Punjab Agricultural Experts Voice Concerns Over Water-Intensive Spring Maize Cultivation

Spring maize, sown from February to June, has become a favourite of farmers in the state, forcing the agricultural experts to raise a red flag as the crop, which needs more water to sustain something which Punjab, with its fast-depleting groundwater table, cannot afford.
According to the figures provided by Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), in 2023, the area under spring maize was 1.5 lakh hectares, and it is likely to touch 1.8 lakh hectares this season.

Groundwater depletion is already an overarching sustainability concern of the agriculture in Punjab. This decline is attributed to rice encroaching over the area under other traditional crops, and maize grown in the spring is also contributing to the crisis,” said SS Gosal, PAU vice-chancellor.

The V-C urged the farmers to stop growing maize in February-June month but wants its area to increase under the kharif season at the cost of paddy.

Spring maize is generally preferred by farmers in Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Ropar, Nawanshahr, Ludhiana, and Kapurthala as it not only gives a higher yield per acre than wheat and has a high demand in the ethanol industry. The state has over a dozen ethanol manufacturing plants, which have a production capacity of 30 lakh litres every day.
According to director agriculture Jaswant Singh the spring maize requires about 105 cm of water, spread over 15 to 18 irrigation cycles, however when its sowing slips further into March or beyond, its water usage rises considerably. In comparison, paddy requires 140-160 cm of water under a conventionally transplanted system, whereas short-duration PR126 needs 125 cm of water.

Why farmers prefer spring maize?
In the late 1990s, some enterprising potato and pea farmers in the Doaba region made successful forays in sandwiching spring maize as the third crop in the time intervening between two already remunerative crops potato, pea, or rice. Low temperature and less humidity provided a congenial high-yielding atmosphere, and with low weed, pest pressure and prolonged vegetative phase, it dwarfed kharif maize performance. The pitch by the private seed industry players also played a key role in this transformation.

The crop is spread over five months from February onwards, and for its long duration, it gives fodder for livestock and later corn for the ethanol industry. “There are 110 silage units which use green fodder and 13 ethanol-producing units, due to which maize is in high demand,” said Sunder Sandhu, senior scientist and principal maize breeder.

Also, spring maize gives up to 40 quintal yield per acre, and it sells at a price between INR 1600 and INR 1700 per quintal, taking each acre earning to INR 65,000. So, farmers prefer maize over paddy. Paddy gives an acre yield of up to 22 quintals and has an MSP fixed at INR 2090,” he said.

Special thrust on ethanol-blended petrol (EBP) under the National Biofuels Policy, 2018 also made maize markets bullish. This was especially spurred by restrictions on the use of sugarcane for ethanol production. Attractive returns, easing of power supply in the agriculture sector (primarily targeted at other ecologically benign crops), and high-technology receptivity of Punjab farmers made maize intrude rapidly into regions beyond its Doaba niche.

Source: Hindustan Times