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Monday, May 17, 2021

After harvesting, the next farm challenge: seeds for kharif

Companies are racing against time to make available hybrids and high yielding varieties of paddy, maize, cotton and soyabean.

Written by Harish Damodaran , Parthasarathi Biswas | New Delhi, Pune |
Updated: April 18, 2020 7:59:41 am
A cotton seed growers in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh (Express Photo by Harish Damodaran)

While the government’s focus is now on harvesting and marketing of the rabi crop, there is a no-less-immediate challenge ahead amidst the lockdown: Ensuring adequate seed availability in the ensuing kharif planting season, even as the India Meteorological Department has forecast a 100% normal monsoon.

Nursery sowing of paddy in Punjab, Haryana and west Uttar Pradesh starts after mid-May, while from June in the rest of India. Farmers either use new seeds or plant the grain saved from previous years’ production. Given the 15-20% yield loss from the latter, the preference is for planting new seeds even in the case of open-pollinated varieties (OPVs), as against hybrids.

“Roughly 40% of India’s paddy area is sown with fresh certified or truthfully-labeled seeds, with this replacement ratio over 70% in Punjab and Haryana. Also, farmers want specific varieties – for example, Pusa-1509, 1121 and 1718 in basmati and PR-126 and HKR-147 in non-basmati paddy – whose seeds they stock 15-20 days before nursery preparation,” said A.K. Singh, director, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi.

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In North-West India, there are enough local suppliers to meet demand. IARI alone has 50-odd licensed growers of its basmati variety seeds, who supply 5,000-10,000 quintals each. Basmati rice exporter KRBL Ltd produces 22,000-22,500 quintals through its own contract seed cultivation programme, which can cover up to 3.75 lakh acres at 6 kg per acre.

The problem is really in eastern UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where the new seed requirements for high-yielding OPVs is largely met by South-based companies such as Nuziveedu Seeds, Kaveri Seeds and assorted smaller players. They do contract seed production mainly in Telangana (Karimnagar, Warangal, Khammam, Nalgonda and Medak districts) and Andhra Pradesh (West and East Godavari, Krishna and Nellore). This seed has to be processed, packaged and transported to the user states, well in time for nursery planting.

That urgency is even more in hybrid seeds, which, unlike OPVs, lose their vigour on re-planting and have to be bought afresh every season. Out of the country’s about 108 million acres of paddy area, an estimated 7.5 million is covered under hybrids. Hybrid seed penetration is, interestingly, more in poorer states such as Jharkhand (25-30% of paddy acreage), UP and Bihar (15-20%), and Chhattisgarh and Odisha (10%). Even there, the penetration is higher in the adivasi belts, ranging from 35-40% in southwest Odisha to 60-70% in north Chhattisgarh and west & south Jharkhand (60-70%). The reason: In rainfed conditions, per-acre paddy yields are only 7-8 quintals from traditional varieties and 13-14 quintals from improved OPVs, while 20 quintals-plus from hybrids. That yield advantage is less in assured irrigated areas such as Punjab, where farmers get 30 quintals even with OPVs.

Around 70% of hybrid paddy seeds – the market size is 45,000 tonnes; farmers sow 6 kg per acre at Rs 200-250/kg – are produced in Telangana, that too, during the rabi season. Harvesting of this crop, from April 10-15 till the month-end, is currently on. The raw grains have to first be cleaned of impurities and then sent for quality control, grading, treatment against stored grain pests, packaging and labeling. The packed seeds are dispatched to warehouses in different states and from there to district-level distributors and local retailers.

“Packing and dispatches happen from April and till May 15-20. This time, there is shortage of both trucks and labour at our plants. While our transport is normally by 20-25 tonne trucks, we are now also exploring movement by 800-900 tonnes rail rakes,” a spokesperson of Bayer CropScience told The Indian Express. The German multinational – it has the world’s biggest hybrid paddy seed processing plant at Pragnapur, near Hyderabad – is the market leader in this segment, followed by Corteva Agriscience (earlier part of DowDuPont), Rallis India, SeedWorks International, Syngenta India and VNR Seeds.

Seed availability is also a concern in maize, where hybrid penetration is above 80%. Again, 80% of the annual seed production of 120,000-130,000 tonnes (farmers plant 8 kg per acre at Rs 170-180/kg) is during the rabi season, despite two-thirds of the consumption taking place in kharif. The relatively dry weather in rabi (reducing pest and disease incidence) and uniform crop growth possible through irrigation (the male and female plants must flower at the same time for better pollination) is most conducive for seed cultivation.

Like in hybrid paddy, 70-80% of maize seed production is in one state (AP), and the rest in Telangana and Karnataka. And with all of it – from harvesting the cobs to drying, cleaning, grading for quality, seed treatment and packing – going on right now, companies are struggling to complete dispatches by mid-May. The major players here are Corteva, Bayer, Syngenta, Rallis, Nuziveedu, Kaveri and Advanta Seeds.

“Both the Telangana and AP governments have been very supportive in overcoming challenges relating to transportation and labour availability. Seed production is a big industry for them, similar to what IT is for Bengaluru or Baddi (Himachal Pradesh) for pharma,” the Bayer spokesperson added.

The situation is no less serious in other kharif crops, especially cotton and soyabean. Farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan start planting cotton from April 15. “The irrigated region’s seed requirement is 90 lakh packets (out of 450 lakh for all-India). Due to the lockdown, nothing could be moved by trucks from the producing states of Telangana, AP, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Only 50 lakh packets have arrived by goods trains. The only breather we have is a 15-day delay in wheat harvesting, which should enable the remaining quantities to also come,” noted Ram Kaundinya, director-general, Federation of Seed Industry of India.

In cotton and soyabean, seed production happens during kharif. While companies procure raw grain from growers during October-January, the processing is only from February and peaking in March. For soyabean, that includes certification for physical/genetic purity and minimum germination by government testing laboratories. These certification tags are also stuck on the packets dispatched to distributors by early-May.

“Lockdown came in the peak processing period. Although all activities pertaining to seed production have been deemed essential services, issuance of passes for labour and permission for plants to operate by district administrations has been slow. Transportation, too, has been affected with truck drivers unwilling for long drives without roadside dhabas and repair shops. On top of it, certification laboratories have been non-functional,” stated an Indore-based soyabean processor.

Out of the 12 lakh tonnes or so soyabean seeds planted by farmers, 25-30% is “certified”. This time, it could be 100% farm-saved. Maharashtra’s agriculture department has already advised farmers to reuse last year’s grain rather than buy seeds.

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