Rising February temperatures in parts of western and north India have once again raised concerns in certain quarters over the wheat crop, even as the Centre has predicted a record output of 112 million tonnes this season.

Only last year, an unprecedented heat wave in March and April resulted in a depleted output at 107 million tonnes, after the Centre had initially projected an output of 111 million tonnes.

It is too early to jump to dire conclusions. But there are definite indications that the weather has changed during this part of the year in north India — implying that policymakers must factor in a hot March and April while trying to boost productivity of rabi crops such as wheat, chana and mustard.

A study by Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, an ICAR body, on ‘heat wave 2022’ says wheat yields fell 15-25 per cent last year, owing to an extreme combination of high temperature and low rainfall in March and April. This was recorded in 10 out of 36 Met subdivisions, as a result of which a yield drop was observed in the case of milk, poultry, fruit and vegetables.

Western disturbances, which bring rain and extend wintry conditions into February and March, were all but absent in 2022.They are critical to keeping India’s weather and agriculture in balance. In their absence, a hot, high pressure ‘anti-cyclone’ from the Arabian desert sets in.

This year too, Western disturbances have been feeble. There is no immediate threat to crops as the nights have been cool this month, even as day temperatures have been above normal in northern, central and western regions.

A temperature of 15-30 degrees Celsius till March-end is ideal for wheat. Some weather scientists contend that the frequency of western disturbances is expected to fall in the winter months.

Hence, the farm ecosystem for rabi should be prepared to deal with a premature onset of summer — whether or not that materialises this year.

An ICAR project has been working on heat-resistant varieties and other techniques in 151 climate-risk-prone village clusters in north and west India. One way to beat the heat, according to the pilot conducted last year, is to ensure that wheat is sown early.

Direct seeding of rice with short duration varieties helps in sowing of wheat towards the end of October. Crops sown towards the second week of November 2021 were badly hit. Quick sowing of wheat crop with ‘happy seeder’, soon after early harvest of rice resulted in near normal yields (97 per cent) last year.

Equally good results were obtained with heat-tolerant varieties. It is important to popularise these varieties as well as beat-the-heat practices such as mulching and shading.

The wheat crop looks good with an acreage of 34.1 million hectares, marginally higher than last year. There are indications that early sowing has picked up. But farm practices need to adapt to new climate realities.