Mechanisation on small farms

Some innovative solutions

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Better cereal yields and lower cost production



This is a practical guide to the use of shallow cultivation for seed bed
preparation and seeding. Shallow cultivation is essential for cereals after
medic in order to ensure regeneration. It is a low cost means of seeding
for cereal, grain legumes and vetches.

This chapter provides the economic justification for shallow cultivation.

Deep plough and cultivation is entrenched in the WANA region. The
technology is wasteful and costly.

This is an overview of deep ploughing and shallow cultivation.

Once the decision has been made to use shallow cultivation it is absolutely
essential to have the proper implements. These are simple and cheap. Their basic design principles are described.

Cultivation, hay production and rotations are the main methods of
controlling weeds in the WANA region. Herbicides have a role. Practical
problems are discussed.

The response of cereals to nitrogen fertiliser in the WANA region is erratic. This is explained and strategies developed to overcome the problem. Phosphate placement can also increase yield responses.

Mechanical harvesting is the main method of harvesting cereals in the
WANA region. The machines imported from Europe and North America
perform badly as they are designed for high yielding, damp crops.
Australian adaptations will improve efficiency in low to medium yielding
crops with short, brittle straw.

Even a modified harvester will not work efficiently on small farms, around
olive trees and with many types of cereal crops. The stripper is a genuine small scale machine suited to these conditions.

Using shallow cultivation will often require more weight on tractors. Why
and how?


Share farming

Small farmers often employ contractors to carry out cultivation, seeding and
harvesting. This is expensive and various forms of group ownership provide
a low-cost alternative.






(Traditional rotation)




Cereal crop sown

Cereal crop sown

Cereal crop sown

Cereal crop sown


Cereal crop grows

Cereal crop grows

Cereal crop grows

Cereal crop grows


Cereal crop matures

Cereal crop matures

Cereal crop matures

Cereal crop matures


Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock

Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock

Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock

Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock


Weeds germinate naturally

Medic regenerates from seed
produced 18 months earlier.
No cultivation of the land

Land cultivated and sown to
vetch or similar forage

Land cultivated and sown to
grain legume such as lentils or
chick peas.


Weeds grazed. Low stocking rate.

Medic pasture grazed. High stocking rate.

Grazed or more often left for

Grain legumes grow.


Land cultivated for fallow

Medic grazed. Pods produced
for future regeneration.

Cut for hay.

Grain legumes mature.


Bare soil vulnerable to

Pods and stubble grazed.

Stubble grazed.


Stubble grazed.


Cereal cycle begins again.

Cereal cycle begins again

Cereal cycle begins again

Cereal cycle begins again

Mechanisation problems in the WANA region.

    *  Economies of scale.

    Mechanisation on small farms in the WANA region is difficult because there are economies of scale when purchasing and operating farm machinery.

Large tractors with double the power do not cost double the price. A large tractor and a small tractor are driven by a single operator yet the productivity per person is more than double.

Small cereal harvesters (except strippers) are actually more expensive than large ones.

This is easily explained by the fact that small machines have as many parts as large ones. The cost of the machine is mainly the manufacture and assembly of parts. The iron, steel and other materials are only a small part of the cost.

    *  Deep ploughing.

    Over the last fifty years deep ploughing has been introduced into the region.

Deep ploughing requires more tractor power and a range of implements.

Deep ploughs open the soil and then other implements such as a cultivator, harrow or tandem disc are used to knock down the clods into a seed bed. The crop is then sown with a seeder.

This is an expensive means of preparing a seedbed in terms of time and money. It also requires a larger capital expenditure in machinery.

    *  Low yields.

    Low cereal yields compound the problem of deep ploughing.

Yields are low but even if they increased to a high proportion of the potential they would not support the elaborate deep ploughing program.

On the north shore of the Mediterranean deep ploughing is used but the yields are generally X 3 to X 5 higher.

    * Harvesting inefficiency.

    The large combine harvesters introduced from Europe and USA into the WANA region are designed for high yielding crops.

They work at well below capacity in the WANA region (see Harvesting) because yields are low and seed beds are uneven.

On small farms they are even more difficult to operate because of the small fields and range of crops grown.

Innovative solutions are needed to solve the mechanisation problems of small farmers.

Avoiding the problem - livestock instead of cereals.

    There is a need to accept the fact that mechanisation will always be difficult for small farmers.

Rather than imitating (on a smaller scale) the larger farmer different crops, pastures and rotations can be used.

Most small farmers already have a flock of sheep. Expanding the sheep flock and reducing the cereals is potentially a profitable option. The expanded flock requires no additional shepherd while cereals and other crops (vetches and grain legumes) require additional mechanisation.

