Dr K U Thomas,

Former Joint Director (Latex Harvest Technology), RRII, Rubber Board, Kottayam

Large-scale adoption of once a week tapping practice, recommended and popularized by Rubber Board, India, has a lot of benefits for the growers, especially in the context of ongoing low rubber prices, rising cost of production and acute shortage of skilled tappers

Natural rubber plantation industry in India is passing through difficult times mainly due to very low NR price and acute scarcity for skilled tappers. Productivity in the country has nosedived from world’s top position of almost 1,900 kg/ha to 1,450 kg/ha in the recent past in spite of large-scale adoption of high-yielding clones. Rubber price crashed from an all-time high of Rs 250 plus during 2011-12 to less than Rs 100 a kilogram in 2016.

Problems on tapping front

Along with the rise in NR price, all other costs also increased and the most striking was the increase in tapper wages which continues to stay at the increased level. Due to the present day’s high cost of living, the tapper is unable to offer a reduced wage to the grower. Acute shortage of skilled tappers is a reality and it is likely to aggravate in the future. The report of a recent survey conducted by the Rubber Research Institute of India (RRII) among small holdings and their tappers with the active participation of Extension Officers and Rubber Producers Societies indicate availability of only around 78,000 tappers to tap trees in 450,000 hectare in the smallholder sector (Siju, Binny & Tharian & Rajeevan, 2016).

The average age of a tapper in India is reported to be around 50 years and the younger generation is reluctant to take tapping as a profession. An area of nearly 100,000 hectare is in the estate sector in which at present there is not much problem for getting tappers. But the cost of production in the estate sector is the highest. By and large, smallholders are on High Frequency Tapping (HFT) like alternate day tapping. This would require a total of more than double the number of tappers who are available at present. Nearly 30% of the area is estimated to be left untapped during 2016. It is believed that NR price will fluctuate between Rs 100-150 at least for the next few years.

Saving of tapping cost

The practice of alternate day or still higher frequency of tapping for high-yielding clones pushes the trees into high incidence of maladies like Tapping Panel Dryness (TPD) or brown bast, ultimately resulting in short life span leading to replanting within 18-20 years, and in high cost of production. At a tapping wage rate of INR 1.50 -2.0 per tree (Rs 600-800/ha/day) in smallholdings under alternate day frequency, the cost of tapping per kg of rubber produced itself is INR 60-80 (@assumed national productivity of 1,500 kg/ha; 150 days of tapping/year). If these growers switch to once a week tapping, their cost on tapping can be as low as INR 27-34/kg, a reduction in cost by 55% (including tapping and stimulation cost) without reduction in yield. This makes rubber cultivation still attractive.

Trials show no yield loss

RRII conducted two large-scale trials (in 30 ha at SFCK estate, Punalur, from 1988 & in 10 ha at Koney estate of M/s Harrisons Malayalam Ltd, from 2010) on Low Frequency Tapping. And, on completion of long-term evaluation, RRII has recommended lower frequencies of once in three days (d3), once in four days (d4) and once a week (d7) tapping with clone and frequency-specific yield stimulation schedule. The compiled annual mean yield from Koney estate under all systems except for d3 frequency without yield stimulation is on a par with d2 frequency (Fig.1). Detailed biochemical studies viz. sucrose content, thiols, proline, phenols, ATP and invertase activity were conducted during the experiment period to monitor whether there was any adverse effect of yield stimulation under frequencies such as d7. There was no sign of degradation of laticifer system as indicated by high thiol content, no accumulation of stress indicators like proline and phenol. The economic analysis of the data indicated BCR (benefit cost ratio) of 5.77 under alternate day (d2) whereas it was 12.35, more than double, under weekly tapping (Fig. 2).

Many estates switched over to lower frequencies of d4 and d7, and are continuing successfully with yield on a par with that of d2. Success of LFT depends on disciplined operations like regularity in tapping, scheduled yield stimulation, removal of frequency-dependent bark shaving under each tapping. Estates and growers who strictly follow these are registering good performance and steady improvement in yield (Table 1). Among all the lower frequencies, the best and most economical is weekly tapping (Thomas, 2016a). Unlike many other rubber growing countries that opted weekly tapping and got only lower yield than d2, India could get sustainable high and on a par yield.

