Rice in the Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP) is principally grown by hand-transplanting in fields that have been puddled (wet cultivation). Puddling is known to degrade soil structure and requires large amount of water and energy. This system of rice production worked well for many years when farm labour was abundant and relatively cheap. However, Indian economy has gone through a major transformation over the last 10 years. Over this period, farm labour has been moving to work in industries where wages and work conditions are superior to the traditional work on farms. Farmer profits for rice production have been squeezed by the rapidly rising labour costs. Rapidly declining ground water table as a result of over-exploitation of underground aquifers has also been recognised as a serious issue affecting the sustainability of the irrigated agriculture in the IGP. This ACIAR project was designed to develop rice production systems that conserve labour, energy and water. The project addressed this challenge by harnessing the skills and knowledge at the Haryana Agricultural University (HAU), Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), CIMMYT-India and University of Adelaide.
Direct seeded rice (DSR) has been used in many countries for many years for rice production and was therefore considered a useful alternative to puddled transplanted rice (PTR) for the IGP. In the initial 5-year term of the project, many field studies were undertaken to optimise different components of DSR in Haryana, Punjab and Bihar. Machine transplanted rice (MTR) was another production system that was investigated in- depth especially in Haryana. Both DSR and MTR systems were found to produce equivalent rice yields to the traditional PTR but at a much lower production cost than the PTR.
As expected, weed spectrum of rice crops was found to change dramatically after the adoption of DSR. Deep flooding in PTR prevents aerobic rice weeds from establishing in the field. Once farmers adopt DSR and switch to alternate wetting and drying for water conservation, many aerobic weeds infest DSR. Such weeds tend to highly competitive and need to be controlled effectively. Project research identified several new herbicides which provide effective control of these weed species and these herbicides were registered with local authorities for use by local farmers. Other studies undertaken included use of laser-levelling, variety evaluation, nitrogen and water management. Research undertaken showed that it was possible to reduce the amount of irrigation by >25% under DSR without reducing its yield relative to the traditional puddle-transplant system. The first phase of the project was able to develop a complete production package for direct seeded rice for the IGP. This package was endorsed initially by the Punjab Agricultural University and later by the Haryana Agricultural University.
The follow-up three-year extension phase of the project was aimed at using the knowledge and information on DSR generated by the project team for the training of research and extension personnel from eastern India. The project team also undertook a multi-year survey to document farmer experiences with DSR in Punjab and Haryana. These surveys have supported research results from the project reporting similar yield potential of DSR and PTR and large savings in labour and water in DSR. The project team have continued to promote DSR and demonstrate its benefits to farmers in Punjab and Haryana. Many farmers are continuing to adopt DSR and the adoption is particularly impressive in Punjab. When the project started in 2008, there was no drill sown DSR in Punjab. In 2015, Punjab government statistics showed that DSR has now been adopted on 160,000 hectares on local farms!