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Dry Land Farming

By DR. Venkatramana Hegde, Hosagadde. Director, Shramajeevi Television Pvt. Ltd. Bengaluru


World population is growing exponentially. Demand for food is increasing every day. Rainfall has become uncertain and ill distributed may be due to climate change and global warming. Uneven and untimely rain has disturbed the rain fed farming a lot. Drought is a common natural phenomenon since the ages. But the effect of drought is extreme now. Even the irrigated areas are not safe. Water storage capacity of the reservoirs has come down due to silt accumulation. Many times those dams also get half filled. Indiscriminate and unscientific irrigation resulted in marshy land and saline soils in most of the project areas. As a result, the world started facing shortage of food grains. Scientific inventions took man to Moon and Mars. But we cannot eat anything else than food for our survival. The shortage of food will be still worse if we do not take immediate and necessary action. It is said that the 3rd world war will be for food and water.

In India 60% of the total cultivated area is rain fed. 40% of the rural population and 60% of cattle live in dry lands. In the total farm production of the country 42% of food grain, 75% of oilseeds, more than 90% of di-cot grams, sorghum, groundnut and 70% of cotton come from dry land and rain fed farming. Even 61.7% paddy is also being produced under rain fed condition. This means we have to achieve more in dry land farming to enhance food production of the country. Irrigated crop can yield 3 times more than the dry land crop. But there is a limit for the expansion of the irrigated area. Most of the high yielding varieties and technologies are developed for irrigated farming. But now we are compelled to give more priority for dry land farming for sustainable farm production.

Categorization of dryland farming

We find dry lands in rain shadow areas after heavy rainfall regions. In India 84 districts are totally rain fed. Karnataka state has 75 to 80% cultivated area under rain fed farming. Rajasthan stands first in the country and Karnataka in 2nd position in dry land area. Major portion of high rainfall area also depends on rain water for crop production. Cultivation in these areas is categorized in to dry farming, dry land farming and rain fed farming depending on the amount of rainfall received. Farming in the areas with less than 750 mm average rainfall is dry farming. Drought in the mid cropping season, failure of the crop etc. are very common here. Cropping duration is hardly 75 days. Farming is not possible without the conservation of rain water. Crop production in the areas with 750 mm to 1150 mm rainfall is dry land farming. Cropping period is between 75 to 120 days. Farmer will succeed in one crop with rain water conservation. Crop production in humid regions with more than 1150 mm rainfall is rain fed farming. Cropping duration is more than 120 days. There is no shortage of water for one crop. Sometimes two crops are also possible.

Soil erosion is a severe problem in dry lands. Everything is uncertain due to deficient and erratic rain. Evaporation and transpiration rate is more due to high temperature. Many times there will be acute shortage for drinking water also. Normally the dry land will be less fertile and saline sometimes. Farming here is like a gambling with nature. Only the drought tolerant crops like oilseeds, di-cot grams, sorghum, foxtail millet, kodo millet and other minor millets are successful here. Organic matter content of the soil is less. Large area, mono-cropping, very low yield and income, poor economic condition of the farmer etc. are very common in dry lands. All these lead to many ecological, health and social problems. Sustainable farming for better yield and income can improve overall situation. To achieve this, it is advisable to go for integrated farming with soil and water conservation, organic farming, agro-forestry, keeping livestock and farm based subsidiary activities.

Soil and water conservation practices

Let us study soil and water conservation practices first. Humus content of the dry land is less and soil surface is hard. Hence percolation of rain water is also less. This leads to soil erosion and fertile top soil layer is lost with runoff water. To avoid this put efforts to conserve maximum amount of rainwater on the farm and make structures to collect excess rainwater for later use. Let us understand engineering methods for soil and water conservation first.

Contour bunds

In sloppy lands with more than 5% slopes, trenches and bunds are created along the contour lines. Depending on the situation the distance between the bunds may vary from 30 to 50 meters. Rainwater collects along the bunds and percolates slowly. Surface runoff and soil erosion comes down. Plants planted on these bunds show tremendous growth due to high moisture content in the trenches. In the same way sowing is practiced in beds or rows along the contour lines. Sorghum and erosion resistant crops like groundnut are grown in strips. The same principle is followed in forest plantations on the slopes of the hills. Trenches are dug along the contour line and seedlings are planted on the bunds. Growth of the plants will be excellent due to high moisture content in the soil.

