16 June, 2021

Straw tales: How crop residue management turns stubble into a valuable input

Air pollution, soil health and farm labour – the Happy Seeder initiative provides solutions to all three challenges

Hardeep Singh Brar at work on his farm
Hardeep Singh Brar at work on his farm
Hardeep Singh Brar at work on his farm
Hardeep Singh Brar at work on his farm

Born into a farmer family, 36-year-old Hardeep Singh Brar is one of the more progressive farmers in Punjab’s Bathinda district. Living in a joint family in Maluka village, Hardeep has taken forward the experience of his elders and his siblings into his own 15 years in farming.

Hardeep farms 15 acres and leases another 5 acres, an area that can be considered a small-sized farming venture. Here he grows wheat and paddy, potato and mint, and maize or moong with basmati rice as main cropping systems. He has also invested in dairy farming, and maintains 14 cows and 4 buffaloes.

For years, Hardeep has been an avid participant in the Tata Trusts’ Reviving the Green Revolution (RGR) - a rural livelihood programme which works in over 450 villages in Punjab. While attending village level farmer meetings, Hardeep came to know about Crop Residue Management (CRM), a practice that RGR advocates for good soil health.

Crop residue refers to paddy stubble that is left over in the fields after the harvest. Farmers typically burn the straw and stubble around October-November as the fastest way to get their fields ready for the next crop. However, the haze from the fires extends for hundreds of miles and creates severe air pollution in large parts of north India.

On the other hand, the straw itself contains valuable nutrients which need to be returned to the soil, and RGR has been trying to convince farmers about this. The straw and stubble in a field can have a lot of value for farmers as it acts as nutrient-bearing, water-saving, weed-resistant mulch. Hardeep developed a deep interest in the subject. “I attended several RGR Cell farmer meetings and I learnt from the experts how to mix the straw into the soil,” says Hardeep.

Earlier, he would use a baler to remove the straw residue and a zero-till drill and planter for sowing his fields. But he found that crops under in-situ residue management are better than ex-situ management system. He also found that sowing a new crop of wheat in a field full of paddy residue was more of a challenge.

The solution – developed by Punjab Agricultural University and supported by the Tata Trusts – is a machine called the Happy Seeder. Attached to a tractor, the Happy Seeder sows wheat in a single pass through the loose straw and standing stubble.

Hardeep considered purchasing a Happy Seeder but was slightly daunted by the cost of the machine – which was above Rs150,000. He faced discouragement from other farmers and friends, who said burning the paddy straw was much cheaper. However, Hardeep took comfort from the support of his brothers and family members and went ahead with his plan to buy the Happy Seeder. That turned out to be a very smart and profitable decision.

“In mid 2019, I heard about a subsidised Happy Seeder scheme in the Crop Residue Management Project being run by RGR Cell in Ludhiana. I applied for it and luckily got selected. I filled out the paperwork and got the latest model of the Happy Seeder machine in end September of 2019, just in time for the sowing season for wheat. And I had to spend only Rs68,000,” he says happily.

It was a new piece of equipment and Hardeep and his brothers attended the training camp conducted by the field team of RGR Cell. They used the machine on about 19 acres of land, where they sowed HD2967 and HD3086 varieties of wheat. One of the first things they found was that the new practice saved a lot of time, effort and even fuel.

“In the traditional method of sowing wheat, I had to first burn the paddy straw residue, then use a disc harrow twice to pull up the roots, then ploughing, planking and sowing. All of this took time and consumed minimum of 15-16 litres of diesel per acre, and added to the pollution. With Happy Seeder, I observed that we consumed maximum 6-7 litres of diesel per acre, which is far less. Along with fuel cost, the Happy Seeder technique saved us a lot of labour. I have also found that there are fewer weeds in the field. So our family has also saved on herbicide purchase,” he said.

Hardeep used a seed rate of 45 kg/acre, one bag DAP as basal application, two bags of urea (one each just before the first and second irrigations), and applied four irrigations during the crop growth period. With this, he achieved a yield of 23 quintal per acre.

Hardeep also found that he could earn by renting out his Happy Seeder. During the sowing window of 30 to 35 days, he hired out his machine to farmers in his own village of Maluka and in the surrounding villages of Siryewala, Neor and Kothaguru. “I charged only Rs800-1,000 per acre from the farmers. After diesel cost and minor repairs, I calculated that I saved about Rs400 per acre of sowing. At the end, my calculations showed that I had a net gain of Rs41,000. The Happy Seeder and tractor became an additional source of income for me,” Hardeep says cheerfully.

He has even engineered small customisations in his machine. “In this Covid-19 epidemic, farmers are facing shortage of labour for paddy transplantation. One day, I had an idea. I changed a small seed dropping part in the machine by myself at home, at a cost of just Rs2,000. With this small change, my machine’s capacity of seeding has increased by 7.5 kg paddy seed per acre . I have sown nine acres of paddy in my own farm with direct seeding of rice (DSR) technique. This has added more value to my Happy Seeder machine. This minor change in the machine can be reversed at any time with no additional cost,” he shares happily.

DSR is a solution for planting rice when there is a water shortage or the rains are inadequate. Hardeep is now motivating several other farmers of his village to sow at least one acre of paddy with DSR technique and save on water which is a depleting resource in the area.

Even more important is the potential to reduce smoke, ash and air pollution that affect the health of many by getting more farmers to stop burning crop residue through Happy Seeder or any other route.

With his willingness to try out better crop practices, Hardeep Singh Brar has become a role model for local farmers. His success story is an eye-opener for today’s educated youth who may now see a renewed potential in farming as a sustainable means of livelihood. By dint of sheer hard work, intelligent farm planning and management, ably supported by training from experts, Hardeep has shown that India’s small farmers can make a better living out of farming and agriculture.