From ‘Dolly Parton’ Bunches to Smaller, Oil-Laden Ones

Scientists

have produced the next set of oil palm trees that not only are easier

to harvest, but also have a fifth more oil from the current batch.

For the last 40 years, Malaysia has tried a variety of machines to

harvest oil palm fruits as the industry works on efficiency and a

worsening manpower shortage.

This has remained largely

unsuccessful due to the low use of the harvesting gadget. As a result,

the industry has been working on the trees – to make them easier to

harvest and to have more oil.

In the small town of Paloh,

Johor, scientists have produced the next set of trees that could

significantly improve the industry further. Not only are these trees

easier to harvest, they will also have a fifth more oil from the current

batch.

Buyers are coming from as far as Sarawak.

“I like what I see. It is easier to harvest and handle. The most

important thing is, it will give me higher oil yield,” said one planter

during a recent seed-buying mission to Applied Agricultural Resources

Sdn Bhd (AAR)’s oil palm seed garden in Paloh.

Malaysia is now

the world’s second largest palm oil producer after Indonesia. But data

from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board is showing a worrying trend: palm oil

output is likely to stagnate at 17.6 million tonnes for the third

straight year in 2010.

Assuming this amount of oil is gathered

across 4.9 million hectares, this year’s yield will only total 3.6

tonnes per hectare in a year. Many planters say this is due to a severe

shortage of harvesters.

While the search for the best

mechanisation system continues, Malaysian crop scientists are making

headway in raising tree productivity.

In the past, as oil palm

trees grew taller and taller, planters use very long poles to harvest

the fruit bunches. This got many crop scientists thinking. Why not

breed shorter palms that bear very big fruit bunches?

So in the 1960s, crop scientists introduced the hybrid called the Dura X Pisifera (DXP) as the standard planting material.

As time goes by, many in the industry affectionately referred to the

DXP hybrid as “the Dolly Parton type” because the trees are shorter and

produce big fruit bunches.

Fifty years on, Malaysia’s oil palm landscape is mostly populated with Dolly Parton trees.

In an interview with Business Times, seed producer AAR is giving a

sliver of hope for the industry. AAR research director Dr Kee Khan Kiang

introduced the higher oil yielding semi-clonal hybrid called “AA

Hybrida I”.

Compared with the Dolly Parton standard, the

dwarf-like AA Hybrida I has more, albeit smaller, fruit bunches. It

also has higher oil yields.

“One of the problems of big bunches

is that the inner fruitlets do not have space to develop fully. In

smaller bunches, however, the inner fruitlets have a greater chance to

develop and ripen more evenly. Therefore, for the same weight, smaller

bunches yield more oil,” he said.

It then became apparent – bigger is not always better.

Seed selection is crucial in oil palm planting because those who use

seeds gathered from existing estates suffer from low yields no matter

how many bags of fertiliser.

Kee confirmed that the AA Hybrida I

is “the cream of the cream” and can yield 20 per cent more oil than the

previous generation of DXP seeds.

His team of scientists

adopted the semi-clonal strategy to step up seed production while

maintaining key qualities like the dwarf stature of the tree and high

oil yield in the fruit bunches.

“Our semi-clonal seed

production technology ensures clients get consistent quality in every

seed they buy from AAR,” Kee said. “And the good thing is, for now,

we’re not charging a premium.”

During the tour around the Paloh

seed garden, planters from Sarawak witnessed firsthand how AAR

scientists match-make oil palm trees, working daily to perfect

Malaysia’s top cash crop with the latest breeding technology.

Another compelling feature of the AA Hybrida I is that its dwarf stature

means more trees can be planted. It allows for a higher density of 148

trees in one hectare compared with the current standard of 136.

A smallholder, owning 1,000 hectares in Betong, Sarawak, noted the

higher productivity per harvester in planting the AA Hybrida I.

“This is good. When the palms start to bear fruit, I don’t need to

hire as many harvesters like others and yet I can get more oil per

hectare.”

AAR head of crop improvement Tan Cheng Chua concurred

that at prime fruit bearing age, the AA Hybrida I, under good

management and environment, is capable of producing 40 tonnes of fresh

fruit bunches with 24 per cent oil extraction rate.

That works out to be more than nine tonnes of oil per hectare in a year or 2.5 times higher than the country’s average yield.

AAR, an equal joint venture between Boustead Plantations Bhd and Kuala

Lumpur Kepong Bhd, had started selling the AA Hybrida I two years ago.

The company is now working on the AA Hybrida II that will see a

further 25 per cent improvement in oil yield. It is scheduled to be

launched in 2015.



Source : Business Times

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