Since 2009, RRII, in collaboration with the Extension Department of the Rubber Board, has been running demonstration plots on d3 frequency with yield stimulation in small-growers field under all Regional Offices. The performance of these plots was useful in dispelling the fear from the mind of growers on use of ethephon, possibility of yield reduction under LFT and occurrence of high TPD. Later, from 2015, we started similar collaborative demonstration program on Low Frequency weekly tapping with yield stimulation in small-growers’ plots spread out in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Whether it is in the South or the drier North of Kerala, there was no yield reduction under weekly tapping (Table 2)

Demonstration plots

Since 2002, the Rubber Board has been maintaining a demonstration plot on weekly tapping at Ranni (Table.3). Weekly tapping was being followed in Kanthimathi estate, Kulasekharam, from 2003 and, since 2006, the entire estate has shifted to it. The adjoining Vaikundam estate shifted to weekly tapping in half of their tapping area from 2016. Many of the friends and relatives of RRII demonstration plot-owners on weekly tapping also have shifted to the new system and are continuing it successfully. Thus, through grower-to-grower interaction, the success of weekly tapping is spreading fast and more and more growers are changing to d7 (Table.4). We have around 100 weekly tapping grower plots under Thalassery Regional Office.

Growers in India have now accepted the reality of tapper shortage. Since the average holding size is only 0.5 hectare (200-250 trees), our first target group for extension of the most economical low-frequency weekly tapping is the owner-tappers of over 25%. (Siju, Binny, Tharian & Rajeevan 2016). Since weekly tapping ensures equal yield as in any other, why not they go for weekly tapping and use the remaining days for other activities? It is noticed that many of our d7 participants are housewives, teachers, sales men, and Government employees.

Trees under low frequency tapping have to be yield-stimulated appropriately from opening for sustainable high yield. The trees will be getting sufficient time interval between successive tappings to recoup the full quantity of rubber extracted. The method of yield stimulation recommended is application of 2.5% ethephon on the panel (applied on recently tapped area just above the tapping cut to a width of 1.5 cm with a brush made from coconut husk) Fig.3. It ranges from 2-3 rounds/year for d3 frequency to 12 per year under weekly tapping. To get the best stimulatory effect of ethephon, a time gap of 48-72 hrs is required between stimulation and tapping.

The thump rules

We have identified five thump rules for the successful implementation of weekly tapping. They are ensuring regular tapping, ie. in case a regular day’s tapping got skipped, those trees should be tapped on next day. Hence, in our climatic condition with more than 6 months rainfall, timely rain-guarding (if needed fixing a mini-guard) and regular panel washing with fungicide to prevent panel diseases are essential. Yield stimulant, ethephon at 2.5% concentration needs to be applied following panel application method as in Fig.3, three days before the 5th weekly tapping. Since the tapping interval is a week, bark shaving of each tapping should have 2.5mm thickness (thinner shaving will lead to partial opening of latex vessels, reduced yield), but annual bark consumption will be restricted to 13cm. (52×2.5mm =13cm/year). It is also important to ensure correct depth in each tapping, ie. tapping depth should be 1 mm close to the cambium. It is observed that bark growth of 0.5 to 1mm takes place in a week under the influence of ethephon and weekly tapping. Hence, non-compliance can lead to shallow tapping and end up with low yield. For reducing scrap (field coagulum) percentage, effective delayed collection and second collection at around 3.00 pm has to be done. If d.r.c. falls below 30%, scheduled stimulation may be suspended till it is improved.

Win-win situation for grower and tapper

From the data provided, economic analysis of various tapping systems and information from the field clearly indicates weekly tapping is the best among all the tapping systems recommended so far by Rubber Board. The benefits of weekly tapping are the following:

a) Reduction in cost of production

When 400 trees are tapped on alternate daily frequency for 150 days in a year at a rate of Rs.1.50/tree/tapping, the total annual tapping wage will be Rs. 90,000 (150 days x Rs.600) whereas the tapping wage will be only Rs. 31,200 (52 days x Rs.600) if the same number of trees are tapped under weekly frequency. To get an equivalent crop compared to d2 frequency maximum of 12 rounds of ethephon application (2.5%) is essential. The total cost for the material and labour together (Ethepon, oil Rs 800 and 3,000 for application) will not exceed Rs. 3,800/year. Thus total expenses for harvesting is Rs. 35,000 and the direct saving to the grower in the tapping wage is Rs. 55,000. The grower needs to share at least 10% of this saving to his tapper as an incentive for his extra work in latex collection, and also to ensure the co-operation of the tapper. Thus the grand total expenditure will be Rs. 40,000. Still, the grower can straightaway get a saving of Rs. 50,000 per hectare per year in the cost of harvesting compared alternate daily tapping.

b) Benefit to the tapper

As per the recently published 2016 report ‘census on rubber tappers in small holdings’, the average working days available to a tapper is 151 per year and at Rs.1.50/tree/tap, his annual income from 400 trees will be only Rs.90,600/- from tapping job. The same census report also highlights acute shortage of tappers in the small holdings i.e., 77,602 only to tap more than 450,000 hectare area. One of the prerequisites for successful weekly tapping is regular tapping under it throughout the year. Hence a tapper engaged for tapping under weekly frequency either through a grower consortium (6 growers with 1 ha. each employing one tapper) or through tapper bank under the RPS system, the tapper is assured work throughout the year, i.e, at least 300 days/year. At the same daily rate of Rs. 600 for 400 trees, the tapper stands to earn Rs.1,80,000 for 300 days, almost double of what he is getting at present from d2 tapping.

