‘Sunstroke' impacts wheat yields as crop ripens early

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Haryana farmers report loss of 3-4 quintals/acre.

Deluge of arrivals: Labourers at Haryana's Ladwa grain market take a break from buying operations. -
Deluge of arrivals: Labourers at Haryana's Ladwa grain market take a break from buying operations. -

Harish Damodaran

Karnal (Haryana), April 21

Premature ripening induced by early onset of summer has definitely impacted wheat yields this time, if one goes by farmers' opinion, at least in Haryana.

Lower than expected

Most farmers Business Line randomly interacted with in the major wheat-growing belt covering Sonepat, Panipat, Karnal, Kaithal and Kurukshetra districts were unanimous about yields turning out lower than earlier expectations – and even below last year's.

“Isko to sunstroke ne ekdum sukha diya” (due to heat wave, at one stroke, it has dried up) is how Mr Devidayal put it, referring to the sudden heat surge in March that dried up the grain.

Till early March, the standing crop of this seven-acre farmer from Ranwar village in Karnal appeared in perfect condition and “it looked I would get 24-25 quintals an acre, better than last year's 22 quintals”.

But the spike in temperatures – rather than a gradual build-up as in normal years – from the third week of March upset Mr Devidayal's calculations and he ended up harvesting just 18 quintals.

“Last time, I got 54-55 man (one man equals 40 kg) an acre; this year it is only 42-43 man. High temperatures with hot winds led to my crop maturing about 10 days early,” complained Mr Naveen Tyagi, who farms eight acres in Teha village of Sonepat's Ganaur block.

“It was all going well. Though rains were inadequate, there were no diseases or al (aphid) attacks. I was confident of 23-24 quintals and, instead, got 19 quintals,” said Mr Gyan Singh, a 10-acre grower of Baraunda village in Ladwa (Kurukshetra).

Heat wave

On an average, the farmers Business Line spoke to reported yield reduction of 3-4 quintals an acre (7.5-10 quintals a hectare) over last year. Much of this had to do with heat wave conditions, especially from the last week of March, coinciding with the crop's grain-filling stage.

In the north-west India, grain-filling (the transport of starch matter from the leaves, stems and spikes into the seed) starts from mid-March and lasts for 15-20 days. If day temperatures are within 31-32 degrees Celsius during this period, there would be proper accumulation of the milky, semi-solid starch matter in the kernel. Subsequently, the normal heat build-up from April dries up the moisture, making the grain hard and ripe for harvesting.

From the farmers' accounts, this year's crop seems to have suffered “sunstroke” in the midst of grain-filling. However, according to Dr Jag Shoran, Principal Investigator (Crop Improvement) at the Directorate of Wheat Research here, the probability of this would be more in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or West Bengal, where wheat is sown towards mid- or late-December.

“In Punjab and Haryana, 80 per cent sowing happens by mid-November. My hunch is that by the time temperatures had really risen, a significant part of grain-filling was already over. In Madhya Pradesh, the impact would have been even less because the crop there is anyway ready by mid-March,” he said.

Moisture content

But how does this reconcile with what farmers have to say? “Well, it could, to some extent, reflect moisture content. The wheat harvested usually has 12.5 to 13 per cent moisture, which has this time fallen to 10.5 to 11 per cent. This will show itself in lower grain weight, though flour recovery may not be affected,” added Dr Shoran.

The Agriculture Ministry had, in February, estimated the size of the currently harvested wheat crop at 80.28 million tonnes (mt), marginally below the previous year's record 80.68 mt.

There was optimism of output eventually even crossing 82 mt, based on field reports of excellent crop tillering and flowering, besides the absence of any rust or Karnal Bunt disease. But all this was before the heat wave from the latter half of March.

The Ministry is yet to release its “third advance estimates” of production, which is normally out in March. Farmers, on their part, seem to have already factored in the untimely “sunstroke”.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 22, 2010)
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