No paddy pool!

The centuries-old practice of planting paddy in a puddled field is beginning to be replaced by a new technique of direct dry-seeding. The farmer saves money and time, the earth its water — and the environment gets less methane.

As the sun loses some of its intensity, 57-year-old Shringara Singh is at his nine-acre paddy farm in Punjab’s Jallandhar district, watching the John Deere harvester scythe through the crop, which has turned out well despite a poor monsoon. But Lady Luck can be fickle and he has seen a new sowing method that does away with the need to inundate fields: he must have the machine next season.

“There is this new machine that drills the seeds directly into the ground,” says Shringara. “My relatives have already fabricated their own, I could not get access to it…there was so much demand.”

At Jallowal, another village in Jallandhar district, some farmers who tried out direct dry-seeding of rice (DSR) have already tasted success—less preparatory work, more money, better yields. “We tried the new machine that PepsiCo has helped fabricate and we were able to save a lot of water and labour,” says Mohinder Jit Singh, a 53-year-old farmer who has 70 acres. “The soil was also left in good condition and this will help us in the next sowing cycle,” adds Mohinder.

Sukhjit Singh, one of the farmers lucky enough to get the machine, says: “Such was the craze to try out the new gadget that some farmers who did not manage to get it just went ahead and scattered the seeds on the field.” (There is a traditional DSR method, in which the farmer scatters the seeds, but this leaves much to chance). The water-intensive method accounts for 90 per cent of India’s total rice cultivation, spurred by the availability of better fertilisers, rice varieties, irrigation set-up and even government incentives.

So, will this new DSR method be the game-changer for paddy cultivation? Today, as paddy is grown mostly in the monsoons, the high soil moisture and temperature add up to create a weed problem that can be controlled only by keeping the field under three to four inches of water in the initial stages after the seedling is transplanted from the nursery. Before this, the soil has to be compacted so that the water does not run through. That’s a twopronged attack on Nature: depletion of underground water tables and destruction of the soil.

“The new DSR method has the potential for being a game-changer for India…Work is being done in many parts of the country and the projects are at a very nascent stage,” says Gokul Patnaik, a former chief of the Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) who now heads Global AgriSystems, a consulting firm that is part of Ramesh Vangal’s Katra group.

H. Pathak, FNAAS, AvH Fellow, Division of Environmental Sciences at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), points out that puddling— or the water-intensive method —adds to methane emissions and erodes the quality of the soil.

“However, we find in our trials that we did along with PepsiCo that ‘direct seeding’ has led to substantial savings,” says Pathak.

Similar studies have been done in India by the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the largest and oldest agriculture research institute in Asia. J.K. Ladha, senior soil scientist and IRRI representative in India, says: “Yes, DSR is the need of the day. Conventionally, puddled transplanting method of rice cultivation is labour-, water- and capital- intensive.” In any case, water and labour are becoming scarce even in India.

According to IARI data, for the traditional transplanted method, the cost of cultivation is about Rs 30,000 per hectare and the total return Rs 37,000, leaving a net Rs 7,000 in the farmer’s hands.

In the DSR method, cost of cultivation is Rs 24,000 a hectare, the total return Rs 34,000 and the net return Rs 10,000. The figures are based on trials done in western Uttar Pradesh.

These figures factor in cost of all inputs like irrigation, labour, tractor, seed and fertiliser, but the estimates could vary from place to place. “In places where electricity is free (e.g. Punjab), the return with DSR will be more,” says Pathak.

Many companies are entering the fray. Kolkata-based ITC Ltd., the FMCG major that has taken its e-Choupal network of Internet kiosks to 10 states, is promoting DSR via its Choupal Pradarshan Khets.

S. Sivakumar, Chief Executive Officer for Agri Business, ITC, says that in kharif 2009, the focus of crop improvement programmes of ITC e-Choupals in Tamil Nadu was in direct-sown areas. “In our field trials in Sivagangai district, by introducing hybrids for direct sowing, we demonstrated 15 per cent more yield compared to the transplanted method. Overall, there was a 65 per cent yield increase when compared with the local varieties,” says Sivakumar.

The PepsiCo India innovation avoids problems like high seed-death rate and water logging as it uses a seed drill that also adds a dash of fertiliser. Plus, laser levelers help prepare the field better.

PepsiCo India itself has helped farmers introduce DSR in 6,500 acres of paddy fields across Punjab, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. Trial runs have been successful and it is hoped that the water saving alone, in the five states, could be five billion kilolitres per season. “We have taken this up as part of our corporate social responsibility mission as this technology aids in reducing the global warming potential and leads to material benefits for farmers,” says Amit Bose, Executive Vice-President, PepsiCo India. The aim is to scale it up rapidly by next year.

Puddling, or the compacting of the soil and inundating the field, is also required to maintain the anaerobic conditions that help increase the availability of iron, zinc and phosphorous— three minerals needed by the rice plant. The new DSR method makes up by drilling some fertilisers together with the seed into the ground.

Raju Poosapati, Senior Vice-President at YES Bank, notes that the rush for DSR has also attracted weedicide manufacturers. “Weedicides can play an important role in increasing the acreages under DSR… If selective herbicides are used it helps in reducing the costs on control of weeds and also there are technologies involved,” says Poosapati, who also heads Food & Agribusiness Strategic Advisory & Research at the YES Bank.

However, DSR has caveats attached to it. “Fact is, the technology is still being evaluated by farmers and controlling weeds remains a challenge,” says Ladha. Also, according to Sivakumar of ITC, the achievable yield levels are slightly less than those from the traditional system involving transplanting. “Moreover, it can be adopted only by those farmers who have assured source of irrigation available, since sowing is required to be done well before the start of the monsoon. Use of weedicides is also very essential,” he says.

But according to PepsiCo India, this depends on the stage of the trials. It says there are new molecules that have been developed for effective weedicides: “Besides, we have realised that weedicides given at the right stage of planting, and in the required measure, are effective in controlling the erosion of productivity. We find that farmers have a similar level of productivity as that in the traditional method,” says Susheel Sankhyan, GM, Agribusiness, PepsiCo India.