If the same tapper is involved in stimulant application for the growers, he stands to earn additional Rs.18,000 per year at the rate of Rs.250 per 400 trees per application x 12 months x 6 grower. Similarly when the grower shares at least 10% of his savings on tapping wage, the tapper again stands to earn Rs.30,000 (Rs.5000 x 6). Thus the total income of a tapper in the case of weekly tapping through the above tapper bank/consortium will be Rs. 228,080 as against Rs. 90,600 under current condition or 180,000 under 300 days’ assumed engagement under d2. Thus the grower as well as the tapper is benefited much from introduction of weekly tapping — a win-win situation for both. In the estate sector, there is demand from the workers to allot them LFT area, as their daily income will increase considerably due to over poundage system (average benefit under d2 is only of 2kg/day or Rs 13/day, whereas it will be 32 kg/day. That means Rs 200/day over and above their normal daily wage).

We believe this is the best time for extending the most economical LFT d7 tapping to help the growers. We have successful case of a house wife who taps 366 trees under d7 by dividing into batch of 50 plus trees/day (time taken for tapping is around 30-40 minutes) and her yield per tree is over 6.5 kg/year (Rubber, May 2016). As illustrated in Rubber, October, 2016, a small grower called Madhavan from Thalassery reported a net profit of over Rs 84300 during 2015 (@ rubber price as low as Rs100/kg). Another success story on weekly tapping is that of one Tom Kiran from Irinjalakkuda who introduced his own method of wage payment to tapper, i.e. Rs 1.30/tree for tapping plus 10% of earnings from rubber sale as incentive to his tapper (Table.5). Thus benefit to the tapper can be substantially high.

c) Enhancement in the longevity of the tree

Under the predominant alternate daily tapping (d2) each virgin panel is tapped for 5 years. That means a total of 10-year tapping on the virgin-basal panels. Due to the high frequency tapping (d2), incidence of tapping panel dryness (brown blast) will be high leading to lower crop making tapping uneconomical and forcing the grower to introduce slaughter tapping early, and ultimately the harvesting life of these trees will be limited to a total of 17 – 20 years.

But, if weekly tapping is adopted, virgin panels can be tapped for 20 years (10 + 10) with the least incidence of TPD and hence renewed basal panel also can be tapped for next 20 years. Finally, including slaughter tapping, the economic life (harvesting period) will be 42-43 years (Table.6). When trees stay in the field for prolonged duration, the timber volume will be substantial and is a bonus to the weekly tapping grower.

Considering cost reduction and addressing tapper shortage as the need of the hour, Rubber Board, India, has aptly decided weekly tapping as the current year’s campaign theme. While announcing the popularizing program on weekly tapping by the present Chairman, practical difficulties in implementation of it, as pointed out by George Jacob in Rubber Asia (Vol 36/5), was considered. Chairman’s view was to have a win-win situation for both the grower and the tapper. The cluster of growers (consortium by grower themselves) or tapper bank under the management of RPSs was well-conceived, modalities formulated and presented to all RPSs officials. The Rubber Board has already formulated the modus operandi of the tapper bank, and on a pilot level started operation under its Regional Offices in Nilambur, Moovattupuzha etc. The grower is assured of regular tapping under weekly system, preferably by the same tapper, and the tapper is assured of regular employment on all days under the jurisdiction of the RPS (preferably 6 or 7 close by grower plots). There are a few grower clusters also in existence in which the like-minded few ( 6 or 7) growers jointly engages one good tapper and enjoy the benefit of cost reduction.

Altogether, nearly 5,000 growers were registered to introduce weekly tapping during the campaign. If growers are adopting LFT d7 from first year of tapping, the economic life of the tree could be forty plus years, 20 years virgin and 20 years renewed panel and slaughter thereafter. Thus a grower need to go for only one replanting in his life time as against the current 2-3 replanting, and the cost saving is huge in this regard. . For the large scale adoption of it to benefit the growers and tappers, institutional support is essential to form effective tapper’s bank/consortium. A win-win situation created through such a mechanism is the need of the hour and the Rubber Producer’s Society need to play a pivotal role. Adoption of weekly tapping as recommended by the Rubber Board is the immediate solution in current crisis of very low NR price through cost reduction and tapper shortage. Instead one skilled tapper used for 2 hectare under d2, the same person can be used up to 7 hectare under d7) in the country.

Fig.1: Long term yield performance under various frequencies of tapping

Fig.2: Low Frequency Tapping systems Benefit –cost analysis of four year data

Fig.3: Panel application of 2.5% ethephon