Monday, July 31, 2017

Zimbabwe: A Staple Lesson for the Nation
JULY 23, 2017
Zimbabwe Sunday Mail
Peter Gambara

A lot has been said regarding farmers’ failure to deliver maize to the Grain Marketing Board as the moisture level of their grain was higher than the prescribed 12,5 percent.

In this article, I discuss lessons farmers and policy-makers need to consider.

When Government launched the Special Maize Production and Import Substitution Programme (Command Agriculture) in 2016, the minimum target yield was five tonnes per hectare.

Most farmers reasoned that it would be easier to achieve this minimum target if they grew long season varieties.

Seed-Co supplied seed for this programme, and the long season varieties included SC719 and SC727. These varieties have the potential of up to 14 and 16 tonnes per hectare respectively.

However, they require between 158 and 162 days to reach physiological maturity, and farmers should best grow them with irrigation facilities.

If grown between October 15 and 31, they will reach physiological maturity between March 7 and 22. The maize will require another two months to dry and reach the 12,5 percent moisture level the GMB desires. The earliest these varieties can be harvested is any time after May 7.

However, it is also true that very few farmers are able to establish their maize crop by October 1 so that it can be harvested by end of April, in time for the establishment of winter wheat.

The three medium maturity maize seed varieties that Seed-Co distributed were the SC627, SC633 and SC637.

These take between 140 and 148 days to maturity. If planted at the same time as long season varieties, they can be harvested any time after April 22.

The big lesson here is that if a farmer wants to plant maize on the same land that they want to grow wheat next winter, they should avoid growing long season maize varieties.

They will not be able to harvest in time for winter wheat planting on May 1. They should, instead, consider planting shorter maturing varieties.

Secondly, they should irrigate the maize in early October so that it reaches maturity on time and be removed in time for winter wheat.

Farmers who want to grow long season maize varieties should compromise between high yield levels and being able to use the same piece of land for growing winter wheat.

They cannot have it both ways.

If you plant these varieties on any piece of land, then simply rule that land out for winter wheat.


Last season, farmers could only be contracted to grow maize under Command Agriculture.

Government has also indicated it will contract farmers to grow 60 000 hectares of soyabeans next season.

Farmers eager to double-crop by establishing a second crop in winter should consider growing soyabeans instead of maize.

Soyabeans can be planted much later than maize, but still reach maturity earlier than maize.

A soyabean crop that is established between December 1 and 15 will be ready for harvesting by April 30 and, hence, will enable a farmer to establish winter wheat.

Last season, many farmers also faced the fall armyworm menace.

This pest is easily spread if a farmer grows one cereal after another; like wheat after maize and then more maize.

Farmers should, therefore, consider introducing a legume crop in their rotations to reduce the easy multiplication of the fall armyworm.

The big lesson here is that farmers who want to grow winter wheat should consider a soyabean-wheat rotation instead of a maize-wheat rotation as the former is easier to manage.

Soyabean can be planted late, harvested earlier than maize and will be a big advantage both in summer and winter.

Such rotation also has other benefits of controlling potential fall armyworm attack.


Once maize has reached physiological maturity, a farmer can always consider further drying it using artificial means.

There are a few driers in the country that farmers can use for this purpose, and this means farmers who intend to use them should book in advance.

It costs about US$20 per tonne to artificially dry maize, and a farmer wishing to quickly remove maize to establish wheat can economically justify that extra cost.

This year, many farmers failed to meet the wheat-planting deadline because they could not remove their maize early enough.

It still had high moisture levels.

Such farmers could have easily used artificial driers to dry their maize and move on to plant the wheat.

There are two big lessons here; firstly, farmers who wish to remove their maize crop in time for wheat should consider using artificial driers.

However, they should book the combine harvesters and driers on time.

Government should also consider investing in grain driers at all GMB depots that handle bulk deliveries.

There are indications that Government has already identified 12 depots where these driers will be installed before harvesting next year.

That’s positive.

Right seed, right time

As highlighted above, Seed-Co long season varieties are best grown under irrigated conditions if the farmer intends to remove the crop early.

They can also be grown under dry land conditions in high rainfall areas or where supplementary irrigation is available.

It should be remembered that the 2016/17 summer cropping season was exceptional in as far as the amount of rainfall received is concerned.

The last time we received such rainfall was some 36 years ago.

Therefore, farmers should be warned that they should not get into the habit of growing long season varieties late as their crops risk not reaching maturity.

And also farmers got these long season varieties well into the season.

The question that arises is why Government decided to use one seed house in a country with over 10 seed houses.

Surely, all the seed houses can get a slice of the cake and provide their best seed.

Let them compete to supply the best-performing seed.

Moisture testers

Farmers rush to deliver maize with high moisture levels to the GMB partly because they do not have the means to determine moisture levels.

While the GMB provides free moisture-testing, it should be accepted that it is indeed cumbersome for farmers to travel long distances to have their maize tested.

Besides, sometimes they have to do so several times.

It would, therefore, make sense for Government to provide mobile moisture-testing equipment to extension staff to make them readily available to farmers.

There have been complaints that the GMB is rejecting some maize from farmers only to accept that same grain after dealers buy it from the distraught farmers and deliver it.

The type of moisture-testers the GMB is using are mobile and can show some variability, giving different readings when the same sample is tested more than once.

There is, therefore, nothing unusual about a previously-tested sample giving a different reading an hour later. GMB staff should test a sample thrice and then average the readings.

Besides, the condensation that occurs when a cold sample is taken from a plastic container (usually used by most farmers) on a warm, humid day can result in inaccurately high readings.

This all points to providing proper training to those tasked to do these tests.

Unfortunately, the GMB has a history of using temporary staff to reduce its wage and accessory bills. Farmers should also be trained on how to take samples and handle them.

They should be told to avoid using plastic containers to move samples and, instead, use paper (khaki envelopes).

In addition, the GMB should check the accuracy of its meters regularly by comparing the readings from their testers with laboratory-obtained readings.

If they are consistently different, then there is need to have them checked for accuracy. Low batteries can cause inaccurate readings, especially where testers are left unused for long periods.

Therefore, the GMB could do itself a favour by making sure those tasked with farmers’ samples know what they are doing and have their meters re-checked for accuracy. There are cases of farmers who have taken samples to private testing facilities and have been told they meet the 12,5 percent threshold only to be rebuffed at GMB depots.


Among other reasons, farmers rush to deliver maize to the GMB while moisture levels are still high because the grain procurer had developed an uncanny habit of failing to pay on time.

While Government provided US$60 million and then another US$200 million later for maize purchased by the GMB, farmers could have taken this to mean that the available funds were inadequate and, therefore, needed to deliver their grain early in order to be paid early.

Government needs to continuously re-assure farmers that there is enough money to purchase all the maize on offer and that the payment period will be, at most, just a week, etcetera.

One way is to set aside the money when the National Budget is presented in Parliament. That will provide the necessary assurances to farmers that they do not need to rush to deliver their maize.

Last year was the first time for Command Agriculture and the Presidential Well-Wishers Agricultural Inputs Support Scheme to be implemented simultaneously.

There is always room for improvement, and both farmers and policy-makers should learn from their mistakes as we move into 2017/18 summer cropping.

The target areas this time around are much higher, and that calls for better preparedness.

 Mr Peter Gambara is an agricultural economist and consultant based in Harare. He wrote this article for The Sunday Mail.

No comments: