Use of water conservation technology
It is bewildering how a country facing severe shortage of water should be looking for higher productivity by extending cultivated area instead of applying conservation methods and technologies increasingly in use across the world; even water affluent countries are harnessing them to boost productivity.
Conservation technologies seem to be the answer to water-scarce countries' woes and of these, Zero Tillage (ZT) has proved extremely effective as it offers relief, better income and less labour to growers besides taking the pressure away from shrinking water resources.
The technology has been introduced by a Pakistani agro-scientist, Dr. Ashraf Chaudhry, who settled in New Zealand a little over two decades back. A graduate of Faisalabad's Agriculture University, Dr. Chaudhry pursued higher studies in UK and after obtaining his doctorate, found a job in Massey University of New Zealand where he had been teaching as professor till a few months back. He left the university after election as Member of Parliament in June this year.
While Dr. Chaudhry was actively engaged in community service and is the Chairman of the Council for Immigrants in New Zealand, the Labor Party, with which he was associated, nominated him as a candidate no less for his distinguished contribution to agriculture sector.
Zero Technology is a special technique for cultivating crops without tillage and seedbed preparation. The implement used for this purpose is known as Zero Tillage (ZT) Drill. Dr. Chaudhry describes it as a drill 'capable of seeding through the residue cover and providing a firm seed soil contact'. It has been found 'especially useful for raising the Rabi (winter) crops in rice harvested fields where uncertain rains and excessive soil moisture do not permit timely sowing of wheat.
According to him, the technology also " saves expenditure involved in seedbed preparations while post sowing weed control in ZT requires use of herbicides similar to conventional sowing". He confirms that this technology is being extensively followed for wheat sowing by many countries including the US, Brazil, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
The seed drill for ZT was developed at Massey University of New Zealand and was later fabricated in Pakistan with the help of Dr. Chaudhry and other experts from New Zealand with the collaboration of Pakistan Agricultural Research council (PARC). Experiments carried out with the equipment proved successful but the technology could not be applied for lack of funding and high cost, over Rs 25,000, of the drill. There was no support from the government.
However, limited field trials for wheat cultivation with this technology were undertaken in some of the rice growing areas of Punjab under an On-Farm Water Management project in Gujranwala and Gujrat in early 1996-97. The acreage covered by ZT was nominal: it was applied to only 50 acres of rice land.
But the results apparently impressed farmers and the technology started catching on. It was extended to 200,000 acres last year and the wheat crop currently being sown in Punjab would have half a million acres under it. But in the context of the total of about 15.4 million acres of wheat land in Punjab, about one-third of this area used for rice cultivation, the acreage is insignificant. Even for this, the agriculture sector should be grateful to the DG, OFWM, who has gone beyond the line of duty to promote conservation agriculture.
His efforts have been instrumental in demonstrating results produced by the use of ZT technology and arousing the farmer's interest in it. According to an estimate, there are now about 2000 ZT drills with farmers. About 15 drill manufacturers are currently manufacturing the equipment and the demand for the drill has been instrumental in bringing the price down to about Rs. 30,000. Gains from its application ensure the return of this investment with profit for farmers with a holding of about 15 acres within the period of a year.
Firstly, it eases pressure from water shortage. After rice harvesting, sufficient residual moisture is generally available in the land for establishing the next crop that is mostly wheat. Conventional tillage accelerates the process of soil moisture evaporation and requires irrigation for the preparation of land thus increasing irrigation requirements of the wheat crop.
ZT saves sowing time and becomes instrumental in timely sowing of wheat. Experts say that sowing after mid-November causes a loss of about one percent yield per day. That also affects the next crop and disturbs the most productive cycle for cultivation and harvesting. Another benefit is savings in diesel expenses; less labour and higher produce are additional mileage. Research studies conducted during the last five years or so of the application of ZT I Pakistan list numerous benefits of the technology that come to a substantial amount for a farmer and tremendous income for the exchequer as well as consistently more reliable availability of wheat for food needs of the populace.
These researches place direct benefits of ZT per acre at reducing the cost of cultivation up to Rs.550 to Rs.950, saving irrigation water from three percent to 20 percent, bringing the use of diesel down by 20 liters, enhancing plant population up to 22 percent, decreasing weed infestation by 40 percent and raising grain yield up to 33 percent.
Other benefits listed by scientists are an acceleration of the process of decay in stubble, enhancement of microbial activities in the soil, improvement in the soil's fertility and more efficient impact of fertilizers. It is incomprehensible why the government has not provided ZT, as also other conservation technologies the kind of support they merit.
The only explanation could be that military rulers do not have much experience of the sector though even that is not convincing in view of the fact that many army men are from rural background, others have been allotted agricultural lands and more and more of them have been showing interest in becoming land owners.
One hopes that when the political government assumes control of the administration in the coming days, it would realize the potential of these technologies and come up with policies for boosting agriculture and would rise to the challenges of the sector that is regarded as the backbone of the national economy but is currently in disarray.