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Oil Palm Plantation: Cultivation And Management

31.08.2021
young and mature oil palm trees in plantation

Palm oil is no longer a product of mere gathering by people who rely on rainforests for a living. Oil palm cultivation has turned into a lucrative and expanding business. Yet, like any business, it requires patience, reasonable management, monitoring, and a strong producer’s background.

Oil palm plantations embrace subtropical and tropical latitudes, providing the best climate for the crop to thrive. Growth and production of oil palm are popular in Nigeria, India, Equador, Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Thailand, etc. Alongside Indonesia, vast oil palm plantations in Malaysia rank top among global market suppliers.

What Oil Palm Plantations Imply

Oil palm is the best oil-containing crop in terms of yield capacity, even though planting oil palms won’t give immediate returns. The crop’s productivity depends on tree species, soil type, climatic conditions, oil palm plantation management, and cultivation practices.

In fact, the cost inputs during the first thirty months (prior to the first harvesting) are rewarded with up to 25 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches per ha in mature trees. Plantations give about four tonnes of crude palm oil per ha, which is eight times more productive than sunflower oil yield.

The commodity is extracted from the plant’s pulp and kernel, yet not each tree is equally valuable for growing. The oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) represents the Elaeis genus belonging to the Arecaceae family and originating from West Africa. There are three main crop types for cultivation in plantations:

  • dura – with a thick shell (2-8 mm);
  • pisifera – with no shell;
  • tenera – a hybrid of the above two.

Tenera is the most commercially valuable type, having a thinner shell and a bigger kernel, which is the most precious growing quality for plantations. Crop cultivation is performed mainly close to the equator in Latin America, West Africa, and Southeastern Asia. Growing an oil palm is a popular plantation business in Malaysia and India.

oil palm plantation in Malaysia

Oil Palm Plantations In Malaysia

Presently, palm-growing business in the country aims at growing trees for oil. Yet, the development of oil palm in Malaysia in 1870 started for decorative purposes first. Over a span of time, Malaysia’s oil palm plantation growth significantly increased. In 2018, the country contributed 20 million metric tons of oil palm (27%) to 72 metric tons of global cultivation.

Malaysia jointly with Indonesia currently shares 84% of the total commodity supply in the world.

Oil Palm Cultivation In India

On the Indian continent, plantations grow in fifteen states including Goa, West Bengal, Assam, Karnataka, Kerala, Gujarat, Andra Pradesh, and more. Oil palm tree cultivation in India embraces an area of nearly 50,000 ha, providing employment and domestic vegetable oil source for local people.

Why Do Oil Palm Plantations Continue To Grow?

The business attracts growers not solely because it yields well but because it sells well, too. The cultivation of the oil palm is spurred by the high demand for its product – palm oil, an ingredient of many daily-use items for multiple purposes. Indeed, its global production in plantations accounted only for 2 million metric tons in 1970.

In the marketing year of 2020/2021, the figure jumped up to 72 million metric tons, which constituted 31,4% of the world’s oil and fat production. The rise is explained with the expansion of its traditional applications in pharmaceutics, beauty, personal, and home care to newly discovered possibilities from human nutrition to bioenergy technical use. Besides, kernel cake is suitable for cattle feeding, with high protein content and oil residues.

Apart from cultivation productivity and high commodity demand worldwide, plantation best practices for growing oil palm offer a number of extra agricultural benefits:

  • relatively high pest and weed resistance;
  • possibility of intercropping in cultivation;
  • all-year-round harvesting in plantations;
  • monthly income (during the fruit-bearing stage);
  • absence of irrigation under sufficient rainfall conditions.

The above-mentioned advantages make the plantation industry rather favorable for many to enter.

Guidelines On Oil Palm Cultivation

Even though planting the crop is highly efficient, growing it does require certain knowledge and efforts before its producers can benefit from plantation yields. First, the plant needs specific soil and climate conditions. Second, the growth of oil palm starts after land and seed preparation. Third, the cultivation method for oil palm includes pest and weed control, irrigation and fertilization, ablation of early inflorescences, and harvesting.