    For example a small farmer who decides to replace the fallow with a legume forage crop or pasture must consider the following:-

    + Presently the cereal-fallow rotation splits the cultivation work between spring and autumn.

    + Replacing the fallow with vetch or grain legume will require additional tractor time.

For a large farmer with a tractor this may be an excellent means of utilising the tractor more efficiently.

A smaller farmer will purchase the tractor time from a contractor. The risk is high. If the crop fails the contractor still has to be paid.

    + Medic pasture and shallow cultivation allows livestock production to increase and the total cultivation time to remain the same.

For the small farmer the difficulty is that the contractor may not have the equipment or expertise for shallow cultivation.

    + The Zaghouan 4 rotation allows the small farmer to reduce the mechanisation needs, to keep the same cereal production and increase livestock production. While shallow cultivation is desirable it is not essential.

    * Livestock more profitable.

    The profit from farm crops and enterprises depends on a narrow margin.

Most of the returns are spent on the direct costs of the crop or enterprise and the overhead costs of the farm as a whole.

Only a small amount is profit above costs.

It is therefore most important from the point of view of profit to push production at the margin and to reduce costs in the same way.

Small increases in output and reductions in cost can have a considerable effect on profit.

The small livestock enterprise can do this more effectively than a large one. Economists would call it diseconomies of scale.

For example the small farmer can give more attention to the flock at lambing and obtain a high lambing percentage.

Small farmers can remove the young females from the flock each night during summer, feed them supplementary hay or grain and obtain a better lambing percentage from them in the following year.

During winter the concept of feeding green medic during the day and cereal straw during the night reduces costs and is better adapted to small farms.

These profit optimisation strategies are ideal for small farmers but more difficult for large ones.

    * Cereals less profitable.

    On the cereal side the small farmer suffers from many disadvantages.

If he uses contractors he has a high risk, the operations are not carried out at the optimum time and yields will be reduced.

Small fields are particularly difficult to harvest efficiently with combine harvesters.

There are many economies of scale in modern mechanised cereal farming which are unavailable to small farmers. Large farmers can obtain good profits from cereal crops but small farmers find that costs  and risks are high.

Animal traction.

    Animal traction is now used on a minority of farms in the WANA region.

There has been an enormous investment in tractors over the last 50 years.

The opportunity cost of animal traction is high. Additional sheep can be kept instead. About 10 sheep are equivalent to one well fed mule.

Animal traction can also be slow. Originally animal traction was used with shallow cultivation. The implements were simple and not very efficient in cutting off weeds.

During the last 50 years the great deep ploughing wave introduced into the WANA region has been forced on to animal traction also. Implements have been changed and extension advice advocates deep ploughing. The result is that the limited power from animals is wasted in pointless deep ploughing.

To change back to shallow cultivation requires a new set of implement designed for the task.

The replacement of animal traction by tractor power in the WANA region has been due to the good returns from livestock.

Unlike Australia, USA or even Europe mechanisation has not been driven by a shortage of farm labour or its high cost.


    Many small farmers employ contractors to plough their land, carry out most of the cultivation and seeding operations.

They are also employed to harvest the cereal crop and cut and bale the hay.

Grain legumes are still mostly harvested by hand but that will change as more mechanical harvester become available.

    Most of the government run contracting services have been discontinued and the contractors are now mainly neighbouring farmers.

    The disadvantages of contractors are:-

    + The small farmer is employing additional labour.

The small farm in most cases already has a surplus of labour. The contractor will not hire his machinery without an operator.

The small farmer is paying a fee to the contractor. Part of the fee is for the hire of the machinery and part for the wage of the operator.

The small farmer would like to obtain additional part time work not pay for part time workers to come on to his farm.

    + The use of contractors increases the risk.

The greatest risk for a small farmer is actual cash costs. The contractor is paid in cash whether the crop is good or bad.

    + The contractor is usually a farmer.

This means he will give priority to cultivating and sowing his own land and harvesting his own crops when the time is right. The small farmer will be given a lower priority. This is particularly true for cereal harvesting.

    + The small farmer is forced to use the cultivation system of the contractor.

If he wants to use shallow cultivation this may not be available from the contractor.

If he wants to use a more efficient harvester this may not be available or the cart for chaff.

    + If a contractor is not nearby the farmer can pay a considerable amount in travel for the machine and operator.

    The advantages of contractors are:-

    + The farmer does not need to invest in tractors or implements.

Capital is saved for other purposes.

    + The farmer can easily change his cropping program.