Bench terrace

On hill slopes with more than 20% slope bench terracing is common. It is inevitable for successful farming even though the cost of construction is very high. We find paddy fields in such terraced lands in hilly regions. This structure helps for standing of water and to conserve soil and manure applied. In forest and horticultural plantations shallow half-moon and V shaped pits are dug for each plant. This pit collects and percolates rainwater even from unseasonal rain. Manures and fertilizers can also be given in the same pit since it maintains more moisture. In plain lands shallow pits are dug near each plant before the onset of monsoon. These pits percolate enough water enhancing plant growth.

Compartmental bunding

Large farms with less slope are divided in to compartments by putting bunds against slope. Even though more water gets collected at the bund it helps for spreading of moisture for the entire compartment. Normally the pits dug for putting bunds are retained. Rainwater collected in these trenches percolates slowly improving soil moisture. Planting red gram, caster etc. on these bunds will help for the stabilization of the bund apart from an additional income. In heavy rainfall areas grasses with strong root system like Vetiver is put for the stabilization of bunds. This avoids breaking and washing away of bunds. Stone bunds are also common.

Ridges and furrows

Ridges and furrows are made against the slope by ploughing on large farms before the onset of monsoon. In Kharif maize, sorghum, pearl millet etc. are sown in the furrows. Ridges will have soya bean, black gram, green gram, cowpea etc. Water percolated in the furrow is useful even for Rabi crops. In another method broad beds are prepared by opening furrows at 4 to 5 meter interval. Crops with high water requirement may be planted in the furrow. Crops requiring low water like di-cot grams and oilseeds are sown in the beds.

Check dams

Excess water during heavy rains flows out of the farm even after implementing various rainwater harvesting methods. Also the streams flow from hills and forest area next to the farm. Small dams or barriers are built to store this water for usage on the farm. This construction may be systematic with stones and cement or RCC. Otherwise we may use locally available stones, wood, wire mesh etc. to cut-down the cost. Water collected in this check dam percolates slowly recharging ground water. Provide drains to avoid overflow. Otherwise the check dam may break and washed away during heavy rains. Grow grass or put stone slabs in the water channels bringing water to this dam. In heavy rainfall areas vented dams are popular. Take out all blockages in the rainy season to facilitate free flow of water. Put wooden or metal barriers in summer to store water. In the western ghat regions temporary blockages are created for small streams by October-November months. Stored water is used for agriculture till its availability.

Farm Pond

During heavy rainfall excess water from the farm flows out. Farm pond is dug at lowermost portion of the farm to collect runoff water. This is useful as drinking water for cattle, irrigation water for nursery and newly planted seedlings. This remains for 3 to 4 months and useful even for life saving irrigation for crops. Collected water percolates down recharging ground water. Few farmers put plastic sheet or cement concrete to the bottom of the pond to retain the storage for long time. Grow grass or put stones to the water channel leading to the farm pond to minimize soil erosion. Apart from that dig a catch pit just before the pond. Silt, sand, manure etc. settle down in this catch pit and clean water enters the farm pond. Clean this catch pit once in a year before the onset of monsoon. This pit minimizes silting of farm pond.

Gully plugging: Gullies formed on the farm due to surface runoff are plugged with some obstacles. Silt with the runoff water gets collected and fills the gulley. This method is good for bigger gullies too.

Cultural methods for drylands

Deep summer ploughing is practiced after the harvest of Rabi crop. This is useful to kill weeds, pathogens and pupae of insects and also to conserve summer rainwater. Deep ploughing up to 1 foot is good in deep black soils. This helps for deep rooted crops like cotton, red gram etc. to spread their roots to deeper layers. In shallow and sandy soils ploughing up to 4 to 5 inches is enough. Rainwater percolation increases with the depth of ploughing. Repeated inter-cultivation is done between crop rows to pulverize the soil surface. This reduces evaporation by filling surface cracks apart from controlling weeds.