The economic lifespan of the tree in plantations is rather long and makes 25-30 years. In wild nature, oil palms can grow up to 200 years, but they get too tall and reduce yields, which complicates harvesting and, thus, their commercial use.

Crop Monitoring from EOSDA helps control plantations continuously at all oil palm growth stages: from sowing to harvesting and in-between. The platform’s Field activity log keeps the records of all cultivation activities as well as sowing and harvesting dates. This way, oil palm producers can keep an eye on all their plantation groups and schedule all necessary events.

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Here are some basic cultivation requirements and tips on how to grow oil palm plantations.

palm plantation

Favourable Climate For Oil Palm Tree Growth

The plant is tropical, so it grows best in stable-warm areas with sufficient soil moisture all year round. The optimal temperatures for the cultivation of oil palm are 30–32°C (86–89.6°F) for 80 days minimum. Temperatures below 20°C (68°F) and above 40°C (104°F) are critical for growing and adversely affect crop production.

Proper development of oil palm in plantations is secured with at least 5-6 hours of bright daily sunshine and 75-100% humidity.

As for precipitations, the plant thrives under evenly distributed rainfalls of 2,500-4,000 mm per year. Under a lack or uneven distribution of rainfalls in plantations, it is necessary to ensure water supply with irrigation.

Weather analytics from Crop Monitoring allows tracking not only the weather to date but also historical weather patterns in plantations. Historical weather data is useful for the plantation owners who plan to grow the crop for the first time in the specific area or those who plan to buy ready plantations. Historical weather will help evaluate:

  • favorable climate conditions for plantation growing;
  • costs needed to compensate for lacking or abundant precipitation and temperature;
  • forecasts for a general shift of meteorological patterns in the region;
  • how these factors will affect the plantation yield as such because it may be more reasonable to grow another crop in the specific field instead.
historical weather data for oil palm field available on Crop Monitoring
Historical weather data for oil palm field available on Crop Monitoring.

Suitable Soils For Oil Palm Plantations

The best soil types for the crop’s cultivation are loamy or alluvial well-drained earths:

  • at least one meter deep for root development;
  • rich in organic matter;
  • with pH 4.0 to 6-8.0;
  • having sufficient soil moisture.

Soil salinization, alkalinization, or waterlogging are negative for oil palm tree growth. Since soil conditions matter, farmers are advised to perform soil testing to check area suitability before planting.

Preparation Of Seeds In Oil Palm Cultivation

Oil palms for plantations are typically propagated with seeds taken from fruits. Seed treatment is a responsible stage in oil palm cultivation and management because improperly prepared seeds will germinate after a couple of years due to long dormancy time. Dried for about 2.5 months in stable hot rooms (40°C) and soaked for 4-5 days in daily changed water, seeds are supposed to germinate in about 12 days (3-3.5 months after extraction).

Immediately after germination, sprouts are planted into plastic (polyethylene) bags or containers with equal ratios of topsoil, sand, and properly decomposed cattle manure. Sprouts for cultivation remain in the bags for about 4-5 months (until they develop a bifid leaf). Then, bifid-leaved sprouts continue in a plantation nursery, where they grow further for about a year. Finally, seedlings with about twelve-fifteen leaves and at least one meter high are mature enough and ready for growing in palm oil plantations.

The oil palm tree has a stem and leaves with no branching. It grows from the sole bud on the stem. If the bud is damaged, the plant is lost.

young trees

Field Preparation, Spacing, And Planting

Oil palm cultivation needs soil preparation before planting. The plantation soil should be fertilized with well-decomposed organic matter and cleaned from weeds. Plantation tilling improves the soil structure.

The optimal timing for planting is the rainy season from June to September. This way, plants can establish their root systems before the period of droughts.

How to plant an oil palm tree? To get a good yield from cultivation, oil palm trees must be planted at the right density. The plant sprouts are spaced in a triangular pattern with enough spacing for growing (9x9x9 m) in pits about 60 cm3. This planting method allows placing around 145 plants per hectare.

