Though India is a top cotton producing country, it is beset with the challenges of stagnant yields for two decades, pink bollworm infestation and shortage of labour for harvesting. Endlessly waiting for second and third picks through six months and desperately looking for labour, it’s not quite a pleasant situation for cotton farmers in the country.
The Prof. Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University (PJTSAU) has just completed an experiment with a single-pick cotton variety (as against three picks now). Being a variety-based practice, the single-pick method would save the farmers from buying the seed every season as it is in vogue today.
The new variety, coupled with agronomic practices, will not only reduce the crop duration by 35 days but will also not allow the plant to grow taller, making it easier for mechanised harvesting. And, being a short duration crop, it is an effective tool to tackle the pink bollworm menace.
“As against 2-3 plants in square meter area now, we will grow 7-10 plants. Besides reducing the spending of resources on vegetation, the high density planting will make the plants to compete for resources and grow straight instead of branching out,” V Praveen Rao, Vice-Chancellor of PJTSAU, told BusinessLine .
After testing the method in the university farms, the scientists are now planning to take it to the farmers’ fields. “We are going to demonstrate the practice on about 1,000 acres in the upcoming kharif season. We are also probing whether varieties and hybrids with private sector are suitable for this practice,” he said.
A subset of 1,000 acres would also witness harvest by a robot harvester, developed by a Bengaluru-based agtech start-up. “We are going to incubate the technology at our Agri Hub Incubator,” he said.
The PJTSAU Vice-Chancellor calls it the way forward for the cotton farming in the country as it addresses several challenges that cotton farmers face.
Keshav Raj Kranthi, Chief Scientist with the US-based International Cotton Advisory Committee, says he concurs with the VC’s view.
“This is the best way forward for India, not just to be able to harvest high yields from a short season, but also more specifically to combat the pink bollworm menace. Cotton in India cannot move forward without being able to tackle pink bollworm,” he said.
“It is important that India moves towards short season cotton and leaves a cotton-free ‘closed season’ of six months to manage the pink bollworm problem better,” he said.
Is it feasible in India? High yields with single picking is possible only with high density planting (90x10 cm) provided the early formed squares are retained at least to 70-80 per cent.
“Hybrid cotton is not very conducive for high density planting because of the costly seeds. Therefore pure-line varieties are a better option as is the case in the countries that harvest more than 1,000 kg lint per hectare,” he said.
Turkey, Greece and Spain grow non-Bt varieties and harvest 1,000-1,700 kg lint per hectare with 3-6 applications of insecticides. “There is no reason to believe that this will not possible in India,” he said.
Pros and cons
According to him, the high density single pick system enables to obtain high yields within a short time, because the green boll formation window, which is most critical for pest and nutrient management, is short (40-50 days) compared to the longer window (40-120 days) as is the case now in India.
“Fibre quality of early picked synchronous bolls is relatively uniform and much better than the late picked bolls,” he pointed out.
Drought poses the biggest threat to such systems which are not ideally designed for the crop to compensate severe damage.
“Weed management between plants will need extra attention because criss-cross hoeing is not possible in high density systems,” Kranthi said.
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