Early sowing is advised in dry land. Broadcasting of seeds is not good. The seed may not germinate due to lack of moisture. Sow the seeds with seed drills to 1 to 2 inch depth depending on the size of the seed. Then cover the soil and compact it by running wooden plank. Seed germinates with available soil moisture. Use 25% more seed than the normal seed rate. Remove excess plant population 2 to 3 weeks after germination.

Fertilizers: Generally dry land is deficient in nitrogen and phosphorus. Potash will be at medium to high range. Use of fertilizers is very less in dry land farming compared to irrigated crops. Broadcasting of fertilizers will lead to wastage due to less soil moisture content. Put fertilizers in sub-soils with the help of fertilizer drill. This helps for better absorption and good crop stand. Foliar spraying of nutrients is also effective. This minimizes the wastage of costly fertilizers.

Organic manures: Application of organic manures in dry land farming has many advantages. It improves the percolation of rainwater and water holding capacity of the soil. Soil temperature remains under control. Organic matter improves the soil structure which helps for better root growth and proliferation. All these contribute to better plant growth and yield. Green manuring and use of bio-fertilizers is also recommended in dry land farming. Try to include leguminous crops as a mixed crop or in the crop rotation cycle which improves soil fertility. Add all available crop residues back to the soil as organic matter.

Crop and variety selection

Now let us understand the criteria and methodology for crop and variety selection for dry land farming. Choose drought resistant or at least tolerant crops and varieties. Short and medium duration crops will escape drought at the end of the season. Fast growth in the early stage itself, comfortable yield even in difficult condition, resistance for pest and diseases, low water requirement etc. are the preferred characteristics of dry land crops. The roots should penetrate deep and branch at deeper layers of the soil. Sorghum, finger millet, wheat, minor millets like foxtail millet, pearl millet, proso millet, kodo millet, little millet, di-cot grams and oilseeds are the common successful crops in dry lands. Most of the popular high yielding varieties and hybrids are developed for irrigated farming. Hence it is better to go for local crops and varieties or those specially developed for dry land farming.

Cropping plans for drylands

Main motto of dry land cropping plan is to get maximum benefit of available soil and moisture. Crop planning depends on the amount of rainfall and its distribution, type and depth of soil.

Based on rainfall: Mono-cropping is better in the regions with less than 500 mm rainfall. Groundnut, sorghum, finger millet, minor millets etc. are preferred here. Multiple and inter cropping systems are followed in the regions with 600 to 850 mm rainfall. Here one or the other crop in the combination gives comfortable yield. Few examples of such crop plans are here sorghum-red gram-6-8:1, sorghum-cowpea-2:1, cotton-black gram-1:2, groundnut-redgram-6-8:1, groundnut-caster-6-8:1, Bengal gram-coriender-4:1, maize-cowpea-2:1, finger millet-cowpea-red gram-6:1:1, groundnut-red gram-11:1, sorghum-red gram-2:1, ground-caster-4:1, Bengal gram-caster-3:1, finger millet-red gram-8:1 and so on.

Based on soil depth: In very shallow soils with 2 to 3 inch depth better to grow fodder grasses. For soils with 6 to 9 inch depth Dolichos (Hebbal Avare), caster, fodder grasses, agro-forestry species, horticultural crops, pearl millet, lentil etc. are recommended. For soils with half to one and half feet depth minor millets, red gram, sunflower, groundnut, caster etc. are preferred. For soils with 2 to 3 feet depth green gram or black gram in Kharif season and sorghum or safflower in Rabi season are recommended. In deep soils one can grow most of the dry land crops.

Based on onset of monsoon: If the rain starts in May itself, go for sesamum-red gram-10:2 or 3:1. If the monsoon starts in May last week to June first week put red gram-maize-1:1, red gram-short duration cowpea-1:1, sorghum-red gram-2:1, caster-linseed or finger millet-3:1 etc. If the rain starts by June 2nd week to July months go for finger millet-red gram-8:2, groundnut-red gram-8:2, groundnut-caster-8:1, finger millet-Dolichos-8:1 or 10:1 etc. If the rain delays further put finger millet-soya bean-4:1, horse gram-linseed-8:2 etc.