It can be reduced or even abandoned in a drought year without increasing the burden of overhead costs.

If the farmer has his own machinery the overhead costs need to be paid whether the machinery is used on not.

Share farming.

    Share farming has a bad reputation throughout most of the world.

The reason is that it has usually been associated with the exploitation of small farmers. Large landowners have exploited small farmers with share farming arrangements. One of the first objectives of land reform has been the abolition of share cropping.

    This need not be the case. Share cropping between farmers can be mutually advantageous.

A medium or even a large farmer can make a share farming agreement with a small farmer to carry out the mechanical operations for a share of the crop rather than a fixed fee per hectare.

    + The agreement can be negotiated on a standard basis drawn up by the Farmers' Association.

It should allow for different shares for different levels of work.

For example it is common for the share cropper to provide all the work and receive half the crop in return. The landowner receives the other half.

Otherwise the sharecropper may provide the work, the seed and the fertiliser and take two thirds while the landowner takes one thirds.

    + Share farming agreements reduce the risk to the small farmer (the landowner).

He receives a share of the crop without the need to outlay cash for the work or even the seed and fertiliser.

    + The contractor (who has now become the sharecropper) has a greater incentive to carry out the operations on time.

He will still do his own work first as he receives a 100% share of his own crops but he will have a greater incentive to produce a good crop on shares as he is being paid with a share not in cash.

For a more comprehensive account see Share Farming

Group ownership.

    Informal group ownership of machinery between family members is common and should be encouraged. Brothers or other family members jointly contribute to the purchase of the tractor and other machinery. They use it on their joint or individual farms.

    When groups are formed from farmers who are not family members a simple agreement is needed. The agreement should include the following:-

    + The purchase of the tractor and machinery should be done with a bank loan.

This allows the machinery to be hired out to the members of the group.

It allows additional members to joint the group and even the group to do outside contracting work. If the machinery is financed from capital contributions from the members it is difficult to agree on shares and the flexibility in use is limited.

It is even more difficult for new member to join as they must make a contribution to refund existing member.

    + Fees should be set per hectare, per hour, per bale or whatever is appropriate to cover the costs of the loan and the depreciation and maintenance of the machinery.

Fees should be averaged over a number of years otherwise they become excessively high during a drought and farmers are discouraged from using the machines in case they pay all the costs.

    + Groups need to be small as farmers need to trust each other to drive the machinery carefully.

    + Farmers need to plan the capacity of the machines to ensure that they can carry out the task in a reasonable time.

The machinery can be allocated on a roster but there should be enough capacity to ensure each member receives the machinery at near the optimum time.

    + To achieve the above increase in capacity,  farmers will probably need to swap labour.

This is quite different from purchasing labour from a contractor.

To utilise the machinery to its maximum capacity will require small teams.

If two farmers work together they can increase the capacity of a tractor and seeder considerably. One farmer drives the tractor and seeder. The other carts seed, fertiliser and fuel to the field and helps to load the seeder.

The tractor never stops as each farmer takes it in turns to have meal breaks.

Two farmers having completed one field belonging to one farmer move to the land of the other.

Farmer A pays farmer B for working on his land but this is offset by farmer B paying farmer A for his work. The combined team will achieve a much higher utilisation of the machines.

Machinery Hire.

    Governments in the WANA region have almost completely discontinued their contracting services.

They provided a service complete with operators to small farmers but these were expensive and required a government subsidy.

There is a role for governments or NGOs to provide a hire service without operators to farmers.

In the longer term farmers should establish group ownership schemes with suitable credit. However it is a leap of faith on the part of the group.

    A hire scheme requires much less commitment. The group can be formed as above in "Group ownership." They can then hire the machinery for an annual fee from the Farm Machinery Hire cooperative rather than arranging a bank loan to purchase the machine.

The arrangements can be flexible. They can continue to hire it or they can purchase it using a bank loan. Hire operation are common elsewhere in the economy.

Car hire, truck hire and building equipment hire are all available. Farm machinery hire is slightly different as most machinery would be hired by the season rather than by the day but the principles are very similar.

     A Farm Machinery Hire cooperative could provide groups of small farmers with some positive benefits:-

    + The group of farmers could hire the tractor and machines for a single year or more.

After this the equipment can be returned to the cooperative or if the group works effectively they can sign a long term hire arrangement or purchase the machines with a bank loan.

    + Some machines which do not have an acute seasonal requirement (for example stone harvesting machines or medic pod harvesters) could be hired to a number of groups on a per day basis.

    + As machinery requires attention and care the cooperative would not normally hire the machinery out on a daily or weekly basis.

