Rice production in SA – the feasibility of mechanisation

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Modern crop cultivation techniques, including mechanisation, have significantly improved agricultural productivity and rice production is no different. Mechanisation has played a critical role in the commercialisation of rice production, across the value chain.

A mechanisation feasibility study, involving desktop research and on-site investigation at a pioneering rice farm near the Vaal River, has been undertaken. Upland, or dry soil, farming with controlled irrigation, rather than paddy production, was considered to be the most practical way of producing rice in South Africa. Mechanisation requirements across the rice production value chain were indicated.

Tractor and power requirements

The tractor is the powerhouse for most of the field work, with other implements. Due to the heavy soil clay content, and moderate to high moisture content, required for growing rice, the power requirement falls between medium and heavy duty categories. A four-wheel-drive tractor with a 50kW to 60kW engine would be able to cover the primary tillage work on up to 50 ha, in five to ten days.

Machinery and equipment requirements

The operational process for rice production is illustrated below.

Land preparation

In a flood irrigation plan, it is preferable to divide the land into blocks with levelled terrain sloped at a certain angle. The land preparation involves grading, levelling or scraping but this work could be outsourced to a contractor since it is not a regular seasonal occurrence.

A mouldboard plough and a harrow, as used in conventional primary tillage, would be efficient enough to prepare the seedbed.

Planting/Seeding

A row crop planter, such as a wheat planter, can direct drill the rice seed into dry soil and fertiliser can be applied in the same pass.

Weed control

Weeds can be controlled by applying herbicide from a boom sprayer or from knapsack sprayers. Alternatively, mechanical weeding may be done by a cultivator.

Harvesting

A self-propelled combine harvester for rice is the ideal harvesting equipment. A combine harvester with a 50kW engine would be able to cover 50 ha in a limited time window. Unfortunately, rice combine harvesters must be imported.

Post-processing

Paddy grain or milled rice needs grading and packaging equipment after harvesting. The milling process requires several piece of equipment to perform cleaning, husking, separating, polishing and additional processes.

Implements and equipment for mechanised rice production under upland tillage is available on the market. The combine harvester and most of the post-processing equipment would have to be sourced and imported from countries like China or India.

It is suggested that sourcing, evaluation, training on mechanization and recommendations are investigated in further studies. – Dr Tingmin Yu, ARC Newsletter

For more information email: YuT@arc.agric.za