And they sure ain’t your oupa’s tractors. 

When most people think of tractors, the image is of a squat, open-air machine with the driver exposed to the elements. Powered by a rumbling diesel, they have four wheels with the back pair much larger than those up front.

A visit to a couple of the dealer stands this week at the annual Nampo exhibition near the Free State town of Bothaville, hosted by industry group Grain SA, showed that this image is outdated. This correspondent has written before about the harvesters and other gadgets at Nampo. This year I decided to check out a couple of the tractors.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Automation and precision farming bode ill for jobs in SA agriculture but are crucial for food security

One common theme in recent years has been the rise of precision farming, and the old reliable tractor has also been plugged into this technology. Precision farming makes use of GPS technology and soil sampling to precisely apply seeds and inputs to get the most optimal harvest.

All of the super-sized tractors that roll off assembly lines these days come “precision ready”, equipped with computer screens and all of the latest gadgetry. They are still diesel-powered but have sprouted more wheels — or in some cases, tracks rather than wheels.

It’s ultra high-tech and evolving as well as capital-intensive. And it goes a long way to explaining why the commercial agricultural sector in South Africa is able to feed a growing population despite the many challenges that operators face.

Take, for example, the Steiger 500 produced by American manufacturer Case IH.

This beast has eight tyres which are almost the height of a Springbok lock and much wider than a prop, a 1,000 litre tank, and a price tag of R7.3-million. The tyre set alone costs around R300,000.

And of course, it has all of the gizmos.

The Case IH stand included a section where the precision tools and computer screens were on display. The screen used in the Steiger 500 displays your precise coordinates to keep the tractor on a straight line — so it practically drives itself — shows the average engine power being used, and the fuel consumption, among other things.

In short, it ain’t your oupa’s tractor. And while the tractor may be mega, it relies on “mini-machines” to get the job done.

A trip to the stand set up by Acgo — which is focused on precision farming and is a global dealer for various agricultural machinery manufacturers — was also an eye-popper.

Nampo tractors

The Fendt 1100 at the Nampo grounds costs R11-million and uses a track system instead of traditional tyres. Bothaville. 14 May 2024. (Photo: Ed Stoddard)

The Fendt 1100 dispenses with traditional wheels and instead uses one horizontal rubber track rotated by an array of different-sized disks. This is known as a “tracked tractor design”.

Because the weight of the beast is evenly distributed, it does not compact the ground, making it ideal for the sandy soils of the western limb of South Africa’s grain belt in the Free State and North West provinces.

The rubber track alone costs around R450,000 and the tractor in total costs R11-million.

A service costs R40,000 and is done for every 500 hours of use, and the mechanics make house calls. The Fendt 1100 has a five-year or 5,000-hour warranty. If you spend R11-million on a tractor, one supposes you want some guarantees.

It must be said that these hulking brutes are probably not flying off the stands at Nampo this week.

South African tractor sales are in a bit of a rut, a reflection of a tough economic and operating environment. Interest rates remain elevated, fuel and other costs are high, and the maize crop is expected to be 19% lower this year in the wake of droughts triggered by the most recent  El Niño.

South African tractor sales reached a 40-year high in 2022, according to the South African Agricultural Machinery Association. In total, 9,181 new tractors were sold on the domestic market that year, an almost 17% increase on 2021.

Sales have since slumped significantly. But this decline has come off a high base and the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) has said this points to a “normalisation” of sales after a wave of bumper activity which would have brought a smile to the faces of dealers.

“We continue to see relatively weak sales in South Africa’s agricultural machinery market. In March 2024, the tractor sales were down 26% y/y, with 498 units sold. The combine harvester sales were down 33% y/y, with 26 units sold. As we stated in our previous notes, the decline in sales since the start of the year probably reflects the normalisation of sales after a few years of robust activity,” Agbiz said in a note last month.

“These generally strong agricultural machinery sales these past few years were primarily based on ample grains and oilseed harvests when prices were also favourable.”

And amid the towering tractors, there are still plenty of models at Nampo in the smaller sizes. Emerging farmers for example will find it tough the raise the capital to finance a massive precision machine that costs R7-million or more. But given the scale of their operations, the smaller models are a better fit for their budgets and needs.

Meanwhile, the trend is bigger and better. An espresso machine in the cockpit would be a nice touch and who knows? If a farmer asked for one, they would probably get it. DM


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