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CROPPING SYSTEMS AND ECONOMICS
ISSUE THREE 2016 PARTNERS
BY GIO BRAIDOTTI
T he most popular cropping system in
South Asia---practised on about 13.5
million hectares across the Indo-Gangetic
alluvial plain---is a monsoonal rice crop
quickly followed by wheat.
In north-west India, combine harvesting of rice
and wheat is common practice but it leaves large
amounts of crop residue in the field. While the
wheat residue is used for animal feed, the paddy
residue---rice straw---has no local economic uses
and is agronomically problematic.
The rice stubble is thick, stringy and tough,
and clogs up the sowing tines needed to sow the
wheat crop. Farmers have just 15 to 20 days to
sow the wheat crop or risk substantial reductions
in yields. In order to seed on time, farmers in
the states of Punjab and Haryana use traditional
methods to burn most of the rice straw. As a
consequence, as much as an estimated 22 million
tonnes of rice stubble is burnt each year.
The resulting air pollution in October and
November impacts the entire Indo-Gangetic
Plain, travelling thousands of kilometres and
enveloping the region with a thick aerosol layer
that measured as much as 2.5 km high in 2012. The
dense smoke plumes are a serious risk to human
and animal health---they modify atmospheric gas
composition, cause traffic accidents through loss of
visibility, and contribute to 'Asian pollution outflow'.
For authorities such as Punjab Commissioner
of Agriculture Balwinder Singh Sidhu there is a
solution to the fires---a small, affordable machine
that drills wheat seed through the tough straw,
A BURNING SOLUTION
bypassing the need to burn it. The machine---
the Happy Seeder---has permitted India to explore
the option of enforcing a ban on the burning of
The Happy Seeder was originally developed
through an ACIAR project headed by Australian
Professor John Blackwell, an agricultural engineer
at the Charles Sturt University Institute for Land,
Water and Society.
THE HAPPY SEEDER
Australia has a strong track record in agricultural
engineering, including the development of
machines that allow farmers to adopt more
sustainable farming practices. Not even in
Australia, however, had it been possible to sow
directly through rice stubble, despite years of
attempts by researchers worldwide to engineer
ACIAR engaged Professor Blackwell to revisit
the problem and consider the design of a suitable
machine. Professor Blackwell embodies Australia's
proud agricultural engineering tradition---
particularly in making the most of the limited water
resources available to Australian dryland farming.
Professor Blackwell experienced his 'Eureka'
moment after a conversation with then research
program manager Dr Tony Fischer. That night,
Professor Blackwell imagined the design of a new
kind of seeder---a design he found had never
before been tried.
Through ACIAR, Professor Blackwell travelled to
India to build the first prototype at the workshop
of the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) with
Indian collaborators. Progress improved when
PAU's Dr Harminder Singh Sidhu, senior research
manager at the Cereal Systems Initiative for South
Asia (CSISA) hub, took up the challenge.
"The prototype worked amazingly well,"
Professor Blackwell says. "We were able to sow with
the prototype through 10 tonnes per hectare of
There was, nonetheless, room for
improvement---in a process that has involved
public-sector researchers, especially from
PAU, and private-sector developers in India.
Professor Blackwell particularly credits Dasmesh
Mechanical Works, in Punjab, for the innovation
that culminated in the development of the Turbo
Happy Seeder, which uses a rotor to cut and
brush away the rice straw, clearing the way for the
machine's sowing tine.
Professor Blackwell says the Turbo Happy
Seeder can sow any seed into any stubble and
pasture. For example, he has used it to sow wheat
into 12 t/ha of standing millet. It can also be used
as a standard direct drill when little or no stubble
is present. Importantly, the Turbo Happy Seeder
is lighter than its predecessor and has reduced
power requirements, allowing it to be operated by
the 35-horsepower tractors common in India.
Evaluation of impacts associated with this
technology found it is more profitable than
conventional cultivation or direct drilling after
burning. It is financially viable for farmers, while
delivering important advantages to the broader
community and environment.
The approach amounts to a 'conservation
agriculture' practice. It avoids ploughing soil and
thereby conserves energy, soil moisture and
fertility, delivering significant benefits to farmers.
"To some degree the Happy Seeder technology
has given India a tool to avoid burning the rice
stubble," Professor Blackwell says.
ADOPTION IS KEY
Despite a ban on the burning of paddy residue,
India's capital, New Delhi, was engulfed in a thick
smog in 2015 when fog and smoke from paddy
residue fires combined to reduce visibility and
pose a serious threat to human health.
Mr Sidhu says that subsidies for farming
implements, such as the Turbo Happy Seeder, are
in place to help farmers manage rice straw in a
But, he says, "farmers, especially the small ones,
still prefer to burn paddy stubble rather than
using solutions like Happy Seeders as they think it
involves spending money".
One farmer who has tried and adopted the
The frontline defence of air quality across the
Indo-Gangetic Plain is an agricultural machine
designed in Australia
nBurning is the normal method of rice stubble
management in mechanically harvested rice-wheat
growing areas of north-west India, but results
annually in a deterioration of air quality.
nA machine designed in Australia through an
ACIAR project has made it possible to sow directly
through rice residue without burning it and is now
spearheading e orts to improve air quality.
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