Arrangement would need to be worked out with a group for a whole season.

    + The Farm Machinery Hire cooperative (if supported by the government or other funds) could hire some machines for a zero fee.

This would be an excellent means of introducing medic pods harvesters, scarifiers and scarifier-seeders or chaff carts or strippers. They could be hired but the first year would be free. After this they would have to be hired for a fee or purchased.

    + Some machines might be hired for a permanent zero fee.

For example in Australia farmers have been able to hire mechanical tree planting machines for a zero fee. This scheme has been supported to encourage reforestation.

Second hand machines.

     Traditionally small farmers have purchased second hand machinery as a means of reducing their capital costs. Second hand machinery is less reliable and therefore carries a hidden cost associated with late sowing or late harvesting due to breakdowns.

Needs of the family and the farm

    Small farmers do not separate the needs of their family and their farm. In most instances the first mechanisation priority for small farmers is transport.

They want to travel to nearby villages or towns. This is partly to carry farm products but also for family shopping and visits.

Any mechanisation program for small farmers must take this into account.

Back to tractor basics?

    Small farmer mechanisation was transformed in Europe by the Ferguson revolution.

While other manufacturers had introduced hydraulic systems onto tractors Ferguson set a new standard of integration between tractor and implement.

The implements were mounted on the hydraulic linkage and were convenient to use on small farms. The transfer of weight allowed small and light tractors to carry out deep ploughing effectively.

The Ferguson revolution was adopted by all other manufacturers and has become the standard for smaller farmers in Europe and many other countries.

 If the shallow cultivation package is adopted (see below) the Ferguson system becomes redundant.

Small tractors can be produced which are cheap because they are simple. They are not inferior. They are designed for the task of cultivation, sowing and transporting on small farms in the WANA region.

    The tractor can be simplified by:-

    * Removal of hydraulic linkage, external hydraulics and hydraulic pumps.

The trailed implement can be operated effectively with either screw lifts or simple hand operated hydraulics (similar to a car jack).

    * Reduce the complex gear boxes to provide four forward gears and one reverse.

    * Remove front wheel drive. Conditions in the WANA region are rarely so wet that four wheel drive is necessary.

    The tractors need to be modified by the addition of extra weight. Larger rear tyres filled with water should be sufficient.

    A back to basics small tractor would be a genuinely cheap option for small farmers in the region.

Small machines for small farmers.

    In our opening paragraph we said there were economies of scale that made small machines almost as expensive as large ones.

That is true if they imitate the large ones. If a simplified package approach is taken small machinery can be cost effective.

    For a small farmer in the cereal zone of the WANA region the following alternative packages could be used:-

*  Standard package for deep ploughing and seeding.

        + Deep plough.

         + Cultivator or tandem disc.

       + Seeder and fertiliser spreader.

    This package is expensive and requires a medium or large farm to justify the capital expenditure.

It is possible to replace all this with a single machine.

* Shallow cultivation package.

    + All the above rolled up into a single scarifier-seeder with harrows.

    This is a cheaper package and could be used by a small group of small farmers.

When costing the package it is important to realise that the scarifier - seeder will sow seed more precisely. A 25% saving in seed is possible without any reduction in the plant population. Placing the seed and fertiliser together will increase the response to fertiliser. 

    I am recommending a complete tractor - implement rethink.

If the farmer carries out the whole cultivation and seeding program with the single scarifier seeder the tractor can be simplified to a basic pulling machine without expensive hydraulic systems.

The tractor is used for cultivating the hard ground, secondary cultivation and seeding. Otherwise the farmer will use it with a trailer for transport. The gear range can be greatly simplified.

* For harvesting a large combine harvester and chaff cart.

    This package is the current package in the WANA region and is expensive. It is only justified if the harvester operates on many hundreds of hectares.

In Australia there are intermediate sized harvesters operating as trailed machines and powered by the tractor but they do not solve any problems for the small farmer. They are difficult to manoeuvre in small fields.

    For the small farmer in the WANA region the obvious choice is:-

 * A stripper.

    The cost is a tiny fraction of the cost of the large harvester and a chaff cart is included. More details STRIPPER


The Back - to - Basics Package for small farmers.

Tractor. Simple two wheeled drive. No hydraulics. Simple gear box. Larger tyres. Extra weight. A simple pulling machine. 

Cultivation and seeding and fertiliser application. A single machine. A scarifier - seeder. Four rows of spring release tines. 12 to 16 sowing tines depending on size of tractor. Seed and fertiliser boxes. Harrows - two sets heavy and light.

