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Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Sustainable Agriculture: Punjab’s search for a less water-guzzling, yet high-yielding paddy

A new 125-day rice variety promises to provide some respite to Punjab farmers, depleting aquifers.

Written by Divya Goyal , Harish Damodaran | Ludhiana |
March 30, 2017 12:17:02 am
Sustainable Agriculture, punjab agriculture, water saving agriculture, paddy farming, rice variety, punjab paddy farming, rice cultivation, rice cultivation techniques, PAU, Punjab Agricultural University, indian express news, water saving, india news, latest A farmer taking bags of PR-126 paddy seeds purchased from the Punjab Agricultural University’s Kisan Mela at Ludhiana. Source: Gurmeet Singh

A new variety maturing within 125 days, yet yielding nearly as much as those now grown over 135-160 days, could provide the ultimate solution to Punjab’s woes stemming from farming of water-guzzling paddy.

Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) has released a paddy variety PR-126 that gives an average of 30 quintals per acre. This is only marginally below the 30.5 quintals from PR-121 and PR-124 or the 32 quintals of the other popular variety Pusa-44.

But the real difference is in the duration, from the time of sowing seeds in the paddy nursery to harvesting of the ripened grain. This ranges from 135 days for PR-124 and 140 days for PR-121 to 160 days in the case of Pusa-44. PR-126 matures in just 123-125 days, including 30 days of nursery raising and 93-95 days after transplantation of seedlings.

“The average yield per day from the new variety, at about 24 kg per acre, is more than the 20 kg of Pusa-44 or 22 kg for PR-121 and PR-124. The shorter duration also means less water consumption. If farmers have to give, say, 26 irrigations for Pusa-44, this would be only 21-22 in PR-121/PR-124 and 17-18 in PR-126,” claims G S Mangat, head of PAU’s rice improvement programme.

PR-121 and PR-124 were released for commercial cultivation in 2013 and 2015, respectively. The PR-126 variety was officially released for planting in the coming 2017 kharif season at last week’s PAU Kisan Mela here. “Last year, about 400 quintals of seeds was made available on trial basis to select farmers. This time, we are distributing another 1,000 quintals. At 8 kg planting per acre, it will again cover only a limited area,” adds Mangat.

PR-121 has, within a span of three years, become Punjab’s most widely-cultivated paddy variety. Last year, it covered over 7.7 lakh hectares (lh) or 30.7 per cent of the state’s total non-basmati paddy area, with PR-124 accounting for another 9.8 per cent. In the process, Pusa-44’s share, which was 39 per cent in 2012, fell to 20.3 per cent.

“We have not recommended cultivation of Pusa-44 (developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi) in Punjab mainly due to its long duration. The nursery sowing has to be before April last week and transplanting by mid-May, to enable harvesting from October and timely planting of the next wheat crop. The water requirement will obviously be high during this peak summer period. Secondly, Pusa-44 is susceptible to bacterial blight. There is no chemical control available against the Xanthomonas oryzae pathogen causing this disease that can result in significant grain yield loss,” explains Mangat.

Released in 1993, Pusa-44’s main attraction was its yields. At 32 quintals per quintal, this exceeded the average 26 quintals of PR-106, a 145-day PAU variety that was till then Punjab’s workhorse paddy following its introduction in 1976. Being a medium-slender (‘fine’) grain giving higher head rice recovery than PR-106, which produced long-slender or ‘superfine’ grains, also made Pusa-44 a favourite with millers. The Union government’s decision merging ‘fine’ and ‘superfine’ paddy into a single Grade ‘A’ category from October 1997 — entitling Pusa-44 to the same minimum support price (MSP) as PR-106 — further tilted the advantage in favour of the former.

The last straw came from the Punjab government’s policy of supplying free power to farmers. “When water could be freely pumped out to allow transplanting even in May, the farmer had reason to grow a long-duration variety that gave him extra yield. But it came at the cost of the state’s
water table,” points out Satinder Singh Brar, a retired senior extension specialist with PAU, who has advocated a ban on Pusa-44 cultivation.

According to latest official data for 2010-11, groundwater resources in 110 out of Punjab’s 138 blocks were “overexploited”, with average extraction rates from aquifers exceeding recharge levels. Underground water being overdrawn has been attributed to paddy cultivation area in the state rising from under 3 lh to over 30 lh between 1965 and 2016. It has led to the enactment of the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act in 2009, barring any nursery sowing and transplanting of paddy before May 15 and June 15, respectively.

PAU vice-chancellor B S Dhillon believes that weaning the Punjab farmer away from paddy is impractical, as it is a crop entailing less production risk and with an assured market based on MSP procurement. The more sustainable solution is in breeding short-duration, but high-yielding, varieties that require less water. The new PAU varieties, from PR-121 to PR-126, can be comfortably transplanted after mid-June 15 or even towards the month-end with the monsoon’s arrival.

“We bred these mainly by crossing PR-106 and PR-116 (a high head rice recovery variety released in 2000). Further, the PR-106 parent itself incorporated three bacterial blight resistant genes Xa4, xa13 and Xa21 (sourced from traditional landrace cultivars and wild relatives of paddy).
The transfer of these genes in pyramided combination lines (to confer durable resistance) involved use of molecular breeding and marker assisted selection techniques,” informs Mangat. The end-result has been reduced-duration paddy varieties having bacterial blight-resistance, and with yields and head rice recoveries comparable to Pusa-44.

“Last year, I sowed PR-126 on 20 acres and harvested 33 quintals per acre, despite undertaking transplanting only on June 27. This time, I plan to increase my area under the new variety to 25 acres,” says Kulwinder Singh, a 30-acre farmer from Mardanpur village in Patiala district’s Rajpura tehsil.

“For over a decade, we grew Pusa-44 because yields could even go to 35 quintals per acre. But with PR-126, I am getting around 31 quintals, while also saving money on running my diesel generator to ensure standing water for the transplanted paddy,” notes P P S Pangli, a progressive farmer from Ludhiana’s Panglian village, who grew PR-126 on 22 out of his 82 acres.

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