After sugarcane harvesters, New Holland Fiat is planning to launch mechanical cotton pickers in India, hoping to cash in on rising costs and scarcity of farm labour in the countryside.

“We are field-testing a prototype specially designed for the Indian market. It should be ready for introduction in 2-3 years’ time,” said Gerald E. Salzman, Senior Director at Case IH, part of the $ 19.4-billion, Illinois-headquartered CNH Global that also owns New Holland.

The proposed cotton picker is “completely different” from the Case IH Module Express machines currently being sold in the US, Australia and Brazil, Salzman told Business Line.

While these are self-propelled with the capacity to harvest the seed-cotton (kapas) from six plant rows at a time and simultaneously compact them as ‘modules’ for delivery to ginners, the picker developed for India is tractor-propelled and tailored specifically for the much smaller farms here.

Designing differently

“India tops the world in cotton acreage and is behind only China in production. But since your fields are small, mechanisation is a challenge, requiring modifications in the electronics and hydraulic systems of the machines,” Salzman noted.

He illustrated the case of sugarcane harvesters, where New Holland started off in India selling its large 353-horsepower Case IH Austoft-7000 series machines to sugar mills.

But subsequently, the company launched a more compact and redesigned 174-horsepower 4000 model, which can move freely in smaller fields and harvest the cane planted in rows with 3.5-4 feet spacing, as against the global norm of five ft and above.

Further, it incorporates a special ‘topper’ capable of recovering the green cane tops that farmers in India – but not abroad – use as fodder for their animals.

All these modifications have helped New Holland sell over 330 machines so far, costing some Rs 1.3 crore each, inclusive of the complementary infielder tractors and trailers to collect the harvested cane billets.

Localising global knowledge

“With the cotton picker, too, we are basically leveraging our knowledge globally to design a new machine for India, while looking at the past when farms were smaller even in the US,” explained Salzman.

According to him, developing a good picker also requires working closely with seed companies, who can breed varieties/hybrids with the right plant architecture and height, making them amenable for mechanical harvesting.

Growers, too, may have to make some adjustments to their existing agronomic practices. In sugarcane, for example, farmers in India typically maintain just 2-2.5 ft spacing between two plant rows.

To enable mechanical harvesting, they have had to increase this to 4 ft.

Cotton growers currently spend Rs 500-600 as picking cost for every quintal of kapas. At Rs 4,000 a quintal and yields of 12-13 quintals, that works out to roughly Rs 7,000 on gross revenues of Rs 50,000 an acre.

To the extent picking rates have doubled from Rs 250-300 in the last five years, there is certainly a large potential market that the likes of New Holland and John Deere are seeking to exploit.

“Selling harvesting machinery also helps promote our main business of tractors and tillage/planting equipment here, as farmers see the same company doing both,” added Salzman.

Plans raising domestic sourcing of spare parts

New Holland Fiat India’s (NHFI) tractor plant at Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh makes about 35,000 tractors annually. Out of this, it sells about 28,000 locally (in a domestic market of 5.5 lakh machines) and exports the balance 7,000.

Besides, the company has a unit at Chakan near Pune, that assembles its cane harvesters imported in semi-knocked down form. Right now, the import content is about 95 per cent, with only the diesel engine being sourced locally from Cummins, apart from the electronics.

“We want to progressively raise the domestic content, starting with spare parts such as the base-cutter blades and oil filters that are now being imported from Brazil. This will make it more attractive for custom hiring, as the entrepreneurs owning the harvesters will see their maintenance costs reduce with increased local availability of spares,” said Gaurav Sood, Head (Crop Solutions) at NHFI.

The Chakan plant will ultimately also manufacture the cotton pickers that the company plans to launch by 2015.

(This article was published on February 20, 2013)
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