Contingency plans

Shortage of rainfall and drought are very common in dry land regions. Drought may appear in the beginning, at the middle or at the end of the cropping season. In such situations farmer has to try to minimize the effect of drought to achieve better yield. Let us understand few such methods now. If the monsoon is delayed go for transplanting of chili and finger millet instead of direct sowing. Raise staggered nursery for the purpose. If the drought appears in the early stage of crop take up repeated harrowing between crop rows to close the cracks in the soil surface to minimize evaporation. If the drought is severe harvest the crop as fodder. If the drought is expected increase inter row spacing and put more plants in the row. In case of mid-season drought go for thinning to reduce plant density. This will bring down the competition for moisture. Otherwise remove every alternate row. Spraying of water once in a week is useful in crops like groundnut, caster, red gram etc. Spraying 2% urea once in 7 to 10 days is also effective. If the drought appears in the last stage of crop provide lifesaving irrigation and put mulching between crop rows. In the crops like red gram, cowpea, Dolichos, if the drought appears at pod filling stage the crop may be harvested as green vegetable. If the first crop fails in sorghum and pearl millet ratoon crop is possible with further rains. If the duration of rainfall is less harvest the first crop early, that is at physiological maturity to facilitate next crop.

Here are few more methods to improve crop yield in dry land farming. First one is to minimize evaporation. Create pulverized soil layer between crop rows by repeated harrowing. Go for mulching if the crop residues, grass or sugarcane trash are available. If possible, mulch with plastic sheet. Of course it is bit costlier. White plastic sheet is better in summer. Black plastic is good in the winter which increases soil temperature. Growing fodder cowpea as a mulch crop is practiced in sorghum. Cover crop in rubber plantation is very common. Mulching has many advantages like soil and water conservation, weed and soil temperature control etc. Weeds affect the crop yield up to 30 to 75%. Hence effective and timely weed control is most important. Root grubs and termites are common in dry land farming. Take up control measures for better yield.

Around 99% of water absorbed by the plant is spent by transpiration. To bring down this loss and to save the plant from drought spraying wax and hydrated lime etc. are also practiced. In crops like cotton and chili Cycocel hormone is sprayed to control vegetative growth. Spraying Planofix in groundnut brings modification in the plant. It gives drought tolerance and more yield. Wind breakers around the garden or farm reduce the wind speed which brings down crop transpiration rate. Growing grass or di-cot crops like a carpet between rows of trees is also popular. Planting of unpalatable perennial grass is quiet useful for soil and water conservation. Cynodon grass and di-cot plant like Stylozanthus are commonly used for this purpose.

Dryland horticulture

Failure of crop or very low yield and income are common in dry lands with agronomic crops. But dry land horticulture and tree based farming or agro-forestry systems can give more stable or sustained income. Let us study dry land horticulture first. The crops and varieties selected for dry land horticulture must have drought tolerance by nature. Deep root system and spreading of roots in the deeper soil layer is preferred. Hence the mono-cot crops like areca nut and coconut with shallow root system are not suitable for dry land horticulture. Plantations with artificial irrigation get destroyed in a single season if the water source fails due to drought. Farmer loses investment and effort put for decades. The poplar dry land horticulture crops are pomegranate, lime, sapota, mango, tamarind, cashew, guava, jackfruit etc. Minor crops like Ber, Amla, custard apple, Jamun, Kokum, wood apple, Beal, fig, soap nut, drumstick, curry leaf etc. can also grow comfortably in dry lands. Apart from these medicinal plants, chili, brinjal, cluster bean, tomato, cowpea etc. are also having drought tolerance. All these crops may give better yield under irrigation, but yield enough at least to match cost of production in dry land.

Pomegranate: It is basically a dryland crop. It faces lot of disease problems in humid climate and the quality of the fruit will be poor. Earlier dry land farmers of Koppala, Ballary, Chitradurga districts of Karnataka were growing just minor millets and horse gram. But now their pomegranate is popular in the world market. However, assured light irrigation is necessary for high yield and exportable fruits.

