Combating land and water degradation, and increasing agricultural productivity have been key issues in agricultural research for development in Central Asia. Every year tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land in the Aral Sea Basin become unsuitable for farming and livestock production and move into the category of marginal, low productive. There are a number of causes, including negative consequences of the Aral Sea desiccation, climate change and irrational use of natural resources for intensive agricultural production.
There are strong indications that secondary salinization, waterlogging, soil erosion, loss of organic carbon, and reduced biodiversity are resulting in yield losses, and declining soil fertility is leading to higher production costs. Together with limited water resources and high soil salinity, these are the major constraints to crop-livestock production in Karakalpakstan (northern Uzbekistan). Adoption of crop species adapted to salinity, drought, extremely hot and cold environments, and further enhancement of their yield potential and grain quality is regarded as a sustainable solution to meet food, feed and fodder needs of rural households and farmers in the region.
In an effort to introduce non-conventional salt-tolerant crops such as pearl millet and sorghum, the regional offices of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Uzbekistan, together with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and national partners, continue to assess ways and benefits of integrating pearl millet and sorghum into local crop-livestock feeding and farming production systems in diverse agro-ecological zones. Both crops have high water consumption efficiency, and are highly tolerant to drought, heat and soil salinity. These features make sorghum and pearl millet especially suitable for crop diversification and crop-livestock productivity enhancement in saline and drought-prone areas.
To show the advantages of these crops to local farmers and researchers, a Field Day was held on 19 July 2013 on Shortanbay farm in Karakalpakstan under the ICBA-ICRISAT-ICARDA project 'Sorghum and Pearl Millet for Crop Diversification, Improved Crop-Livestock Productivity and Farmers Livelihood in Central Asia'. At the event the results of experimental trials of sorghum and pearl millet varieties were presented to about 30 participants, including farmers and researchers from the Karakalpakstan branch of the Uzbek Rice Research Institute (KBURRI); the Nukus branch of Tashkent State Agrarian University; Karakalpakstan Institute of Crop Husbandry; government officials and women leaders from NGOs.
The participants heard that despite an exceptionally dry season and lack of water for irrigation this year, 13 entries of pearl millet had reached panicle emergence and flowering stages. The fields were irrigated only once in July 2013. 'Hashaki-1', a locally released early-maturing variety, performed particularly well on medium saline soil, which makes it possible to adopt for wider cultivation as a main crop in early spring or as a second crop after wheat harvesting.
Officials and farmers from different districts of Karakalpakstan noted that a major challenge to wider cultivation is ensuring the availability of seeds of improved lines of non-conventional salt-tolerant crops. However, efforts are under way to establish specialized farms for multiplication of good quality seeds of this high-yielding variety in Uzbekistan. Participants agreed that large-scale seed multiplication of high-yielding varieties of sorghum, pearl millet and alfalfa, which had shown good performance on salt-affected soil on Shortanbay farm, should start to meet the growing demand of farmers.
Scientists pointed out the importance of including both sorghum and pearl millet in crop rotation and crop diversification through introduction of grain legumes (mungbean, soya bean and alfalfa). Incorporation of these crops into a biosaline farming system is considered as the only source of income for many poor rural families, who live far away from markets. There is considerable knowledge in the region about the preparation of various types of food products from proso millet, and hence the use of pearl millet grains for livestock feed and various types of food products should be a rather easy and quick process.