With Crop Monitoring, growers can know the exact area of the plantation when adding it to the platform. Also, they can use the elevation map feature to evaluate the number of seedlings for cultivation in plantations correctly.

elevation map of oil palm field on Crop Monitoring
Elevation map of oil palm field on Crop Monitoring.

Benefits Of Intercropping And Cover Cropping In Plantations

During the first three years after planting, the land use can be intensified with intercropping or cover cropping. Thus, plantation owners can get additional yields and cattle forage prior to the cash crop will fruit. However, operations and movement of oil palm plantation machinery for intercropping must not disturb the cash crop’s roots.

Another point to consider in cultivation is that not all plants are suitable to neighbor with palms. Plantation intercrop plants must tolerate shade and not compete for nutrients, sunlight, and moisture with the cash crop. Besides, damaging plant fronds or pruning in oil palm plantations should be avoided because the more leaves a tree has, the more yields it can give. Suitable intercrops for plantation cultivation are pineapple, ginger, turmeric, flowers, vegetables, banana, or tobacco. Leguminous plants are an additional source of nitrogen fixation for cash crop growth.

Typical cover crop plants for oil palm plantations are Mucana, Centrosema prutascens, Pueraria phaeseoloides, Mimosa invisa, Calopogonium mueconoides, etc.

irrigating oil palm plantation

Oil Palm Cultivation Water Needs And Irrigation

The plant can resist several-month droughts, yet the yields will significantly drop. For this reason, oil palms grow under natural rainfalls, with compensating irrigation when rain-fed soil moisture in plantations is not enough. Each tree requires about 150-200 mm daily, and mature plants take even more. Several common irrigation methods satisfy the crop’s water needs: micro-sprinklers, basin, and drip irrigation. The last one is the most economical and thus beneficial for plant cultivation.

Soil moisture and irrigation management in plantations are easier with Crop Monitoring. To assess soil moisture and irrigation needs, it is possible to use the Normalized Difference Moisture Index (NDMI) available on the platform. The NDMI describes the crop’s water stress level and recognizes the plantation areas with water stress issues.

NDMI map of oil palm field on Crop Monitoring
NDMI map of oil palm field on Crop Monitoring.

Mulching In Oil Palm Cultivation

Base mulching helps retain soil moisture and creates a favorable microclimate for plant growing. Additionally, it suppresses weeds in oil palm plantations. Male flowers, coconut husk, empty bunches, straw, leaves can serve as natural mulch material in cultivation.

Pollination In Oil Palm Plantations

The plant’s pollination occurs with the help of Elaeidobius kamerunicus and wind. However, mere wind pollination is not enough; this is why the insects are released on plantations after 2.5-3 years of tree growing.

The Elaeidobius kamerunicus weevils live for about 11-13 days. Adult insects feed on another filament, putting eggs into male flowers of the plant. The food for Elaeidobius kamerunicus larvae is spent flowers of plants.

Flowering And The Necessity Of Ablation

The oil palm has male and female flowers that are cross-pollinated. Both male and female flowers grow in separate inflorescence spikes on the same plant. There are only male flowers for several months at first, and then there are only female ones. Oil palm fruit development happens in fertilized female flowers of the plant.

The palm oil tree bursts into bloom at the age of 14-18 months. Yet, for better growing and strong vegetation, it is necessary to cut or pull both male and female flowers off the trees during the first 2-3 years of plant cultivation.

Weed Management In The Oil Palm Plantation

Weed species in oil palm groves are quite diverse: a topic study in Central Ghana counted 136 varieties. Among others, the list of common weeds in oil palm plantations includes:

  • Chromolaena odorata,
  • Clidemia hirta,
  • Lantana camara,
  • Aspillia Africana,
  • Mimosa pudica,
  • Panicum maximum,
  • Melastoma malabathricum,
  • Imperata cylindrical,
  • Mallotus oppositifolius,
  • Dicranopteris linearis,
  • Nephrolepis,
  • Stenochlaena palustris,
  • Melanthera scandens,
  • Ischaemum muticum,
  • Paspalum conjugatum,
  • Chloris barbata, and more.

The most invasive common weeds in oil palm plantations belong to Poaceae and Asteraceae families, competing for sunlight, moisture, and nutrients and impairing crop growing.