Herbicide application.  Ground driven machine on trailer (see Weeds)

Harvesting Stripper and perhaps a winnower. see Stripper

Transport.  Trailer.

  Group ownership is a feasible proposition with the package outline above but it is easier to develop the group ownership concept with machines that are not required urgently for a task that has a short season. As I have said above this is not an insuperable obstacle to group ownership.

Larger capacity and longer working hour can ensure that a group of farmer can achieve near optimum timing for their operations with a part share in a machine rather than sole ownership and save a considerable amount at the same time.
    Machines that can be used over a much long period are however easier to share and are a good starting point for group schemes.

    Small farmer group machines.

Medic pods harvest.  A cheap machine but one that can be used over a long period of the summer. Ideal for sharing.

Winnower.  Once the cereal crop has been harvested with a stripper and dumped in the farm yard it can be cleaned over the whole summer. A group owned winnower can be used.

Seed cleaner.  Farmers will obtain better results if their cereal seed is cleaned and treated with fungicide. This will take only a few hour with a portable seed cleaner.

A portable machine can treat the seed on perhaps 100 farms during the summer months. 

Alternative ownership methods for farm machinery compared

Cash purchase

Bank loan 

Hire Purchase


Rental from small group.

Group or individual rent from Hire cooperative.


Cost of using the machine.

Ordinary running costs

Ordinary running costs

Ordinary running costs. Part of hire purchase fee.

Ordinary running costs. Plus the lease fee.

Ordinary running costs. Annual maintenance carried out by group. Plus the rental and perhaps a labour swap.

Ordinary running costs. Plus rental and perhaps labour swap.

Contract fee that includes running costs, operator and other costs.

Purchase cost

Machine price

Machine price plus interest plus bank fees.

Machine price plus interest plus fees.

Only applies if machine purchased for residual value

Zero for farmer. Machine purchased by group.

Zero for farmer or group. Rented from cooperative.

No purchase cost for farmer client.

Depreciation cost





No for farmer. Yes for group.

No for farmer and for group.

No for client.

Insurance cost

Yes or maybe

Yes to reduce risk

Yes to reduce risk

Yes to reduce risk

No carried by group

No carried by group

No carried by contractor.

Shedding or workshop








Availability risk







Can be considerable for small clients.

Resale income possible?




No unless purchased for residual value.

Not for farmer. Yes for group.

Not for farmer or group.


* Cash purchase. 

Farmer buys machine with cash.

* Bank loan.

Farmer buys machine with loan from bank.

The loan is normally secured on the farm not the machine. While the interest rate is lower than other forms of borrowing it is often a complex procedure to establish a loan with suitable security.

A farmer is unlikely to do so for a simple machine such as a scarifier.

For a group of farmers forming a machinery hire group this bank loan is the best option.

* Hire purchase.

Farmer hires machine from finance company (usually arranged through the machinery selling agent).

The agreement is for a set number of years. The machinery is sold to the farmer at the end of the period for a minimal amount.

If the machine is destroyed or stolen the farmer must complete the agreement.

Like so much in the world of agricultural credit this option is popular with farmers in spite of the higher cost because it is delivered to the farmer at the point of purchase.

He does not have to make any separate arrangements for the loan. Just sign and all is arranged.

* Lease.

Similar to the above but machine never belongs to farmer.

At the end of the lease the farmer can purchase the machine for a residual value.

Normally it is taken back by the machinery selling agent and a new machine with a new lease is acquired.

This is also very popular as it is also well delivered. In fact the main distinction between the hire purchase and the lease agreement relates to tax.

The Hire Purchase includes a component of machinery purchase but the lease does not. It is therefore fully deductible as a running expense and the machinery purchase (if the farmer decides it keep the machine after the lease) is a totally separate transaction.

* Hire from small group.

The group can use any of the above to acquire the machine but cash purchase is not recommended as it requires the members' capital contributions to be determined in advance.

For the individual farmer the payment is a rental fee to the group. Labour swaps are discussed above.

* Farm Machinery Hire Cooperative.

Similar to the lease but with less obligation and risk for the farmer group (see above) or individual farmer.

The machine is rented for a season. This is not a common concept at present for farmers.

It exists in industry where builders for example rent machines and businesses rent trucks and vans or tourists rent cars. All these are intended to give greater flexibility to the person renting.

The farmer does not require flexibility is the same way.

His farm and crop area remain the same most of the time. The purpose of the rental arrangement is to reduce risk and give farmers a transitional phase before purchase.

* Contractor.

All costs and the contractors profit rolled up into  a single fee. Expensive for small farmers.