Elita Chikwati Senior Agriculture Reporter
Zimbabwe has come out of a successful agricultural season and expects around four million tonnes of different crops, chief among them maize. This success story has been attributed to hard working farmers, good rains and Government inputs schemes such as the Presidential Inputs Scheme and the Special Maize Import Substitution Programme (Command Agriculture).
The Meteorological Services Department has given a rainfall forecast which states the country will experience normal rains this year with the southern provinces expected to receive normal rains with a bias towards below normal between October and December. Weather experts have said that the season is favourable for agriculture especially if inputs are availed to farmers timeously. Thus, there is need for early preparations if the country is to continue getting significant yields.
Timing is one of the major factors in farming and can result in farmers making huge profits or suffering heaving losses. Everything in agriculture should be done at the appropriate time. According to agronomists, farmers lose 50 kilogrammes of maize per hectare for every day delayed in planting. If a farmer delays planting by 20 days, then that means he loses a tonne. This means farmers should carry out operations at the correct time to reduce losses.
Now that the rainfall forecast has been issued, farmers should buy seed and fertilisers, guided by their agro-ecological regions. Buying inputs on time will ensure farmers may plant at the right time rather than wait for the rains and start running around in search of inputs. Some tobacco farmers managed to buy their seed and fertilisers using their proceeds.
Those who have delivered their crops to the Grain Marketing Board should also use their proceeds wisely and buy inputs rather than wait for last minute or Government handouts. Early preparations mean farmers will choose the correct varieties without pressure and confusion. They will also be able to mobilise machinery for tillage, carry out repairs and prepare land on time.
For those who rely on animal traction, early preparations will enable them to prepare land and have enough time to rest the animals and still maintain them in good shape. Some farmers have already started land preparations while others did winter plough. Delays may result in farmers failing to carry out important operations such as soil testing.
Soil testing enables the identification of nutrients and limiting factors to plant growth. Benefits of soil testing also include increase in fertiliser use efficiency by indicating appropriate rates for different soils and crops. The farmer may spend money buying fertilisers and applying them, but end up with low yields. If soils tests are done the farmer will be able to know the correct type and amount of fertiliser to apply for positive results and this reduces unnecessary costs.
As farmers make preparations stakeholders in the industry should also be mobilising resources. For instance, the fertiliser industry says it has 120 000 tonnes of fertiliser in stock against a requirement of around 500 000 tonnes. This is not enough to cater for the season. The industry should lobby for more funds from Treasury so that raw materials to produce the commodity will be availed on time and the country will not experience shortages and have farmers spending days camping at the manufacturing companies to get their required allotment.
Fertiliser application should also be done timeously to get significant yields. This also affects production as farmers will spend more time travelling to and from suppliers in search of the commodity instead of being productive on the farms. The seed industry on the other hand has indicated that it has enough seed in stock and is waiting for more deliveries from farmers who are still processing.
The seed should also be distributed to areas nearer to farmers so they do not have to spend time and money moving from place to place in search of inputs. There are some areas that have bad roads and can be inaccessible during the rainy season therefore inputs should already have been distributed to those areas before the onset of the rainfall season. Extension officers should also be on the ground to assist farmers with the choice of crop and variety to grow depending with the agro-ecological region.
Farmers in region two and three should have the small grains nearer to them. Sometimes farmers end up planting retained seed which has low germination rate and this affects production and household food security. October rains are generally erratic for rain-fed agriculture and during the 2017/18 season, meaningful rains are expected to begin in November.
As for crop production, the most reliable rains are expected from mid-November onwards, until that time, rains will be very erratic in October and November for regions one and two. This means mechanisms should be put in place to ensure production does not suffer. The Meteorological Department has always called on Government to plan for a drought every year because rainfall distribution is not the same in all areas. There are some rain shadow areas that may require assistance.
It will be prudent to put in place measures for early cloud seeding programme in light of the expected slow start of the season particularly in regions two and three. Cloud seeding is a technique that increases rainfall in a target area. It is normally conducted from November 1 to the end of March when conditions are suitable. The country usually experiences a mid-season dry spell in February and this requires cloud seeding to save crops from the conditions. Experts have also advised that in view of the moisture availability and suitable temperature thresholds, those with irrigation facilities should not wait for the main rains to fall.
They can plant early taking into account the high temperatures needed for germination. Throughout the season, farmers should ensure they carry out appropriate agronomic practices timely. Planting, fertiliser application and weeding should be done on time. Harvesting should also be done on time as some crops maybe wasted in the fields. For instance, soya beans have the potential of shattering if harvesting is delayed and this greatly reduce yields.