Falling costs, rising incomes. Thus reads a refreshingly reassuring section-title in an essay on zero-tillage included in ‘MillionsFed: Proven successes in agricultural development,’ edited by David J. Spielman and Rajul Pandya-Lorch (www.ifpri.org).

Zero tillage, for starters, is a cultivation practice that not only helps preserve soil fertility and conserves scarce water, but also boosts yields and increases farmers’ profits by reducing their production costs, explains Olaf Erenstein, the author. “Instead of ploughing their fields and then planting seeds, farmers who use zero tillage deposit seeds into holes drilled into the unploughed fields.”

An estimated 6.2 lakh wheat farmers in northern India have adopted various forms of zero tillage on an estimated 1.76 million hectares of land, and average annual gains amount to $180-340 per household, the essay informs.

Eliminating the ploughing step saves time, and also avoids disturbing the soil in ways that contribute to soil degradation and the growth of weeds, notes Erenstein. “By sowing seeds in unploughed fields in small slots or trenches that are carved out by tractor-drawn seed drills, farmers can also avoid drying out the soil and, thus, can use water more sparingly.”

G. B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology developed the first prototype of an Indian zero-tillage seed drill; “in 2003, the average price of a zero-till drill was $325 in India, compared with $559 in Pakistan.”)

And the payback may be quick, considering the dual advantages in yield and cost-saving. The tractor-drawn zero-tillage drills, for instance, allow farmers to make just one pass through their fields rather than the eight passes typically needed during traditional cultivation; as a result, “farmers achieve an immediate – and recurrent – cost savings amounting to about 15 to 16 per cent of their operational costs, or about $52 per hectare of land.” On fuel consumption, the essay cites research findings that farmers can save 36 litres of diesel per hectare of land, an 80 per cent savings over conventional wheat tillage.

The increase in yield - ranging between 5 and 7 per cent - is closely associated with the timelier planting of wheat, the author explains. “If farmers cannot manage to plant wheat before mid-November, heat stress at the end of the wheat season can reduce their yields by 1 to 1.5 per cent a day. By allowing farmers to plant wheat more quickly after the rice harvest, zero tillage can reduce these yield losses.”

Exciting collection.

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