Bullish turn: The return of the bullock to India’s farms

Post mechanisation, for the first time there is innovation in farm equipment to revive bullocks and aid small farmers

By Shagun
Published: Friday 04 March 2022
The University of Agricultural Sciences, Raichur, Karnataka, has developed a bullock cart-mounted device that generates electricity from the movement of the cart (Photographs courtesy: All India Coordinated Research Project on Increased Utilization of Animal Energy)

Simhachalam calls himself a ‘bullock entrepreneur’. Each agricultural season, this farmer from Andhra Pradesh’s Sangra village travels with his pair of bullocks to work on other people’s farms in nearby villages for a fee.

Like most other parts of the country, bullocks in these tribal villages are traditionally used only for ploughing and transportation. But Simhachalam uses his bullocks for weeding and sowing.

“I learnt how to use a bullock-mounted weeding implement at a training programme in 2018. Today, I carry out weeding in at least 150 other farms,” says the 32-year-old, adding that he charges Rs 750 for weeding 1 ha.

“The job takes me six hours, while manual weeding takes two days and the labour cost is around Rs 1,600 for a farm of that size,” he says. In June 2021, Simhachalam attended another training programme on using bullocks for sowing.

“I used an instrument called vithinigalla, essentially a seed pipe, and finished sowing on my 1 ha farm in under an hour. Many farmers from the Gram Panchayat came to see the process,” he says. Eight other farmers in his Gram Panchayat have now started using their bullocks for sowing.

What Simhachalam is doing is a departure from the overall trend in the farm sector, where tractors and other machines have progressively replaced bullocks.

ML Sanyasi Rao, programme manager, Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN), a non-profit that organised the sowing training using bullocks, says, “Almost every farm household in the region owns bullocks. We are trying to promote their use in farming as it makes economic and logistical sense for small farmers.”

Besides Visakhapatnam, WASSAN is popularising the use of bullocks in three other Andhra Pradesh districts—Srikakulam, East Godavari and Vizianagaram.

In 1961, draught animals, more than 90 per cent of which were bullocks, met 71 per cent of a farm’s energy requirement, shows an estimate by the Rural Technology Action Group of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi.

By 1991, the number came down to 23.3 per cent. The reduced usage resulted in a steady decline in bullock population. According to the latest livestock census, India has over 30 million bullocks employed as draught animals, which is almost half the number used in 1997.

Source: All livestock censuses released between 1997 and 2019 
by the Department of Animal Husbandry And Dairying

“Following mechanisation, tractors were subsidised and governments favoured machines. Today, tractor firms have reached the doorstep of farmers, whereas there has not been much talk about the use of draught animal,” says M Din, project coordinator of the All India Coordinated Research Project on Increased Utilisation of Animal Energy (AICRP), set up in 1987 under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the apex body for research and education in agriculture.

While mechanisation has benefitted large farmers, who account for 15 per cent of the country’s farmer population but own 75 per cent of the farmland, it has remained unaffordable for small and marginal farmers who own less than 2 ha.

Changing trend

In recent years though, several regions in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra are seeing a revival in the use of bullocks. One of the major reasons behind the revival is India’s renewed focus on millets, especially after 2018, which the government declared as the ‘year of millets’.

“Millet production was earlier restricted to tribal-dominated regions, but after the government’s efforts to popularise millets for food and nutrition security, there has been an increase in demand,” Din says.

This has made farmers interested in identifying ways to improve productivity. In Sangra, small and marginal farmers traditionally used to sow millets using the broadcast method, under which seeds are randomly spread on the field. The method is easy and requires less labour, but reduces crop yield.

Now almost all farmers in the region have embraced the line-sowing method. Sensing the shift, WASSAN developed vithinigalla while keeping in mind the weight and power of local bullock varieties.

Farmers growing tall crops, like wheat, prefer high-clearance fertiliser sprayers that can to be used with bullocks. (Above) Farmers in Maharashtra use solar-powered bullock carts mounted with fertiliser sprayers

In Raichur district of Karnataka, the University for Agricultural Sciences, one of the nine centres of AICRP, has designed several other implements for efficient use of bullocks.