Mango: It is another important dryland fruit crop. It prefers deep soils. We do not find irrigation in old mango plantations even today. Excess moisture during flowering will affect the yield. However, regular irrigation once in 15 days from March after fruit setting will enhance yield and quality of fruits. Mango is one of the important crops in integrated farming system in dry land. One can grow seasonal crops between plant rows till they develop full canopy.

Sapota: It is another important crop of dry land horticulture. Yield and sweetness of the fruit will be poor with high humidity and soil moisture. Fruit rot disease is common in high rainfall areas. Hence commercial Sapota gardens are seen only in dry land regions. However, irrigation once in 15 days in hot summer will improve yield and quality of fruits.

Lime and other citrus crops have drought tolerance. They give profitable yield under rain fed conditions. One more commercial crop for dry land is cashew. This was introduced to India for soil erosion control in the coastal regions. It flowers late and produces poor yield in humid cold regions. Pest and disease problem is also more. It gives commercial yield in dryland and also in hot humid climate of the sea coast. Now many high yielding varieties of cashew are available for commercial plantations. Now we find sizable area under cashew across the country. Guava is one more popular crop of dry land. But the commercial plantations provide assured irrigations since they plant air layer plants without tap root system. Jackfruit is an evergreen tree species usually found in high rainfall areas. But this tree with extensive root system comes up well in dry land. It produces better quality sweet fruits in dry climate. Jackfruit is coming to main stream horticulture in recent years from the list of minor fruits.

Tamarind: It is a popular species of dry land regions since centuries. It will not come up properly in heavy rainfall areas. It was not a cultivated crop till last decade. Collection of fruits was from trees planted along the roads and bunds of the farm. Now we find tamarind plantations here and there. We have many high yielding selections of tamarind now. A big tamarind tree can earn 5 to 10,000 rupees a year. It needs no irrigation. Pest and disease problem is negligible.

Amla has also moved from nature to farmers field. It is best suited for dry land horticulture. High yielding varieties are available in Amla which give good yield with least management. This Amla fruit is being used for Ayurvedic preparations, pickles, dry Amla, Morabba etc. Hence it brings an attractive income for farmers.

Ber is one more fruit common in dry land regions. It is consumed as fresh fruit and a small portion of the production for processing. This is considered as poor mans apple. However, this tasty and nutritious fruit needs introduction to new markets.

Kokum or Garcinia indica is a minor fruit tree found naturally in the Western Ghats. Fresh fruit is used for juice making and dried one for cooking. The butter from the seed is used for medicines and sweets. Kokum plantations are seen in Konkan parts of Maharashtra and Goa.

Fig cultivation is getting popularity in dry lands of India in recent years. But still it needs wide acceptance from farmers as well as consumers.

Few other dry land minor fruit species like Jamun, custard apple, wood apple, Beal etc. are found in mixed plantations or on bunds. These special fruits need systematic introduction to the consumer markets. There is no doubt about their success in dry land cultivation.

As of now soap nut comes from wild collection which fetches good price. It can be a successful crop in dry lands. The tree vegetable drumstick is a commercial crop already. Likewise, the curry leaf also. Most of these plants are seen cultivated in irrigated plantations. But they can produce profitable yield and income under rain fed conditions as well.

Tree based farming or Agro-forestry

Another alternative use of dry land is for agro-forestry or mono-cropping of forest species. Agro-forestry means planting forest species on bunds, strips or waste land patches along with routine crops. Agro-forestry has many advantages like fire wood, green manure, dry leaves for compost, fodder, food and shelter for birds, nectar for honey bees etc. Logging matured timber fetches big amount later. Plants species selected for agro-forestry must grow fast, straight and without much wide canopy. Fodder species must withstand repeated lopping. It should have deep root system so that it will not compete for food and water with the routine crops on the farm. Leguminous species will enrich soil fertility by nitrogen fixation. The plants contributing to biodiversity and species with commercial value are given more priority in agro-forestry.

Let us study few important agro-forestry species now.

Teak is a popular plant as live fence on the boundaries of the farms. Keep on trimming side branches to make it to grow tall and straight. Logging every alternate plant in the row after 6 to 8 years will bring sizable income and allows remaining plants to grow thicker and better. Teak plants do not create problem of shade also. It will produce valuable timber after 25 to 30 years.

