Despite being a top cotton producing country, India has faced challenges such as stagnant yields for two decades, pink bollworm infestation, and shortages labour during harvest. Cotton farmers in the country are in a difficult situation because they have been waiting for second and third picks (cotton harvest) for six months and are in desperate need of labourers.
Prof. Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University (PJTSAU) has recently completed a study with a single-pick cotton variety (as against three picks now). Since it is a variety-based technique, the single-pick approach will save farmers from having to buy seed every season, as is currently common.
The new variety, combined with agronomic practises, will not only reduce crop length by 35 days, but will also prevent the plant from growing taller, making mechanised harvesting easier. Furthermore, since it is a short-term crop, it is an effective tool for combating the pink bollworm threat.
Shri V Praveen Rao, the Vice-Chancellor of PJTSAU, told that, ‘Instead of growing 2-3 plants per square metre now, we can grow 7-10 plants. Aside from saving money on vegetation, high density planting forces plants to fight for resources and grow straight rather than spreading out.’
The scientists intend to take the system to the farmers’ fields after testing it in university farms. ‘During the upcoming kharif season, we expect to demonstrate the procedure on approximately 1,000 acres. We are also investigating whether varieties and hybrids produced in partnership with the private sector are appropriate for this practise,’ he says.
A portion of 1,000 acres would also be harvested by a robot harvester built by a Bengaluru-based agtech start-up. ‘ We will incubate the technology at our Agri Hub Incubator,’ he stated.
The Vice-Chancellor of PJTSAU describes it as the way forward for cotton farming in the country since it tackles many challenges that cotton farmers face.
Keshav Raj Kranthi, Chief Scientist at the International Cotton Advisory Committee ( ICAC) in the United States, agrees with the VC.
‘This is the best way forward for India, not only to be able to harvest large yields in a short season, but also to fight the pink bollworm menace.’ Cotton in India cannot progress unless it is able to combat pink bollworm, he noted.
‘It is critical that India transitions to short-season cotton and maintains a cotton-free ‘closed season’ of six months to better manage the pink bollworm problem,’ he added.
‘Because of the high cost of the seeds, hybrid cotton is not well suited for high density planting. As a result, pure-line varieties are a better choice, as is the case in countries that harvest more than 1,000 kg of lint per hectare,’ he clarified.
Non-Bt varieties are grown in Turkey, Greece, and Spain, yielding 1,000-1,700 kg lint per hectare with 3-6 insecticide applications. ‘There is no reason to believe that this cannot happen in India,’ he stated.
Advantages and disadvantages
As per Shri Kranthi, the high density single pick method allows for high yields in a short period of time since the green boll formation window, which is crucial for pest and nutrient management, is shorter (40-50 days) than the longer window (40-120 days) that is currently in use in India.
‘The fibre quality of early picked synchronous bolls is relatively uniform and much better than that of late picked bolls,’ he said.
Lack of rain is the greatest challenge to such structures, which are not optimally equipped for crop compensation in the event of severe damage.
‘Because criss-cross hoeing is not possible in high density systems, weed management between plants would require extra attention.’