“We are trying to popularise spraying of pesticides with bullocks. The sprayer costs Rs 90,000 and a 50 per cent subsidy is available from the state government. In Raichur, now bullocks are used in 30 per cent of the net sown area,” says KV Prakash, assistant agriculture engineer and in-charge of the AICRP centre in Raichur.

The bullock-drawn pesticide sprayer has also gained popularity among farmers of Beed and Jalgaon districts in Maharashtra.

“It can spray up to 0.6 m in one go and takes 20-25 minutes to spray pesticides in 0.4 ha. Without it, we would spend around three hours to complete the process,” says Mahadev Rudraksh, a farmer from Patan Mandwa village in Beed.

Rudraksh grows sorghum, soybean and pulses on his 1.6 ha farm and almost half of the 400-odd farmers in his village have shifted to using the bullock-drawn sprayer in just one year. It helps a cotton farmer save 56 per cent cost on labour when compared to the traditional sprayer, according to an estimate by AICRP’s Raichur centre.

AICRP has also developed a nutritional feed which, it claims, reduces fatigue of bullocks and enhances their energy output by almost 16 per cent. The agency is also carrying out trials of a bullock-drawn seed drill which can be used for sowing small millets.

Meanwhile, farmers in Parbhani district in Maharashtra are leasing out their bullocks to agro-industries for grinding pulses and flour. This helps them earn additional income.

Another method that gained popularity in the 1990s was the use of bullock-driven water pumps for irrigation, but it did not become popular. Analysts say it can be revived seeing the resurgence of use of bullocks.

ources: Livestock census 2019 and Central Institute of Agriculture Engineering, BhopalAICRP has also developed a cart that generates electricity every time it moves. The electricity gets stored in a battery placed under the cart.

The improvement in designs is desirable, considering the freight carrying capacity of bullock carts.

In 2014, 12 million carts were estimated to be in service, transporting about six billion tonnes of freight per year, according to AICRP.

The quantity is almost six times the freight carrying capacity of the Indian Railways, which loaded about 1.03 billion tonnes in 2021.

Untapped potential

Draught animals in the country can generate 21,924 million kW of annual energy if they work roughly 5 hours a day, says Din.

Only 25 per cent of this potential (4,263 million kW) is currently being utilised because the average usage of a draught animal is less than an hour a day, Din adds.

If the potential is put to use, draught animals can meet the power needs of 44 per cent of the country’s net sown area, up from the current level of around 20 per cent.

Optimal utilisation of draught animals can reduce the farm sector’s fossil fuel expenditure by Rs 60,000 crore, says a December 2018 report on increased utilisation of draught animals, released by Bhopal-based Central Institute of Agriculture Engineering, under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

The sector can also reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 13 million tonnes a year if it can gainfully employ the 30.77 million bullocks available with the farmers.

The emissions saved are equivalent to what almost 3,000 cars emit in a year. The calculation is based on the 2018 report’s assumption that diesel consumption rate per tractor per year comes to about 3.25 tonne and one kg diesel releases 3 kg of CO2.

Promoting the use of draught animals can also help India increase its share of organic farming. Animals eat crop residue and produce manure, which enhances the productivity of soil.

The dung is a source of biogas, which is a renewable energy, says the 2018 report. It adds that almost 90 per cent of farmers going organic have small and marginal land holdings.

Rao says the transition to draught animals is possible since farming communities across India already use bullocks for varied farm activities.

“While we had to train tribal farmers in Visakhapatnam to use bullocks for sowing and weeding, their counterparts in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh have traditionally used their animals for these purposes. So, we only need to identify such practices and fine-tune them for different communities,” he says.

The 2018 report says that 21 states are under-utilising their draught power currently, but this can be reversed if the innovations are popularised on the ground.

In the last four years, AICRP has trained only around 22,000 farmers in using animal energy in different farm processes.

The other issue is lack of skill building among local artisans who manufacture farm implements.

“Local artisans have not been incentivised or trained in the new innovations,” says Din. Localised innovation in implements, suiting the available animal variety, and size should also be prioritised by the Union and state governments.

“With landholdings getting fragmented, the major challenge is how to increase productivity with limited land. This is where bullocks can play an important role. Farmers are slowly realising it,” says Rao.

This was first published in the 1-15 March, 2022 edition of Down To Earth

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