Weather-stressed wheat crop

Post Source: Dawn economic & business review

WITH the first half of April remaining unusually cold, and another spell of rains threatening not only to prolong the cold wave into the second half of the month but also making it humid, the wheat crop in Punjab is under stress. Understandably, it has left the planners guessing as to how much damage this freak weather could wreak on an otherwise record size crop. Crop cycle in Punjab is complete. In southern part of the province, it is over due. But the weather is not allowing its harvesting; hot and dry weather is needed for harvesting whereas the current pattern is cold and humid. Already mature, and soon to be over-mature, crop is in the field, with farmers praying for the weather to turn hot and dry. However, there has been no damage to the crop on this account so far. But if the current weather pattern extends beyond third week of April, the crop would be exposed to possibility of shedding and lodging. That could translate into yield loss.

The ripe crop is naturally top heavy, hanging on a weak stem. It could easily fall with the slightest high velocity wind. Rains make the soil wet and its grip on stem-roots even weaker, causing lodging even without high velocity winds. This is the risk the crop faces in the province now. How much of it happens, no one knows for sure.

The second biggest source of uncertainty is the anatomy of wheat crop. Once fallen on the ground, it does not have a dormancy period like other crops. The dormancy period is the time lag between shedding of any crop and its seeds becoming seedlings (re-germination). Almost all other crops do have a reasonable time lag before its fallen seeds start germinating. But it is not so with the wheat seed. Once it falls on the ground and the grain comes out of the spikelet, it germinates within no time. There is, thus, no time to save the crop once it starts falling.

Harvesting wheat in cold and humid weather has its own cost: it hits the quality of grain, increases chances of grain breakage and enhances post-harvest losses. All these three factors can weigh heavily on the final yield quality of the crop. It is because such weather makes and keeps the grain wet even after harvesting and taxes its quality.

The moisture content in grain has to drop from around 20-10 per cent if it is not going directly for grinding. Until the drop of moisture, the grain is also exposed to many crises – fungus attack being one of them and bad smell the other.

It also becomes very difficult to harvest the crop by harvester because it sifts grain from the chaff by blowing strong air. Wet chaff sticks to wet grain, and their separation becomes impossible. The thrashing thus has to be carried out manually. To make the matter worse, storage of wet grains becomes harmful. It runs high risk of fungus attack, and affects the rest of the crop as well. If ten out 1,000 bags in a stack come under fungus attack, it becomes very difficult to locate them and separate them. Keeping them in there will spoil the entire stack.

In the beginning of the month, when temperatures started dropping and snow started falling in northern parts of the country, the metrological office was hoping things to get back to normal after mid month. At the middle of the month, a system producing rain has entered the country, and rain is expected in the next 48 to 72 hours. One only hopes that the weather gets clear after the rains, and temperatures rise to allow not only wheat harvesting but also some snow melting easing water shortages, which hit 50 per cent at one point of time during last weak, hitting cotton sowing in Sindh.

But if that does not happen and the farmers had to go for harvesting, they need to take a few precautionary measures, like harvesting manually, keep bundling the harvest in short intervals instead of doing so at the end of day (traditionally, farmer harvest the crop whole day and make the bundles in the evening), keep the bundles in standing position so that rain water does not stay in the stem and thrash wheat as soon as weather improves at any point of time in 24 hours. They will also have to spry storage pots and places (at some additional cost) before moving the crop there.

But if the weather improves during this week, harvesting and thrashing would gain momentum. In that case, there would be a distinct possibility of price crash as it would create an instant glut in the market, and test provincial food departments beyond their limits. It would be especially true if cold weather does not hit the grain, and the size of the crop remains as substantial as farmers are currently hoping for. They are hoping a record crop of around 25 million tons. In that case, a tradable surplus of well over eight million tons would hit the market. With weather delaying harvesting, time for trade is being squeezed correspondingly. That is why the catch would lie for everyone in the trade, especially the official sector.

The government is targeting procurement of 6.5 million tons, leaving around two million tons for private sector. Situation would worsen if the private sector goes slow and government agencies are unable to buy quickly. All the government agencies have a procedure for procurement, which is slow and hardly matches normal arrival of wheat in the market. This time, it would be even short span. A substantially bigger crop size and its quick arrival would be a cause of concern for everyone this year.

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