The common methods of weed control in oil palm plantations suggest physical removal by hand or chemical spraying.

spraying between palm rows

Protection Against Pests Or Infestations In The Development Of Oil Palm

The plant typically suffers from rhinoceros beetles, bagworms, red palm weevils, mealybugs. Widespread oil palm tree diseases are rots and wilts:

  • stem wet rot,
  • basal stem rot,
  • bud rot disease,
  • Pestalotiopsis leaf spot,
  • oil palm wilt, and others.

Even though pruning negatively impacts crop growing, infected and damaged plants must be fully or partially removed.

Modern disease and pest management methods highly advise avoiding chemical application in plantations. In particular, the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil System (ISPO) insists on opting for natural cultivation remedies to kill pests. Biological control in oil palm plantations suggests introducing predators and parasitoids combined with pheromones and plant-based lures (e.g., fermented castor cake). Some successful cultivation examples are as follows:

  • fungi Metarhizium anisopliae with lure eradicate rhinoceros beetles;
  • baculoviruses and Bacillus thuringiensis control nettle caterpillars;
  • Bacillus thuringiensis combats bagworms and nettle caterpillars.

Efficient pest and disease control in plantations strongly depends on early problem identification and timely response. Plantation areas having an extremely low NDVI rate may indicate issues with pests or plant diseases. With Crop Monitoring, farmers can check their plantations remotely on a daily basis and always be aware of any changes in vegetation conditions.

Besides, Crop Monitoring facilitates regular inspection and upkeep of oil palm plantations. Growers can use the Scouting feature to assign tasks to scouts, select the exact problem area, collect plantation data with photos and schedule an effective plan using the Field activity log.

scouting task based on NDVI map
Scouting task based on NDVI map on Crop Monitoring.

Another helpful feature on the software is the Field leaderboard that arranges all the added plantations according to the latest available satellite image and the most negative NDVI value change.

Field Leaderboard feature on Crop Monitoring
Field Leaderboard feature on Crop Monitoring.

Oil Palm Plantation Fertilizer Guidelines

Efficient plant cultivation is secured with a sufficient supply of macro and micronutrients, including nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, etc. With a lack of nutrients, adequate growing is impossible.

Fertilization practices for oil palm plantations recommend nutrient applications in equal splits, sourcing from farmyard and green mature, neem cake, and synthetic products. Common ways to provide nutrients in the crop’s cultivation are soil incorporation, scattering, or fertigation. Oil palm plantation fertilizer requirements differ depending on the tree age, with bigger amounts for mature plants.

Nitrogen

N is responsible for overall plant growing and fruit formation, including leaf health and the bunch number and size. Oil palms under nitrogen deficiency reveal chlorotic leaves. However, nitrogen toxicity in cultivation is not beneficial for the plants either since it increases the number of male flowers distorting the inflorescence sex ratio in palms.

Phosphorus

P boosts the number of female flowers and bunch weight. Plant fronds under phosphorus deficiency acquire olive-green hues and premature drying in older foliage. P applications are more favorable for plant cultivation when combined with nitrogen and potassium.

A research on the fertigation effect on palm oil growing on medium black soils in Karnataka in India concluded that NPK applications in oil palm cultivation of 1200:600:1200 vs. 300:150:300 g/plant/year boosted fresh fruit bunch yields (19.11 kg/bunch).

Potassium

K also boosts the formation of female flowers and bunch size and weight. Under potassium deficiency, older foliage of palm plants suffers from chlorosis and necrosis due to nutrient allocation to newer leaves. The typical signs of P deficiency in plantations are orange spots on plant foliage, starting from pale green to yellow, spreading further on the leaf area and leading to necrosis. Another prominent symptom to signal a lack of potassium in cultivation is mid-crown chlorosis. As a rule, leaves are green in the midrib area but suffer from marginal necrosis. New leaves grow short. In general, oil palm plantations look unhealthy and wither prematurely.

