Now that final acreage numbers for rabi 2024 crops are available, it is time for examining the crop prospects. Looming weather risk is casting a shadow on rabi 2024 harvest. Major crops of the season include wheat, maize, rapeseed-mustard and gram (chana). For satisfactory rabi harvest benign weather conditions, particularly winter rain, are critical.

Rabi season planting commenced in a less-than-ideal situation. The temporal and spatial distribution of the south-west monsoon (June to September 2023) was less-than-satisfactory. Although the monsoon concluded with an overall small deficit in precipitation, large swathes of the country faced acute moisture stress because of uneven distribution.

The effect of El Nino was clearly visible. It did not augur well for rabi planting. Rabi crop growing regions including in the main Punjab and Haryana faced dry conditions in December. January was worse, as most of north-west, central and eastern India faced deficient rains.

On current reckoning, El Nino conditions are likely to continue till April, but its effects are beginning to fade. India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast a warm February. It is a looming weather risk, particularly for wheat.

In 2022 and 2023, rabi crops faced heatwave conditions resulting in production shortfalls. The supply-demand fundamentals became quite tight. New Delhi was forced to impose curbs on export of key agricultural commodities like wheat, non-basmati rice and sugar.

Two scenarios

If heatwave conditions recur this year, it will be third year in a row for rabi crops. It is in this background that one must examine the prospects for 2024 rabi crops.

Specifically for wheat, two scenarios emerge — (1) benign weather during February-April months that supports crop prospects; and (2) a less-supportive weather that can hurt.

It is well-recognised that Indian wheat is at the limit of tolerance. The Wheat Research Institute has stated that two-thirds of the area this season is planted to heat-tolerant varieties. The next two months are going to be a test for the new varieties to demonstrate how heat tolerant they really are.

The production target for wheat set by the government is 114 million tonnes (mt). Looking at planted area (34.2 million hectares), in scenario 1, the upcoming wheat harvest would be in the 102-104 mt range. In Scenario 2, production can potentially take a hit to fall to 95-98 mt levels, a multi-year low.

Wheat supply-demand fundamentals are already tight. Public stocks of wheat are already running at multi-year low levels. Open market prices are at elevated levels. If production were to fall below 100 mt, procurement by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) may be in jeopardy. It can exacerbate the current availability and price situation, and make import inevitable.

Among pulses, planted area for gram or chana is down by 600,000 hectares this season to 10.5 million hectares. Almost 80 per cent of the planted area (covering Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka) is facing moisture stress.

Last year, the government initially estimated chana crop size at 13.5 mt, but subsequently reduced it to 12.3 mt. Even the revised number is seen as overstated by 10 per cent. For 2024 production target is an ambitious 13.6 mt. The harvest size is sure to fall well below the target and possibly be in the 10-10.5 mt range.

Among oilseeds, rapeseed-mustard is a key rabi crop. It has been planted on a record 10 million hectares (up 200,000 ha from last year). Almost three-fourths of the planted area is currently facing moisture stress (UP, MP, Rajasthan).

Production target is fixed at 13.1 mt. Actual harvest size may be much lower at 11.5 mt or 12 mt at best.

Among coarse cereals, maize (corn) is an important rabi  crop. The planted area has remained unchanged at 2.3 million hectares. The growing areas face moisture stress. While the official production target is set at 9.7 mt, actual harvest size may be lower at anything between 9.2  mt and 9.5 mt.

Demand for maize is expanding rapidly for feed, starch and ethanol. Ethanol producers are forced to use grains as feedstock because of restrictions on use of sugarcane. For meeting the ethanol blending target, maize import may become necessary.

The writer is a policy commentator and agribusiness specialist. Production forecasts are the writer’s best-judgment assessment. Views are personal