Pakistan Agriculture News, Wheat

Wheat crop promising, but obstacles remain

AS the harvesting of wheat begins next month, Pakistan looks set to come closer to this year’s output target of about 26.5 million tonnes despite water shortages and a slight decrease in the area under cultivation.

Growers and officials hope that a generally favourable weather and a modest gain in national average per-hectare yield can offset any productivity loss owing to the above-listed factors.

Some officials and growers’ lobby groups are sceptical about meeting the target amid insufficient supply of irrigation water. During this wheat-growing season, irrigation water supplies have so far remained insufficient, not only in Sindh but also in Punjab.

So, there are chances that the wheat target may be missed, more so because sowing took place on a little less-than-targeted area of land, say office-bearers of the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture, including its general secretary Zahid Hussain Bhurgari. Some officials of Sindh and Punjab agriculture departments also share their concerns about meeting the provincial wheat production targets.

All eyes are set on Punjab where any slippage in the output target could upset the country’s overall production
But officials of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research think otherwise. “First, there is no significant reduction in the targeted area under cultivation of wheat. Second, wheat crop is maturing under a generally favourable weather,” said a senior official when asked about the crop’s prospects.

Another official said, “Field reports suggest that proper usage of fertiliser and other inputs plus the use of high-yield seeds would improve our national average yield this year.”

The Federal Committee on Agriculture (FCA) set the wheat output target at 26.464m tonnes for the crop year 2017-18, projecting sowing of the crop over an area of 8.945m hectares (around 22m acres) and targeting an average yield of 2958.6kg per hectare.

Sources in the food ministry say that prospects are good for surpassing the yield target, adding that the actual per-hectare yield could touch 3,000kg. They insist that this is enough to make up for any productivity loss even if wheat sowing has taken place on 1-2pc less than the targeted area. The final official report on the actual size of wheat sowing has yet to come out.

They point out that better spells of winter rains across wheat-producing areas have helped in the sowing and germination of wheat plants. Besides, big agricultural lending by banks has enabled farmers to use high-yielding quality seeds and fertilisers.

Progressive farmers (or those who have to their credit established records of achieving farm productivity) are increasingly using mechanised wheat reaper that cut post-harvest losses. These two factors should also help in getting higher per-hectare yields and, thus, enable growers in getting closer to or meeting this year’s wheat output target.

Officials of the Punjab irrigation department say water supply shortages that were initially estimated at around 36pc rose beyond that level towards the end of February and lasted till March 10. That, they fear, can adversely affect the standing wheat crops both in central and southern Punjab.

Prospects of wheat output remains bright despite the fact that the support price has remained intact at the previous year level of Rs1,300 per 40kg. This is partly due to the fact that domestic demand for wheat has been growing steadily over the years, officials say, adding that wheat growers also know that unlike in case of sugar, decisions on wheat exports are taken on time.

At the time of target setting in mid-October last year, the FCA deliberately decided to keep the sowing area target for wheat below the usual 9m hectares to create more room for growing oilseeds and pulses crops.

But some leading progressive farmers in Punjab anticipating higher gains in growing pulses and oilseed crops went one step ahead and carved out additional cultivation patches for these crops compromising on wheat crop. This also happened in Sindh, though on a limited scale. It is premature to say if these two factors would affect total wheat output, and if so, to what extent.

Growers say that this and some other factors like the shortage of water, particularly in Sindh, can actually reduce total wheat output. Around 90pc growers in Pakistan depend on water from the irrigation system to nurture wheat crop, and water shortage in Sindh during this crop year may take a toll on the crop size.

This has not been the case with Punjab though. But there, particularly in the Potohar region where farmers depend on rain-feeding of the crop, winter rains fell in later than expected.

That should have kept farmers from sowing wheat in the first place, but many growers managed to sow a little late. What emboldened them to do so was their trust on rains prediction of our metrological department, which has won credibility in recent years, officials of the Met Office say.

According to the provincial breakdown of the wheat crop target for the current year, Punjab is to produce 20m tonnes; Sindh 4.2m tonnes, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 1.36m tonnes and Balochistan 900,000 tonnes. Officials say all provinces except Sindh are expected to produce wheat closer to the targets.

In Sindh, growers had to wait longer than usual to sow wheat because a standoff between millers and sugar cane growers had delayed cane harvesting. Growers there also say that many of them could not get high-quality, original seeds for sowing and that, they fear, can lead to lower than targeted wheat output.

So, Sindh’s output of wheat this year could reach 4m tonnes at best, missing the target of 4.2m tonnes, provincial officials fear, but deny allegations that spurious seeds were supplied to wheat growers.

Some progressive growers say the anticipated shortfall may partly be offset by higher yields of the crop in some parts of the province. But they, too, are not much optimistic about achieving the 4.2m tonnes target.

Heavy rains by the end of February that broke a long spell of dry weather in Balochistan can boost crop maturity and hitting the wheat output target there seems a possibility. According to media reports, KP officials are also confident that the province can meet wheat output target, supported by weather and farmers’ increased access to certified seeds.

All eyes are, however, set on Punjab where any slippage in the output target could upset the country’s overall production.