Monday, 4 February 2008

Raising oil palm yields-Business Times

Raising oil palm yields-Business Times
By Ooi Tee Ching

Published: 2008/01/25

There is a need for more planters to source for good oil palm seedlings that will grow fast and bear maximum fruits

FOR the first time in eight years, Malaysia's crude palm oil production dipped last year. Although it was just a 0.4 per cent fall to 15.82 million tonnes, it got the plantation minister quite worried.Malaysia's national average yield has also been stagnant for the last 20 years.

"Fresh fruit bunch yields also dipped to 19 tonnes per hectare per year from 19.6. Although productivity declined because of the floods and biological stress, it is not an excuse to be complacent," said Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Peter Chin.Chin said the focus of the industry is to continue improving fruit yield."

One of the ways to counter the misconception that oil palm is not sustainable is to show that Malaysia achieves superior fruit and oil yield.

"Why is it that in the last two decades, our national average yield is consistently less than 20 tonnes per hectare annually when we have top performers extracting 30 tonnes?

We want more planters maximising yield, not just a handful," he said."We want more planters to source for good seedlings that will grow fast and bear maximum fruits," he added.

The minister was speaking to reporters recently after launching AA Resources Sdn Bhd's tissue culture laboratory in Ijok, Kuala Selangor. Also present was Kuala Lumpur-Kepong Bhd (KLK) chairman Datuk Seri Lee Oi Hian.

Over the years, KLK has planted 6,000ha of its 150,000ha planted area with clonal palms.Lee said, "Our policy is to carry out new plantings and replant old trees with clonal palms to achieve superior oil yield." He said KLK's plantation managers have consistently ensured optimum application of fertilisers.

"Since there was good spread of rainfall last year, we should see better fruit production this year. Also, as more young trees mature we hope to harvest more fruits," he said.

"We're optimistic of reaping 24 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches per hectare this year, up from 22.9 tonnes previously," Lee added.

According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), Kelantan and Terengganu have, in the last 25 years, produced the lowest fruit bunch yields compared to other states. Kelantan's oil palm estates have fruit bunch yields of between 11.3 and 16.8 tonnes per hectare in a year.

Similarly, Terengganu's yield is between 13.3 and 17.8 tonnes per hectare."The best performing state is Sabah. It is therefore not surprising that it has the largest concentration of oil palm estates," Chin said.Since 2001, Sabah has consistently yielded at least 20 tonnes of fruit bunches per hectare in a year.

Last year, it topped again, extracting 23 tonnes per hectare per year.In the last 20 months, high palm oil prices have prompted new entrants into the industry. The minister, however, cautioned that not every piece of vacant agricultural land is suitable for oil palm.

"Oil palm grows best on relatively flat terrain which receives consistent rainfall throughout the year," he said."We don't want a situation where inexperienced and new planters wonder why their oil palm trees are not fruiting as much as they desire when in the first place the trees are planted on hillslopes," he added.

Generally, most new oil palm plantings are seen in Sabah and Sarawak.For 20 years, Malaysia's average yield has been stagnant at between 15.9 and 20.3 tonnes per hectare per year. In 2007, MPOB's data showed that yields dropped to 19 tonnes per hectare per year from 19.6 as the trees go through the usual downcycle of "biological stress".

To improve oil yield, Chin said planters must implement optimum tree spacing."The aim is to plant the trees right. If planted too closely, the trees will not fruit properly because of lack of sunlight. On the other hand, if you space them too far apart, it would be a waste of land resource. MPOB recommends 138 trees on one hectare," he said.

All plantation companies, big or small, are also reminded to chop down unproductive oil palm trees and replant with high-yielding seedlings."I know it is tempting to procrastinate replanting because of high palm oil prices.

For the sake of improving the country's yield, smallholders should carry out replanting according to schedule," the minister said.Also present at the launch of AA Resources tissue culture laboratory was United Plantations Bhd (UP) vice-chairman and executive director Carl Bek-Nielsen. UP is one of the more productive oil palm companies in Malaysia.Bek-Nielsen said more can be done to improve Malaysia's current yields.

He said, "We must remember that whatever we plant will remain in the ground for the next 20 to 25 years. It is therefore absolutely essential that we get it right the first time, ensuring that only superior planting materials reach the fields."

"It's not just about raising our yield ceiling. It is also about raising the floor for the whole industry," he said.As at the end of 2007, there were 4.27 million hectares of oil palm plantations in Malaysia and crude palm oil (CPO) production was 15.82 million tonnes.This means the country's CPO yield amounted to 3.7 tonnes per hectare last year.

Bek-Nielsen explained that if all oil palm planters were to increase CPO yields by just 0.5 tonne per hectare, it would result in the country producing an extra two million tonnes of crude palm oil without having to increase the area planted under oil palms.

The importance of loose fruit collection has also been highlighted by Sime Darby Bhd chief executive officer Datuk Seri Ahmad Zubir Murshid.He was reported to have said that if there is collection of six more loose fruits per tree, it would mean an extra RM30 million in group profits.