Subabul is one more important agro-forestry species. This is a proteinecious and palatable fodder also. It grows in to a big tree in just 6 to 8 years. The wood is used for pulp and light weight furniture. Subabul gives highest tonnage of wood and best income in least time compared to other species. It withstands repeated lopping of branches as fodder or green manure. It multiplies very easily by seeds. Subabul is popular as live fence and wind breaker also.

Silveroak is one more important agro-forestry species in use. It is found on the boundaries of the farms as well as in coffee-tea plantations for partial shade. Trimming side branches will make it to grow straight for more than 100 feet. Timber from this Silveroak fetches good price due to its pulp quality. There is no much shade problem with this tree.

Casuarina: It is very popular agro-forestry species. This is being grown on bunds and also in separate plantations. Casuarina produces straight poles useful for roof and good timber at maturity. Likewise, we find Eucalyptus also on the boundaries of the farms.

Fodder trees are one of the major components of agro-forestry systems. Gliricidia finds place as live fence or on bunds. The herbage is cut 3 to 4 times a year for green manuring. This is a proteinecious fodder also. But animals will feed on this only after wilting due to its smell. Sesbenia is another palatable and proteinecious fodder. This grows very fast and withstands repeated lopping. Caliyandra is one more soft and nutritious fodder very much liked by the cattle. Animals eat even small stems along with the leaves. But do not feed Caliyandra a lot. It is said that it develops infertility in animals. In sole plantations of agro-forestry species seasonal crops or grass may be grown between plant rows till they develop full canopy. Shade tolerant species like Guinea grass can grow for few more years.

Sole plantation of forest trees is advised in unfertile fallow land of the farm.
Neem is a common species found on most of the farms in dry regions. Off course we wont find separate Neem plantations anywhere. Neem shows stunted growth in high rainfall areas. Leaves, seeds, oil and seed cake of Neem are highly useful in organic farming. Matured timber fetches good price.

Melia has also secured its place in agro-forestry system in recent years. Many farmers planted this species on large scale. The leaves of Melia is a nutritious fodder also. This plant produces soft timber in 10 to 15 years which is useful for pulp and light weight furniture.

Acacia auriculariformis is most popular species in forest plantations in last few decades. This species from Australia can survive and grow in extreme hot climate with least soil moisture. It is not browsed by animals and comes for logging in 8 to 10 years. It mostly sells for pulp and firewood. However, the thicker one fetches good price as timber. Farmers in dry land regions planted this Acacia on a large scale in recent years.

Eucalyptus: One more popular species found in agro-forestry plantations is Eucalyptus. It grows very fast and straight. It is used for pulp and timber purposes. Ratoons grow in clumps after cutting the first plant. There is no scientific proof for the claim that this tree depletes ground water.

Pongamia, a popular tree found in dry land is the best suited plant for green manuring. Herbage and seed cakes are widely used in organic farming. Pongamia seed with high oil content is used for bio fuel extraction on large scale.

Likewise, Acacia nilotica is also a common multipurpose tree found in dry lands. Few farmers planted costly timber species Sissoo along with other trees. Growth is very slow. But the timber fetches bumper price at maturity. Sandalwood, the state tree of Karnataka has also found its place on farms in recent years. It is difficult to protect it from smugglers. But farmers planted sandalwood in large numbers after the government relaxed forest act enabling the farmers owning this tree. The growth of this plant is very slow in dry lands. But it produces best quality heart wood. Now the government is also encouraging the farmers to grow sandalwood.

Dear readers, as discussed earlier scope for expanding irrigated area is very limited. Irrigation water, electricity and fertilizers are the costly inputs now. This has affected the economy of the farmers a lot in irrigated area. At the same time dry land is available on large scale for farming activity. No government can give food security if the production of food grain goes down year by year. Increasing the productivity and production in dry land farming is the only and ultimate solution. If we implement the technologies, opportunities and methodologies discussed earlier dry land can feed the nation and the world. Integrated farming system can bring stability in farm income and can provide livelihood security for farmers. Let us use this opportunity for stable and sustainable farming. We wish you all the success in your effort for dry land farming. Namaskar.