Low soil moisture may mar India wheat crop prospects

Cogencis, Friday, Dec 14
By Shilpa Sharma and Sampad Nandy 

NEW DELHI – Having touched a record high of nearly 100 mln tn in 2017-18 (Jul-Jun), India's wheat production is likely to fall to 91-92 mln tn this year, largely because of low soil moisture in key growing areas of the country, industry officials said.

At 91-92 mln tn, industry's estimates are also way lower than the government's target of 100-mln-tn output for 2018-19. 

Below-normal rains earlier this year have led to stress in soil moisture, marring sowing prospects.

As if moisture stress was not enough, evolving El Nino conditions, which may result in above-than-normal temperatures, also spell a threat for the wheat crop still being sown.

Wheat acreage was at 19.4 mln ha as of last week, 2% higher on year, with area under the crop in top growing states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana largely unchanged.

The non-traditional wheat growing states, however, are unlikely to fare well because of low soil moisture and low availability of water for irrigation.

In the crucial Jun-Sep monsoon season, the country just about managed to avoid a meteorological drought with pan-India rains 9% below normal. The weather department declares a meteorological drought when rainfall across the country is 10% below normal.

As a result, key wheat growing areas of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Karnataka have reported water stress.

In Bihar, acreage was at 735,000 ha as of last week, down 29.5% on year, while in Gujarat, area under the crop was nearly 46% lower on year at 363,000 ha.

In Maharashtra, acreage was down 45% on year, while in Karnataka acreage lagged 3.2%.

Monsoon rains in Gujarat were 28% lower than normal, while in Bihar they were 25% below normal. In Maharashtra, monsoon rains were 8% less than normal, while in Karnataka they were 6% below normal.    

Plantings, meanwhile, have been higher in Madhya Pradesh, as the state government has promised to pay a bonus of 265 rupees per 100 kg in the 2018-19 (Apr-Mar) marketing year, even if the produce is sold in open market.

However, the rise in acreage in traditional wheat growing states may not be enough to offset the fall in area under the crop in other states.

An analyst with a leading consultancy firm expects wheat output to fall below 90 mln tn.

Besides, growers in some parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Bihar are shifting to less water consuming crops as low soil moisture is not conducive for wheat crop, Roller Flour Mills Association Vice President Pramod Jain said. 

Jain pegged wheat output at 93-94 mln tn for this year.

A possibility of mild winter this year has also raised concerns about crop yield.

India is likely to experience a mild winter this year, with average minimum temperatures for the season in most parts of the country seen 0.5 degree Celsius above normal, the India Meteorological Department has said.

The wheat crop needs cold weather conditions for proper maturity and good yield.

Even if the lag in total wheat sowing does not turn out to be substantial, high temperatures during the time of grain filling stage could have an adverse impact on yields, thereby leading to a fall in output, National Bulk Handling Corp Research Head Hanish Sinha said.

Sinha estimated India's wheat output at 92-93 mln tn in 2018-19.

A likely fall in output will push domestic prices higher in the coming months.

With global output also seen lower–the US Department of Agriculture has forecast world wheat output to fall to 733.41 mln tn in 2018-19 from 763.06 mln tn–domestic prices may see a sharper rise.  End

Edited by Rashmi Sanyal

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