Soil Properties, Crop Yield, and Economics under Integrated Crop Management
Source: Flickr, Bioversity International

Food production in India needs to expand significantly in the near future in order to keep pace with rapid increases in population and changing food consumption habits. At the same time, many of the agricultural gains achieved in recent decades have been achieved through the increased application of chemical fertilizers (which are generally focused on increasing levels of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus in the soil) and pesticides and increased use of both is likely unsustainable in the long run. In this context, Indian agriculture needs to become more sustainable while simultaneously increasing yields.

A recent paper in World Development describes and investigates the impact of the Bhoochetana program in Karnataka (a state wide program promoting integrated soil and crop management practices). Specifically, the paper estimates and compares the effect of conventional farming practices (FP) and improved management practices (IP) (as promoted by the program) on crop yields and profitability in Karnataka.

Bhoochetana is a project launched by a consortium of partners (including ICRISAT, state agricultural universities, the Department of Agriculture, Watershed Development Department, Directorate of Economics and Statistics, community-based organizations, and farmers) set up in Karnataka in 2009 with the purpose of improving the soils and nutrients of millions of rainfed smallholder farmers through increased knowledge about the nutrients in their soils and corrective measures to address yield gaps. As part of the project, farmers’ soil samples were collected and tested and farmers were provided with recommendations to improve their soils. Farmers were also encouraged to participate in demonstrations of need-based fertilizer applications, including micro and secondary nutrients along with improved management practices. Farmers were further supported by extension services and a 50 percent subsidy on the purchase of inputs (seeds, nutrients, etc), provided by the Department of Agriculture. The project grew rapidly from a geographical area covering 6 districts in the first year and in the third year, the project scaled up across the entire state (30 districts). By 2012, over 3.6 million farmers had directly benefitted from the project.

The study was conducted in all 30 districts of Karnataka for four years (2009-2012) in a phased manner reflecting the spread of the project. Data was collected through 3,776 on-farm trials and questionnaires. This data was split into households that used conventional farming practices (FP) and those that used improved management practices (IP) as prescribed by the Bhoocetana project. This data was complemented with data on rainfall, market prices, and total fertilizer consumption from a variety of sources. The study measures the average crop and biomass yield, the crop water productivity (the amount of grain yield obtained per unit of water) and the production cost and profitability of each farming practice.

The study finds significant differences between yields and incomes attained by farmers using the FP and IP farming practices. On average, the study found that the adoption of IP practices increased crop yields by between 30 to 60 percent, for each year of the 3 year period, as compared to crop yields achieved under FP practices. For instance, average maize crop yields were 5500 and 7600 kg per hectare in 2009 under FP and IP practices respectively, and 3900 and 5100 kg per hectare in 2012 (a year with significant rainfall deficit) under FP and IP practices respectively. Subsequently, the study compared the economic differences and income differences for the cultivation of different crops under both FP and IP practices. The study finds that by placing crops under IP practices, the profitability of all crops increased by between 32 and 42 percent. Additionally, regarding returns on investment the study found that the adoption of IP practices increased the performance of all crops during all of the years of the study. Overall the study finds that the adoption of IP practices increased a farmer’s net income by an average of 147 percent over the 3 year period. More specifically, the adoption of IP practices was found to increase net income per hectare by between 5000 to 16000 rupees.

In conclusion, these results indicate that poor soil quality and a lack of essential micro nutrients in the soil have been holding back yield gains across India. The study argues that, historically, under conventional farming practices farmers added more macro nutrients (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus) to increase yields where often there was no deficiency in these nutrients. This indiscriminate use of these nutrients is especially harmful as it pollutes the environment, results in nutrient imbalances and increases the cost of cultivation without increasing crop yields. By contrast the Bhoochetana project shows that individual nutrient deficiencies were scattered differently across soils, and thus provided a basis to design new fertilizer recommendations. The paper highlights that the results of those that adopted IP practices are especially encouraging as they show that through relatively simple interventions two of the main challenges, low yields and environmental sustainability, to dryland and rainfed agriculture can be tackled.

Considering that over 50 percent of agricultural land in India is rainfed and often characterized by low yields and soil degradation, there appears significant potential to scale-up this project to the rest of India and support interventions that promote adequate amounts of micro and secondary nutrients, such as zinc, boron and sulphur, in the soil. The paper notes that Bhootchetana’s extension services program, involving local research and farmers, was especially valuable to the success of the project, and argues that such a system that undertakes extensive research on a farmers’ soil, is likely to work better across India than traditional extension systems.

The full study can be accessed here

By: Bas Paris


Photo credit:Flickr, Bioversity International