2018-19 is going to be a landmark sugar season for Uttar Pradesh. Not only is the state set to be India’s top producer for a second successive year, but it will also, for the first time, overtake Maharashtra in sugar recovery from cane. The credit for this goes to the wonder cane variety, Co-0238, developed by Bakshi Ram, director of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Sugarcane Breeding Institute (SBI) at Coimbatore.
UP mills have, in the current sugar season (October-September) as of March 12, crushed 725.36 lakh tonnes (lt) of cane, 6.4% below the 775.14 lt for the corresponding period of 2017-18. Yet, sugar output has fallen by just 0.4% from 82.13 lt to 81.77 lt. The reason for it is sugar recovery. Mills have produced an average 11.27 tonnes of sugar from every 100 tonnes of cane crushed so far this season, as against the 10.60% recovery recorded during the same period of 2017-18.
UP’s average 11.27% sugar recovery rate in this season is higher than the 11.14% for Maharashtra. From table 1, it can be seen that between 2011-12 and 2017-18, Maharashtra’s average recovery has dropped from 11.67% to 11.24%, and 11.14% in the ongoing season. UP has witnessed the opposite, with recovery going up from a mere 9.07% in 2011-12 to 10.84% in 2017-18 and 11.27% so far this season.
Table 2 shows how the above transformation has been mainly courtesy the variety that Bakshi Ram bred while he was head of SBI’s regional station at Karnal, Haryana. Till 2012-13, Co-0238, officially released in 2009, was being grown only in select farmers’ fields under evaluation trials conducted by the Indian Sugar Mills Association. In 2013-14, the variety was cultivated on a full scale in 72,628 hectares across UP. In the last sugar season, it covered 12.08 lakh hectares (lh) or nearly 53% of UP’s cane area. In the current season, those figures have reached 19.28 lh and 69%, respectively, pointing to a remarkable rate of adoption within a short time gain.
The gains to mills from this high-recovery cane, linked to its “early-maturity” character, have been obvious. An extra 2 kg sugar from every quintal (100 kg) of cane crushed translates into additional revenue of Rs 60, taking an average Rs 30/kg price realisation. On 1,111.90 lt – the total quantity that UP mills crushed in 2017-18 – that works out to about 22 lt of additional sugar, which is worth over Rs 6,600 crore.
But it’s not only mills that have benefited.
Before Co-0238, the cane varieties in northern India were all “medium-thin”, with the average diameter of each stick at 2-2.25 cm. Co-0238, by contrast, is “medium-thick”, whose individual cane sticks have a diameter range of 2.5-2.75 cm. Increased thickness confers higher yields. Average cane yields in UP have risen from around 60 tonnes to almost 80 tonnes per hectare in the last five years, which is clearly a result of older varieties such as CoS-767 and CoJ-64 giving way to Co-0238. For farmers, harvesting 20 tonnes more, at the present state-advised price of Rs 325/quintal for “early-maturing” varieties, means an additional income of Rs 65,000 per hectare.
By “early-maturity”, the reference is not to the crop’s duration per se, but to sucrose accumulation in the cane. Farmers in UP mostly plant sugarcane during February-April, which is ready for crushing in 11-12 months. Moreover, from this harvested plant-cane, there is also a 9-11 “ratoon” crop that sprouts automatically from its stubbles. The ratoon cane is what the mills first crush from November. Harvesting and crushing of the plant-cane takes place only after mid-January.
The advantage with an early-maturity variety is that the sucrose accumulation reaches 15-16% levels in the ratoon cane by November and by mid-January for the plant crop. This is not the case with “general” varieties, where the same sucrose levels are obtained only after mid-December for the ratoon and from March for the plant-cane (not all sucrose in cane is recovered as sugar; the unrecovered part goes into molasses used by distilleries). Early-maturing cane varieties basically enable mills to get higher sugar recovery from November and all through the crushing season till end-April.
Sugar recovery is partly a function of climatic conditions. “For proper sucrose accumulation, you need cool nights and bright days, with average temperatures at 25°C and minimums not going below 15°. These conditions are best achieved in southern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka, unlike in the sub-tropical areas of UP, Punjab, Haryana or Bihar, where night temperatures dip to 3-4°,” explains Bakshi Ram.
The low-profile, soft-spoken breeder was, however, confident that both cane yields and sugar recoveries could up in the North, by increasing the thickness of their sticks to the 2.5 cm-plus levels of Maharashtra. That, of course, required challenging the entrenched belief that only medium-thin varieties were suitable for cultivation in sub-tropical India. “I won’t be surprised to see the average recovery for UP in this season to end up at 11.5-11.75%,” says Bakshi Ram. While favourable conditions — significant day-night temperature difference, clear skies — have also helped, the major contributor has, no doubt, been Co-0238.
In Maharashtra, 67 out of the 195 mills that took season this time have already shut. In UP, all the 117 operational mills are still running. “The ratoon cane yields were lower than last year’s, but the plant crop is good and we may just about crush as much as in 2017-18. But sugar production will definitely cross 120 lt, only thanks to Co-0238. Nobody ever imagined UP’s sugar recovery would surpass Maharashtra’s,” remarks a Bijnor-based miller.
UP apart, Bakshi Ram’s variety has been widely cultivated in other northern states. In the 2018-19 season, acreages under Co-0238 are estimated at 136,847 hectares (out of a total cane area of 301,765 hectares) in Bihar, 95,825 hectares (out of 158,484) in Haryana, 87,000 hectares (out of 136,673) in Punjab, and 55,642 hectares (out of 92,938) in Uttarakhand. That adds up to more than 23 lh or two-thirds of the roughly 35 lh cane area in subtropical India — from just 6,273 hectares in 2012-13 and 115,942 hectares in 2013-14.
It also accounts for the sugar industry in the North being on a firmer footing than five years ago.