Magnesium

Mg deficiency in oil palm cultivation is recognizable through leaf discoloration, with bright-orange older leaves and pale green younger ones. In the newest plant foliage, there is no discrepancy in color. Plantation owners can also understand magnesium deficiency in growing by chlorosis in the sun-exposed leaf parts while shaded ones still remain deep green.

fertilizing plantation

Micronutrients

The crop doesn’t typically suffer from deficiency of Fe, Zn, Mn, or Cu in acid soils. However, a lack of boron may cause foliage malformations, including small, “fish-bone”, stiff, and hooked leaves.

Plant nutritional disorders in oil palm cultivation can be corrected with adequate fertilization, depending on the tree age and severity of symptoms. This is why fertilizer inputs on plantations must be estimated with sufficient precision to achieve the highest possible yields from oil palm growing. Vegetation indices, as well as vegetation and productivity maps on Crop Monitoring, prove useful here.

With the analysis of NDRE and RECI indices, it is convenient to estimate nitrogen shortage or requirements for additional fertilizer application for healthy oil palm growth. Generating vegetation maps based on these indices makes it possible to adjust nitrogen fertilizer rates in each plantation zone. Productivity maps are used to assess the long-term fertilization effects of potassium and phosphorus applications. However, the possibilities to analyze plant needs on Crop Monitoring go beyond the above-listed elements. Vegetation maps of different indices and productivity maps allow understanding and calculating the amounts of other nutrients as well.

productivity map on Crop Monitoring to allocate fertilizers precisely
Productivity map on Crop Monitoring to allocate fertilizers precisely.

Yielding And Harvesting In The Cultivation Method For Oil Palm

Oil palm growers can expect yields after three years of growing. To correctly determine picking time and avoid over-ripening are essential for palm oil quality. Harvesting begins when 5-8 fruits drop loose. Ripe fruit is yellow or orange in color, and orange palm oil seeps outside when pressed with a finger. Fruit bunches are cut manually by knife, chisel, or sickle. When plants grow too tall, fruit gathering is assisted with a hook.

Harvesting machines are a more productive and less labor-consuming option to manual picking in plantations. In fact, complete machine harvesters are attributed to nearly double productivity as compared to manual cutting with buffalo carts for transportation. At the same time, the equipment required for oil palm cultivation and management is more expensive than human labor in terms of maintenance and fuel. However, it will give decent returns in the long run.

Harvesting rounds in plantations are repeated about every 10 to 14 days, which is easier to schedule and control with neatly arranged records in the Field activity log on the Crop Monitoring platform.

Field activity log on Crop Monitoring for planning ag operations
Field activity log on Crop Monitoring for planning ag operations.

Sustainable Oil Palm Development

Growing the crop in plantations cannot be completely environmentally friendly; still, its negative cultivation effects can be minimized.

In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) obliged manufacturers to switch to sustainable sources with zero palm oil deforestation. It is clear that huge companies cannot control thousands of their sources in place for primary forest cutting. However, they can successfully monitor oil palm plantation land-use change with remote sensing.

Another EOS product, Forest Monitoring, is good at detecting deforestation. This information can be used as:

  • a “proof” of zero-deforestation compliance (if the plantations do not take any primary forest areas);
  • a “proof” of oil palm plantations expansion reduction at the expense of primary forests.

Plantation owners must also contribute to environmental sustainability by improving cultivation practices:

  • avoid rainforest clearing;
  • rehabilitate abandoned and infertile lands for agricultural oil palm plantation use;
  • restrain from slash-and-burn practices in cultivation;
  • protect the environment and encourage tropical biodiversity (e.g., by growing wildlife corridors nearby or in-between plantations);
  • operate plantations ethically and legally;
  • provide decent working conditions for their employees;
  • optimize plantation performance with sustainable growing methods (e.g., with more productive seeds);
  • minimize chemical applications in cultivation with precision agriculture techniques.

Thus, oil palm plantations cannot be excluded from the global supply chain; still, there are ways of sustainable farming. Industry sustainability can be achieved through governmental restrictions and the joint efforts of palm oil growers, manufactures, and end consumers. Satellite technologies and analytics facilitate corporate social responsibility by contributing to business transparency and effective yet sustainable cultivation.