Oil Palm: Precision Farming

INTRODUCTION

The oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, Jacq ., is a perennial tree which is extensively planted as a monoculture crop in the plantations. It was introduced into Malaysia in the late 19th century but its phenomenal growth commenced only in the mid-sixties under the crop diversification plan. From 97000 ha in 1965, the oil palm areas have increased to about 3.3 million ha in 1999 (MPOB, 2000). The annual export revenue of oil palm at about RM 18 billion between 1997 and 1999 has brought much relieve to the nation during the recent financial crisis.

However, the substantial increase in oil palm areas has not been commensurate by its productivity in terms of yield per ha. The national fresh fruit bunch (FFB) yields have stagnated at a relatively low level of 18.7 t/ha/yr (Table 1). Similar trend was obtained by the major plantation groups with annual FFB yields fluctuating between 20 and 22 t/ha/yr since 1989 (Figure 1). These yields also fell short of their site yield potentials based on experimental results. The dismal yield performances have been attributed to many factors, among them are generalised agricultural inputs and monitoring, increased field size or management unit, declining management standards, lack of skilled workers and poor understanding of agronomy, but probably also exacerbated by the planting of oil palm on soil and climatic conditions previously deemed as marginal or unsuitable and the replanting of the rubber and cocoa on hilly, poor soils to oil palm.

Table 1: Mean yield of fresh fruit bunches (FFB), crude palm oil and palm kernels in Malaysia 1975-1997

Year

FFB yield (t/ha/yr)

Crude palm oil (t/ha/yr)

Palm kernels (t/ha/yr)

1975

17.95

3.66

0.74

1976

16.16

3.48

0.71

1977

16.32

3.54

0.74

1978

16.25

2.95

0.68

1979

17.76

3.65

0.79

1980

18.72

3.78

0.81

1981

19.16

3.76

0.79

1982

19.50

3.83

0.80

1983

17.45

3.43

0.72

1984

21.80

4.25

1.19

1985

22.15

4.33

1.28

1986

22.15

4.41

1.28

1987

17.10

3.39

1.01

1988

17.52

3.47

1.04

1989

19.57

3.88

1.15

1990

18.53

3.64

1.10

1991

17.85

3.48

1.01

1992

17.83

3.43

0.99

1993

20.26

3.78

1.16

1994

18.42

3.43

1.05

1995

18.93

3.51

1.06

1996

18.95

3.55

1.06

1997

19.10

3.63

1.06

Mean

18.67

3.66

0.97

After PORLA (1999)

Figure 1: Mean FFB yields and production costs of some major plantation groups in Malaysia from 1989 to 1997.

Apart from the above, the oil palm industry also faces two disconcerting scenarios: the excalating production costs since 1994 (Figure 1) and the decreasing real price trend of palm oil since 1950s (Figure 2). The likely consequence is a gradual dilution of profits in the long-term which can lead to the non-sustainability of the oil palm plantations. Since the palm oil price is generally beyond the control of the industry, we shall need to manage the production costs within acceptable limit to maintain sufficient returns to investment. The best avenues to achieve this in the labour intensive plantation business where wages have a strong influence on the production costs, are probably reducing labour requirement and raising FFB yields. In fact, it has been shown that a 1% increase in FFB yield will reduce the production costs by 0.8 to 1% (Ong, 2000; Goh and Chew, 2000).

Figure 2: Real price trend of palm oil since 1950


Source: Fry (1998)

Traditionally, the oil palm plantations have relied on large-scale extensive agricultural practices, improvement in planting materials and good management, which have served us so well in the past, to increase productivity. However, they now seem to offer few scopes for alleviating the above grave scenarios and closing the perceived large yield gaps seen in the industry over the past two decades. Therefore, as stated by Chew (1998), “It appears inevitable that we shall have to intensify and improve our planting practices by developing new techniques to increase efficiency and productivity to keep ahead of our competitors and maintain our reputation as a responsible green industry”. This strategy or approach falls within the realm of precision farming as discussed below.

This paper will attempt to provide a brief overview of precision farming, preliminary assessments of the applicability of precision farming for oil palm plantations and future work on precision farming for oil palm plantations.

Reference
Goh, K.J., Tee, B.H. and Anuar, A.R. (2000) Applicabilitity of precision farming for oil palm plantations in Malaysia. In: Seminar on Precision Farming. 16 October 2000, Universiti Pertanian Malaysia and Agricultural Institute of Malaysia, Serdang: Preprint.

Note: The full list of references quoted in this article is available from the above paper.