Thakur Dyal Singh has never in the past raised the rates for operation of his combine harvester in farmers’ fields by more than Rs 100 per acre. Till around 2012-13, he was charging Rs 800-1,000 for harvesting, threshing and cleaning their paddy or wheat crop from one acre using his machine. In 2017-18, his rate was Rs 1,200 per acre, which meant an annual increase of Rs 40-80 during this five-year period.
But for the coming paddy harvesting season, beginning October, Singh has decided to charge Rs 1,500 per acre, which is a Rs 300 hike at one go. “It is big and I’m not happy at all. But given how diesel prices have gone up (the fuel is currently retailing at Rs 73.87 per litre in Delhi, as against Rs 58.85 a year ago), do I have an alternative? My fuel costs have risen by over 25 per cent. I am revising my rates, too, by the same extent,” points out this combine owner, who is from Bariyan village of Mukerian tehsil in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district.
Singh’s machine consumes roughly 10 litres of diesel in an hour and can cover an acre of paddy in 30 to 45 minutes. “If the farmer’s land is properly levelled and his crop is standing upright, it will take half an hour. But if the land is uneven and the crop isn’t straight or has suffered lodging, it may take 15-20 minutes more time,” he explains.
Raghbir Singh plans to charge even more: Rs 1,800 per acre. The reason for it is that his combine is fitted with a Super-Straw Management System or S-SMS unit. This attachment, which basically cuts the loose straw thrown by the combine and spreads it uniformly in the field, results in extra diesel consumption of about two litres per hour. “The S-SMS attachment makes the combine heavier. We also need to run it slower for doing the straw cutting and spreading operation. And since it takes 45-55 minutes to cover one acre, the charges are more than for the regular combine. But the increase from last year’s rate of Rs 1,400-1,500 per acre is, no doubt, steep,” admits the 56-year-old combine operator from Kanoi village in Sangrur tehsil and district.
“I don’t blame them (the operators). Their fuel costs have gone through the roof and neither they nor I have any idea how much more it would in the coming days,” says Dharminder Singh, a 14-acre farmer from Ugrahan village in Sangrur’s Sunam tehsil.
A combine operator normally does up to 10 acres of area daily. It is lower, at 7-8 acres, for machines fitted with S-SMS. “The harvesting season is hardly 25 days. Also, we cannot operate beyond 7 o’clock at night and before 9 o’clock in the morning, because the combine does not run well when there is dew on the crop. And if you include the time travelled on the road, the total field operating hours in a season is only 200-250 acres. My entire cost of diesel, maintenance/repair, and labour (Rs 50,000 for the season) has to be recovered from farmers during this short time window”, notes Thakur Dyal Singh.
Punjab’s paddy area this season, according to the agriculture department data, is 30.42 lakh hectares or 75 lakh acres. Even after excluding the 4.37 lakh hectares under basmati — the fine aromatic paddy that is mostly manually harvested — farmers in the state may incur an additional expense of around Rs 193 crore, if combine harvester operators were to charge Rs 300 more per acre.
There is a silver lining, though.
Harvesting of paddy in Punjab is followed by the planting of wheat. The loose and left-over paddy straw from combine harvesting is, in the normal course, simply burnt. After burning, farmers irrigate their field once and wait for 7-8 days for it to have the right amount of moisture. They, then, plough the field through two rounds of rotavator or disk harrow operations. It is on this finely-prepared seedbed that wheat is sown. Each rotavator/disk harrow operation costs Rs 1,000 per acre, which might go up to Rs 1,200 with higher diesel prices. Besides, the 12-15 inch long left-over paddy stubble has to first be cut using a straw chopper/cutter before it is burnt. That cost is another Rs 700 per acre, which would again now rise to Rs 1,000.
Simply put, the total field preparation expense after normal combine-harvesting of paddy would be Rs 2,700 per acre, and Rs 3,400 if the higher diesel costs are factored in. On top of this, burning itself entails hiring a labourer, who will ensure that the field is made completely free of straw.
This is where the S-SMS and Happy Seeder technology can make a difference. The Happy Seeder is tractor-mounted machine that cuts and lifts the standing paddy stubble, drills the seeds of the succeeding wheat crop into the bare soil, and deposits the straw over the sown area as a mulch cover. Together with the S-SMS attachment that takes care of the loose straw, it dispenses with the need for burning paddy residue, while allowing wheat to be planted even on fields containing straw.
“The S-SMS attachment will increase my harvesting charges by Rs 300 per acre. The cost of using Happy Seeder last year was Rs 1,000 per acre, which may be Rs 1,200 now. But I don’t have to use any straw chopper/ cutter or rotavator/disk harrow and nor is labour required for burning. All in all, the savings will work out to at least Rs 1,900 per acre,” claims Dharminder Singh.
“When diesel has become so dear, it makes every sense to go in for technology that will reduce the number of field operations. With every field operation, we are burning that much more diesel. In this case, if we end up not burning any straw as well, which contributes to air pollution, there can be no better end-result,” states Gurdip Singh, who farms 32 acres at Chak Kalan village in Ludhiana West tehsil of the same district.
He and Dharminder Singh have been using S-SMS and Happy Seeder for the last two years. Costlier diesel should, hopefully, lead more farmers to follow suit — and shun burning of paddy straw.