The recent severe cold wave, which ended later last week but still has a chance of returning, may prove a mixed blessing for agriculture in Punjab. After many years, some say 50, even the urban temperatures fell close to zero — farm temperatures more by three to four degrees.
It brought thick layers of fog with it. Since neither temperatures nor thickness of fog were uniform in the province, their effects also varied on crops. Wheat, the largest cultivated crop right now, might have escaped the negative impact as the spell ended just in time for it.
The wheat threshold level is below zero degrees Celsius, sustained over two weeks. Rather, it might have helped the crop with better tillering, according to farmers.
There are no reports of wheat (frost-bitten) burning, as happened a few years ago, from any part of the province so far. This is the situation in irrigated areas of the province.
The situation in the barani areas is still a question mark because plants there are relatively weaker as they neither get sustained water supplies nor regular fertiliser application. It was colder there owing to topography. How these two million acres absorb the impact of cold, especially if there is another round of cold wave, would largely determine the final crop size in the province.
The biggest hit, however, has been taken by the tunnel farming. Almost the entire range of crops — tomatoes, cucumber and bell peppers — has suffered, and loss may soon reflect in price.
These crops have mainly shifted to tunnels, where below zero degrees temperature, along with long and regular absences of electricity, hit the crops. There was no way farmers could maintain temperature in those tunnels without electricity.
The impact on cane crop, which is being harvested these days, has been a matter of debate among farmers.
Some think that cold wave has hit the crop by freezing crystals and then de-freezing during the day.
The repeated freezing and de-freezing hit the quality and the sucrose content. Some of the farmers, however, think otherwise. In cane areas, below zero degrees temperatures persisted only for a few days.
Thick layer of fog during the day kept the crop cool, saving it from repetition of freezing. Thus, once the sun was out later last week, the crop rejuvenated. The crop, in its current situation, did not show vegetative growth, but only the sucrose content, which is being produced in abundance in the current cold, but not freezing weather.
However, all of them agreed that orchards — mangoes, guava and citrus — might have taken the hit. On top of them is mango, being a broad leaf crop, it is more exposed to weather variations. The crop is also at the initiation stage, where freezing temperatures hit more.
The Punjab Agriculture Department also kept issuing advisories during these two weeks asking growers to burn cow-dung under the mango trees, create maximum smoke so that trees have some warmth.
Light irrigation and fertilisation was in addition to that. It asked for the same treatment for citrus and guava trees as well so as to lessen the impact of cold wave.
The cold wave might have helped another important crop, gram. This year, the crop had a better germination than last year, when the province produced record low crop.
The short cold spell, apart from freezing, also brought fog and dew with it. Both of them have helped the crop with better water supplies, which are crucial for the crop in barani (rain-fed) areas.
Rains were an additional benefit. In barani areas, only top layer of soil needs some water, which the rains and thick fog brought to the area.
The livestock had a tough time during these two weeks, when all animals suffered health issues of exceptional cold, and so did their handlers.
The majority of the poor livestock owners (two to three animals) seldom have any infrastructure to save their stock from this kind of cold. Shifting of stocks, harvesting and cutting of fodder, all exposed farmers and animals to biting cold.
If the weather pundits are to be believed, such weather would now be part of life on the planet. Pakistan needs to have a policy to minimise the impact of cold waves.
It needs to build infrastructure where required or possible, and train its farmers to deal with such variations.
During such cold, additional, but light irrigation becomes crucial. Incidentally, it is leanest period as far as water supplies are concerned, when dams are closer to bottom line. Thus, the country might need additional storages to acquire the margin of water maneuvering.
It should realise that without such storages, agriculture would be totally exposed to weather each winter, with limited role of management.