Science of increasing yields

[b]Around 15 years ago, Belarus’ agricultural companies primarily focused on satisfying domestic food needs for grain, potatoes, milk and meat. However, obsolete machinery and lack of finances made increased yields a far off dream. Significant state injections into agriculture ($225 per hectare in 2010 — against $59.60 in 2001) have changed the situation drastically, allowing Belarus not only to provide for its own needs but to annually increase its exports. This year, foreign sales are expected to reach $5.4bn.[/b]
Around 15 years ago, Belarus’ agricultural companies primarily focused on satisfying domestic food needs for grain, potatoes, milk and meat. However, obsolete machinery and lack of finances made increased yields a far off dream. Significant state injections into agriculture ($225 per hectare in 2010 — against $59.60 in 2001) have changed the situation drastically, allowing Belarus not only to provide for its own needs but to annually increase its exports. This year, foreign sales are expected to reach $5.4bn.

In recent years, cutting prime costs has been the main focus, alongside raising agricultural yield, through the use of new technologies and moderni-sed agricultural machinery. As per the Government’s goal for 2013, by autumn, 10.9m tonnes of grain, 4.5m tonnes of sugar beet, 7.6m tonnes of potatoes, 180,000 tonnes of hay and 963,000 tonnes of rape seed oil are forecast.

Field kitchen needs precise calculations
For several years, agricultural specia-lists and scientists have been looking at which crops should be planted in which locations, to maximise harvests: for human and cattle consumption. Our changing climate is necessitating optimisation, to beat drought, high winds and heavy rain. This year’s late spring has reduced the sowing season by 2-3 weeks, requiring extreme organisational skills from villagers to keep on schedule, as the Deputy General Director at the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences’ Centre for Arable Farming, Eroma Urban, notes. His team has been making recommendations to allow farming to cope with changing weather conditions. The Gomel Region will be growing late rye and long-season corn, since its fields regularly suffer from drought and sandstorms. Over the past two years, local villagers have also been cultivating a new crop: sunflowers.
Capricious weather is not the only obstacle to crop yield of course. Crop varieties need to be chosen carefully, with cattle fodder a growing priority. Meat and milk products are high foreign currency earners, relied upon by rural villagers and their farms. This year, milk yields are set to rise 800,000 tonnes on 2012, while beef production is to grow by 500,000 tonnes, thanks to high quality fodder. The Centre for Arable Farming is encouraging the planting of pulse crops, since around 500,000 tonnes of cattle fodder are currently imported, at a cost of $300m. This year, 250,000 hectares of pulses are being grown.
In addition, spring barley cultivation needs re-consideration. At present, 70 percent of the crop is sent for beer production although only 25-30 percent is needed (150,000 tonnes of malt). It would make more sense to grow less barley, allocating the land to other crops. In fact, up to 30-40 percent of land allocated to grain production (especially winter cereals) is failing to be planted with adequate crop rotation. Corn, sugar beet and potatoes are the ideal ‘predecessors’ to grain, ensuring maximum yield. Harvest volumes are down by 15-20 percent in fields lacking appropriate rotation, bringing a loss of at least 450-500,000 tonnes of grain (worth Br500bn). The Centre for Arable Farming proposes an individual approach to each field over the coming three or four years, paying special attention to creating good predecessors for following crops. According to Mr. Urban, this should raise yields by 10-35 percent while lowering prime costs and enhancing soil fertility.

Food for plants
New methods and machinery all have the same aim: the bountiful harvest of healthy crops. Unquestionably, soil fertility is at the heart of the equation, being responsible for 40-45 percent of yield. Fertilisers account for the remaining 55-60 percent. In recent years, new fertilisers have been promoted, as the Director of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Soil Sciences and Agricultural Chemistry, Vitaly Lapa, highlights. He explains, “Firstly, an increasing number of farms can now afford the optimal amount of nitrogen fertilisers. In the past, around 120-130kg were used per hectare for winter grains; now, 180-200kg are needed. This can raise harvest volumes by 60 percent or more, with fertilisers applied 4-5 times. Naturally, the efficiency of fertilisers depends on the period of their use. It’s a waste of time adding potassium to fields designed for spring-planted crops in autumn — especially on the light soils of the Gomel, Brest and Grodno regions; it will be lost to autumn rain and the spring snow melt. Our potassium fertiliser prices are rising, reaching global levels, so we need to take advantage of every aspect. In fact, all European farms use complex fertilisation; it accounts for 65-70 percent of dressing. Our Institute has developed a whole range of complex fertilisers to boost Belarusian crops; 25 varieties are now produced by the Gomel Chemical Plant and a new facility is soon to open in Soligorsk, making complex fertilisers.”
The most advanced development for Belarusian agro-chemists has been micro-fertilisers, heralding a new stage of crop farming. Over the past 2-3 years, Belarus has mastered production of a biologically active form of these fertilisers, absorbed perfectly by plants, resulting in good harvests. As Mr. Lapa emphasises, the Institute has developed a series of liquid micro-fertilisers and, in line with license agreements, around 100,000 litres were produced in 2012 (worth over Br1bn). Our domestic production already satisfies 10 percent of Belarusian needs: a reasonable result, as work was launched just a year ago.

Machinery in the forefront
New agricultural machinery has a role to play also, as we might expect. High efficiency, universality and multi-functionality are fundamental. The General Director of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences’ Centre for Agricultural Mechanisation, Vladimir Samosyuk, asserts that today’s machinery enables agrarians to minimise time spent on soil processing. Tractors are now more energy-efficient and equipment can simultaneously prepare soil, sow and fertilise, saving time and money. According to Mr. Samosyuk, Belarusian designers have already developed such multi-function machinery, with production launched. All innovations rely on feedback from farmers, helping them meet the ‘timetable’ of the agricultural year without fear of frost or late spring.

By Lilia Khlystun
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