McMillan: India’s pulse crops await delayed monsoon

A top market for Canadian pulse crops and oilseeds now expects to wait a few extra days for the rains on which its own pulse and oilseed crops rely heavily.

India’s government meteorological department announced Thursday that conditions were favourable for the onset of the southwest monsoon in the state of Kerala by Tuesday (June 4). Normally the onset in that state is June 1.

Typically the rains arrive in Kerala and then spread across the rest of the country by mid-July.

Monsoon rains are critically important for Indian agriculture since the monsoon provides around 70 per cent of the annual precipitation. This is particularly true for the 55 per cent of land without irrigation, but even on the irrigated farmland, the monsoon helps reduce water demands and maintains reservoir levels.

Some planting on irrigated land has been reported but in general, producers are waiting on the arrival of the rains before seeding.

A few days earlier the meteorological office released its long-range forecast for the monsoon season. It anticipates the 2013 monsoon will be close to the long-term average, with rainfall at 98 per cent with a model error of plus or minus five per cent.

While a few days’ delay may seem insignificant to some, the arrival of the monsoon takes on heightened importance across India. The monsoon arrived four days late to the Kerala coast last year and was followed by below-normal rainfall, leaving crops across several states desiccated.

Over the past few weeks, temperatures have soared into the mid- to upper 40s C and reports of crops withering in the heat have multiplied.

The monsoon rains are essential for kharif (summer) crops such as millet, corn, sorghum and certain pulses. Roughly 40 per cent of Indian pulses are sown in the kharif season and include pigeon pea, black gram and soybeans.

Soybean production in central India depends heavily on the monsoon and prices edged lower with the improved precipitation outlook. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service forecast on April 3 that soybean acreage would increase to a record 11 million hectares (27.2 million acres). If the monsoon forecasts are accurate, the expansion will likely occur, due to strong domestic demand and government policy designed to increase oilseed and pulse area.

While swelling stocks of wheat have filled government procurement warehouses, the situation is vastly different for oilseed and pulses. India is the world’s largest importer of both pulses and oilseeds and is an important market for Canadian crops.

India’s ministry of commerce and industry decided March 25 to continue its export ban on pulses. The following day the finance ministry reported its import duties on pulses would continue to be suspended until April 1, 2014.

— Stuart McMillan writes from Winnipeg on weather and agronomic issues affecting Prairie farmers.

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