Creating a path for scaling mechanized direct-seeded rice in Cambodia

 Anny Ruth P. Pame, Rathmuny Then, Sokornthea Pin, Sokheng Keo, Akhara Ouk, Kazuki Saito, and Rica Joy Flor   |  

Mechanized direct-seeded rice (mDSR) provides a potential solution to climate change as well as rice production constraints. Our recent study shows that rice farmers in Cambodia can potentially have higher yields of up to 0.9 tons/ha and 40% higher profits from mDSR. While we were able to demonstrate the benefits of using mDSR+Best Agricultural Practices, we also observed several challenges to the adoption of mDSR and improving rice yields in some of the farmers’ fields.

A Cambodian farmer using mechanized row seeder. (Photo: IRRI-Cambodia)

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Almost 100% of the rice farmers in Cambodia have shifted from manual transplanting to broadcast direct seeding because of problems with the availability of labor. However, the shift has introduced a different set of challenges including the use of high seed rates, limited knowledge of and access to mechanization, losses from weeds and pests, and lodging. All these have led to lower yields and profits. Furthermore, rice production in the country has been affected by climate change.

Mechanized direct-seeded rice (mDSR) provides a potential solution to climate change as well as rice production constraints. Our recent study shows that rice farmers in Cambodia can potentially have higher yields of up to 0.9 tons/ha and 40% higher profits from mDSR.

Pioneering mDSR in Cambodia
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and its partners in Cambodia have implemented a wide range of activities under the Excellence in Agronomy (EiA) Initiative since its launch in 2020.

One of EiA’s key activities is the participatory trials conducted in Prey Veng, Takeo, Kampong Thom, and Battambang Provinces to evaluate and demonstrate to farmers integrated management practices consisting of mDSR and best agronomic practices (mDSR+BAP).

The mDSR+BAPs were introduced to farmers’ fields and compared with the current farmers’ practices. The set of BAPs includes the use of quality seeds and lower seed rates, the application of Trichoderma and Beauveria as biological control agents for diseases and insect pests, and integrated weed management which consists of pre- and post-emergence herbicide applications.

The results showed that rice yields in fields using mDSR+BAP are consistently higher by 0.4 to 0.9 tons/ha across the four provinces over three years (2021 to 2023). Seed rates have been reduced to 100–150 kg/ha in mDSR+BAP from as high as 300 kg/ha in farmers’ practices. Meanwhile, gross income was higher by 40 and 22% during the 2022 wet and 2022-23 dry seasons, respectively.

Participatory mDSR field trials in Takeo Province during the 2023 wet season. (Photo by A. Pame/IRRI)

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Lessons from the field

While we were able to demonstrate the benefits of using mDSR+BAP, we also observed several challenges to the adoption of mDSR and improving rice yields in some of the farmers’ fields.

For example, in Battambang, where dry direct-seeded rice is common, poor land leveling and crop establishment using mDSR have been reported by Mr. Chhun Sokunroth, an Agronomist at the Provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.

Land leveling is critical, especially for dry-seeded rice. Proper instruction should be given to make sure that proper land preparation is done. Poorly leveled fields tend to have poor crop establishment, higher weed infestation, and non-uniform rice growth. Consequently, they produce lower yields. Combining mDSR with laser leveling, which has already been introduced to Cambodia, could alleviate these challenges.

Other production constraints we observed in the mDSR demonstration plots in Kampong Thom include inadequate fertilizer management practices, iron toxicity, and bacterial blight disease. Management options alleviating these constraints are required to maximize benefits from mDSR.

An mDSR field with iron toxicity problem in Kampong Thom Province during the 2023 wet season. (Photo by A.Pame/IRRI)

Scaling ambition, solutions, and way forward for mDSR
Although the path ahead is full of challenges, stakeholders have identified the enabling solutions to scaling mDSR in Cambodia through the Innovation Packaging and Scaling Readiness (IPSR) process.

Aside from addressing agronomic constraints, EiA works with government institutes, private manufacturers and service providers, extension agents, and researchers interested in mDSR. The group works with the Direct Seeded Rice Consortium (DSRC), an existing multi-stakeholder platform convened by IRRI.

During the IPSR workshop, the group identified mDSR as a core innovation for scaling. The core innovation of mDSR has two components – mechanized row seeding and tailored agronomy. The aim is to reach 80 farmer cooperatives and a total of 10,000 farmers in Cambodia by 2024 to contribute to the adoption of mDSR and increase rice production by 10%.

The group identified many bottlenecks as well as insights for scaling mDSR. Among the key scaling solutions proposed was having a unified message across the different stakeholders and scaling partners on what agronomic practices work with mDSR and its benefits.

Dr. Rica Joy Flor, a scientist at IRRI, explains the scaling readiness chart for mDSR. (Photo by A. Pame/IRRI)

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Other strategies for scaling mDSR raised were creating awareness through short videos shown in varied media platforms, supporting linkages with the private sector, training community champions, proposing to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to make it a part of its project on contracting seed producer agriculture cooperatives, and influencing the climate-adaptation policy to include mDSR with local level outreach such as commune funds.

Other stakeholders highlighted the need for capacity building and training on using the machine seeders. Machine modification is also not being done well and service providers cannot always accommodate everyone interested in using the machines. Furthermore, they also mentioned increasing target provinces and considering seed producers.

The group also assessed the readiness and use of mDSR, and the key scaling solutions using the CGIAR data metrics and monitoring system. Based on assessment, mDSR in Cambodia has been validated as an innovation but its use remains low. Through the scaling readiness graph, the stakeholders have a sense of what they have achieved in scaling mDSR and the solutions to increase its use.

“It helps to show where I am,” said Mr. Bunika San of Agri-Smart Innovation Cambodia, an organization that provides farmers with innovative farming equipment.

When asked to prioritize at least two solutions to scale mDSR in Cambodia, the stakeholders all agreed that there is no single solution but it should be a package.

Participants learning the various aspects for starting a viable mDSR business. (Photo: Phum Impact Battambang)

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An exciting private sector-led solution to support the scaling of the technology targets start-up DSR service providers. The strategy addresses key bottlenecks around the lack of access to machines and service costs.

EiA in Cambodia piloted Dam Srov, a business incubation supporting start-up entrepreneurs to build viable businesses. Coordinated by the Impact Hub and Phum Impact Battambang, seven cooperatives were selected and guided through business development and other strategies that will enable them to establish viable service provider enterprises. The program will continue until December 2023.

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