Indian wheat-rice farmers learn to apply the right amount of fertilizer at the right time

Photo: D. Mowbray (CIMMYT)

Smallholder farmers in the intensive rice-wheat production systems of northwest India rarely harvest as much as they could, mainly because they are not aware of how much and when to apply fertilizers to get the best yields. They have very little information on the fertility of their soils or the best ways of fertilizing particular crops in their environment.

To bridge this information gap, the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) developed Nutrient Expert® (NE) in partnership with the CGIAR Research Program on Maize, led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

“The advantage of developing the Nutrient Expert® in a participatory mode was that the partners were on-board from day one and ultimately ‘owned’ the innovation.” Dr. Kaushik Majumdar, Director, IPNI South Asia

NE is an interactive, computer-based decision-support tool for providing smallholder farmers with location-specific recommendations on fertilizing maize and wheat. The computer programme comes up with the exact amounts of fertilizer that farmers need to apply, and when to apply it. Armed with this knowledge farmers are better placed to adapt to changes in weather and mitigate the effects on cropping systems.

Researchers have found that crops make use of fertilizers applied according to NE recommendations more efficiently than fertilizers applied according to farmers’ normal practices. Recommended applications reduce the amount of excess nitrogen in the soil and thus reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. The NE tool is part of a ‘nutrient smart’ approach to using fertilizer in the CCAFS Climate-Smart Villages project in India. The Bihar Innovation Forum II recently selected NE as the ‘best innovation’ in the Information and Communications Technology Solutions category.

These findings verify the potential use of NE for farmers, showing that, with the right support, smallholders do have the capacity to undertake ‘high tech’ climate-smart activities

Farmers who applied fertilizer according to NE recommendations under both conventional and zero-tillage increased wheat yields by 0.5 to 1.5 t/ha, compared to farmers who did not apply fertilizer according to NE recommendations and farmers who applied fertilizer according to state recommendations. Profits by USD 100–250/ha and nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) increased. Crops grown by farmers applying fertilizer as recommended by NE also cut emissions from their wheat crops by 100–150 carbon dioxide equivalents per hectare (CO2e/ha) compared to farmers who did not.

Given the right support, such as by tools like NE, smallholders can learn to improve their livelihoods and become very climate-smart.

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In India, more than 600 farmers learned to apply fertilizer more efficiently, increasing their harvests by up to 1.5 tonnes per hectare.