Acreage shifts: King Cotton’s comeback

The fibre crop, along with maize, seems the most attractive planting option for farmers this kharif

Written by Harish Damodaran | Published: June 22, 2017 1:49 am
 Farmer, Farmer crisis, Cotton, Minimum Support Price, Kharif crops, BT Cotton, Pulses, Agricultural ministry, Indian Express A farmer near Jalna in Maharashtra examining his freshly sown Bt cotton field. (Express photo)

Bhaskarrao More last year sowed tur (pigeon-pea) and moong (green gram) on four acres and cotton in the rest of his eight-acre holding. In this kharif season, he has already planted seven acres under cotton, leaving a sole acre for moong.

“I grew more pulses last time only because prices were Rs 9,000-10,000 per quintal. But having got a rate of only Rs 3,500-4,500 for my five quintals of tur and three quintals of moong this February, I have gone back to cotton,” notes this farmer from Tupewadi village in Badnapur taluka of Maharashtra’s Jalna district.

The same goes for Raosaheb Vittalrao Gavhane from Hiswan Khurd in Jalna taluka, who, like many farmers here, cultivates pulses as an inter-crop with cotton or soyabean. “I usually plant tur in about five rows and cotton in 150 rows every acre. Last year’s prices led me to raise the tur planting to 10 rows and reduce the cotton rows to 140. But I realised less from my two quintals this time than from one quintal in 2016,” he remarks.

The story of 2017 kharif so far clearly has been about cotton’s comeback at the expense of pulses. The Union agriculture ministry’s data bear this out: As on June 16, farmers had sown 16.67 lakh hectares (lh) under cotton, as against last year’s corresponding all-India area of 12.25 lh. This, even as pulses acreage has dipped from 3.63 lh to 2.22 lh.

“The government declared a minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 5,050 per quintal for tur, but the farmers who tried to sell to state agencies had to wait for 7-8 days for their crop to be lifted. They were told that there are no bardanas (jute bags) to pack the procured produce. Most farmers couldn’t afford the cost of waiting so long and chose to offload to private traders at Rs 4,000 per quintal or below,” says Gavhane.

The contrast with cotton couldn’t have been more. “I did not even have to go to the mandi. The traders themselves came to buy the kapas (raw un-ginned cotton) straight from my fields at Rs 5,600 per quintal this February, compared with Rs 4,000 in the previous year,” he adds.

Cotton is typically a 175-180 day crop, with the first harvest (“picking”) taking place some 120 days after sowing towards the second week of June. Subsequent pickings — there could be five in all — happen thereafter every 15 days or so. In a normal monsoon year, farmers with access to basic irrigation (stored rainwater conveyed to fields through, say, a three-horsepower motor pump) can harvest around 12 quintals per acre. With drip irrigation, which allows an extra picking, this could go to even 15 quintals.

For farmers, the biggest cost is that of picking. At Rs 500 per quintal for 12 quintals, it works out to Rs 6,000 an acre. The second major expense head is pesticides. About six sprays of branded insecticides such as ‘Confidor’, ‘Actara’ and ‘Polo’ – mainly against sucking pests like thrips, jassids, aphids and whitefly – cost roughly Rs 4,000 per acre, excluding Rs 200 on labour for each round of spraying.

This is followed by weeding (four rounds costing Rs 750 each) and inter-culture (five times; a farmer not owning bullocks will have to hire these each time at roughly Rs 600). Then, there is fertiliser. Gavhane applies one 50-kg bag each of 19:19:19 NPK complex fertiliser (currently retailing at Rs 1,120), 10:26:26 (Rs 1,160), di-ammonium phosphate (Rs 1,260), muriate of potash (Rs 580) and urea (Rs 300) on every acre, adding up to Rs 4,420. The least expenditure is on seeds. A packet of 450-gram Bt cotton seeds sells at Rs 750 and at 1.5 packets per acre, that comes to just Rs 1,125.

“Inclusive of Rs 1,000 for field preparation, my total cultivation cost will be within Rs 25,000 per acre. Even if I get Rs 5,000 per quintal this time on 12 quintals yield, my net return would be Rs 35,000 per acre,” explains Gavhane. For farmers like him in Marathwada — or even those from the neighbouring Vidarbha region — the planting choices during the current kharif season essentially reduce to cotton, pulses, soyabean and maize.

At the current market prices, pulses aren’t the most attractive option. Soyabean realisations have also plunged to Rs 2,400-2,500 per quintal from Rs 3,600-3,700 a year ago. But this is a crop with cultivation costs at hardly Rs 10,000 per acre. With average yields of eight quintals per acre, farmers still stand to make money. Moreover, given its short duration of 90-100 days — enabling planting of a succeeding rabi winter crop of wheat, chana (chickpea) or Maldandi jowar (sorghum) — soyabean cannot be written off yet. Cotton’s real advantage is its relative hardiness. Soyabean can be a washout if it rains heavily during seed setting or harvesting time. Cotton, on the other hand, is picked four-five times. “Even if the rains aren’t too good, the farmer is assured of at least two pickings. If the monsoon turns out good, he may give the plant more water and fertilisers for it to yield an extra picking of 2 quintals,” points out Usha Barwale Zehr, Joint Director of Research at Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company.

Cotton apart, the other ‘hot’ crop this time could be maize. A poor crop last year, courtesy drought in Peninsular India, has meant that the ruling prices, at Rs 1,550-1,600 per quintal, are above the Centre’s MSP of Rs 1,425. They may not fall much — one plausible reason being the clampdown on the cattle/buffalo meat trade. That, it is being said, has increased the demand for poultry meat, which also translates into higher feed grain consumption. Like Bt cotton, maize has benefited from technology, with the advent of single-cross hybrids yielding 30 quintals and more per acre over 110-120 days.

The agriculture ministry data show an increase in maize area from 5.62 lh to 6.01 lh so far, while the same for soyabean is down from 1.01 lh to 0.45 lh.

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