Even grounds

 Paula Bianca Ferrer   |  

Few countries in Asia are familiar with precision land leveling or laser land leveling, but, in India, the technology has already been adopted in many states and it has  almost become an indispensable tool in agriculture.

Through laser land leveling, farmers are able to save water and reduce their irrigation cost because laser-leveled fields, unlike traditionally leveled fields, allow better water coverage and more efficient irrigation.

Around 7,000 Indian farmers now own 10,000 laser land levelers and close to 1 million hectares of land in India have been laser-leveled.

“For traditional agricultural practices of the rice-wheat farming system, pump irrigation is common,” says Raj Gupta, regional facilitator of the Rice-Wheat Consortium (RWC) for the Indo-Gangetic Plains. “Electricity consumption from pumping underground water can reach 800 kilowatts per hectare per year and leveling the land could help save up to US$65 million annually.”

“Laser leveling allows us to use more efficiently water that, at times, becomes scarce,“ he added. “Also, compared with unleveled or traditionally leveled fields, laser-leveled  fields can save 18 centimeters of water. With about 1 million hectares of land that has been laser-leveled, this translates to 2 cubic kilometers of water saved—roughly the size of a lake that is 2 kilometers long, 1 kilometer deep, and 1 kilometer wide.

“Laser leveling not only allows even distribution of water so that it can be used more efficiently but it also leads to better nitrogen-use efficiency, which helps give us a much better crop stand,” he concludes.

Leveling the land using laser systems has also become a source of income for farmers as they rent the units to fellow farmers at 500 rupees ($1) an hour. Sometimes, these farmers hire out the system to three to four other farmers to level their fields, working in shifts.

The laser land levelers give the farmers an extra source of income aside from helping increase their productivity,” cites Dr. Gupta.

Farmers in India enjoy benefits similar to those enjoyed by farmers in Pakistan, from where Dr. Gupta and his colleagues from the RWC first stumbled upon the technology.

In 2002, the RWC team visited farmers’ fields in Pakistan. During the field trip, they saw fields that had been laser-leveled. “We got good feedback from the farmers,” explains Dr. Gupta.

“They liked laser leveling very much because it helped them save water, get extra income from renting out the units to other farmers, and increase their productivity. So, we decided to introduce laser land leveling in India.”

In the same year, a laser landleveling unit was supplied by Spectra Precision, Inc., a dealer in Hyderabad, India, and was brought to a farmer’s field in Haryana for testing. However, the technology was not a success because the system buckled and was taken back for further improvements. It did, however, provide two important lessons: that the unit’s automatic hydraulic scraper bucket should be assembled with locally available materials and that local service providers had to be able to handle defects in their small workshops.

After the first unsuccessful attempt, the RWC asked Joseph Rickman, an agricultural engineer at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), to develop a hydraulic scraper bucket for a 50- to 60-horsepower tractor that was fitted with a laser land-leveling unit. As he had gained much experience from his projects in Cambodia and Thailand, Mr. Rickman developed an automatic scraper bucket with Beri Udyod Ltd., a local manufacturer, which offered him free use of its workshop facilities. As a result, they were able to build the hydraulic scraper bucket using local automobile components and they connected it to a tractor-driven land-leveling unit.

The machine was tested on a farm in Karnal Province and the results were  encouraging. This then led to a larger demonstration and a training workshop at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, where about 200 agriculture professionals, service professionals, and local manufacturers attended.

Through an initiative to promote laser land leveling in northern India, similar to Spectra Precision, Inc., in southern India, another manufacturer came onto the scene and forayed into manufacturing units that copied the hydraulic scraper bucket from Beri and used a locally-procured control valve mechanism. Competitive manufacturing was born with Leica Geosystems and Beri producing the same units and nine other suppliers that came on board later.

In 2005, the Atomic Energy Commission in India also developed a prototype of a laser land leveler but, although it was successfully developed using locally-available materials, it failed to be mass-produced. Meanwhile, India’s private sector also developed prototypes of laser land levelers and, at the same time, through contacts with foreign suppliers, imported other units from  U.S. to India.

Many on-farm demonstrations, field days, and training workshops took place. Units were produced in Karnal, Ludhiana, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar by 2006 so the technology could reach farmers’ fields more effectively. One of the farmer-service providers, Ranjeet, together with his brother, undertook more than 200 field demonstrations in Bihar’s 12 districts covering West Champaran to Purnea from 2007 to 2008.

Through subsidies provided by the state governments of Haryana, Punjab, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and others, farmers Laser land leveling is fast changing the face of traditional farming in South Asia were soon able to purchase their own units, which they also rented out to other farmers. A cooperative in Patna and Samastipur districts in Bihar called the Primary Agriculture Credit Society, along with a farmers’ seed  village in Begusarai, promoted laser land leveling together with their other resource- conserving technologies.

USAID agricultural advisor Robert Bertam (right) tests a laser land-leveling unit with Indian agronomist R.K. Naresh (left). (Photo: Raj Gupta)

USAID agricultural advisor Robert Bertam (right) tests a laser land-leveling unit with Indian agronomist R.K. Naresh (left). (Photo: Raj Gupta)

The Department of Agriculture in Bihar also bought five units of laser land levelers for demonstrations in 2008-09. During the same years, Dr. Apurba Chowdhury and his team from Uttarbanga Agriculture University procured three units of laser land levelers in Kochbehar and Dakshin Dinazpur for farmer participatory trials.

Moreover, Dr. Paritosh Bhattacharyya from the West Bengal Department of Agriculture took seven more units of laser land levelers to different districts of West Bengal. This then became a collaborative effort with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

The experiences gained in farmers’ fields helped further improve laser land levelers. Punjab Agriculture University also took the initiative of modifying the hitch system for the scraper bucket, allowing it to improve its turning radius by 27% and the maneuverability of tractors in small fields.

Another innovation made on the machine was the addition of a quick-release hydraulic coupler that enabled it to be attached to or detached from the  tractor. This helped free the tractor when the laser land leveler was not in use and restored the tractor to being a multiutility vehicle. This led to a total of 20 units sent to Bihar, West Bengal, Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh.

Since then, more improvements were made on the leveling unit such as adding double wheels to it to reduce the load on the tractor, which increased the machine’s capacity by 25%. An improvement that included a powered mast for finer elevation setting of the receiver not only enhanced mast-receiver control on the laser land levelers but also boosted fuel and tractor efficiency during leveling.

“Like in India, where the technology started with one unit, but has now grown to 10,000 units, farmers in Bangladesh and Nepal, where the technology was introduced in 2008, are also keen to purchase more,” says Dr. Gupta.

Each country now owns three units and the technology has been introduced in the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia, a collaborative project among IRRI, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the International Livestock Research Institute.

With joint efforts among different organizations and Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research centers, laser land leveling could become an indispensable tool for agriculture in Bangladesh and Nepal, holding lots of promise for farmers.

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