Obert Chifamba Agri-Insight
THE rains that fell in most parts of the country at the end of October triggered different reactions from farmers with some doing their planting while others intensified preparations for the 2021/22 cropping season.
The Meteorological Services Department (MSD) on the one hand did not disappoint, advising farmers to exercise caution and avoid rushed decisions saying those whose regions had received rainfall amounts of between 20mm and above could start planting while those who received less but blessed with irrigation facilities could also plant and supplement moisture through irrigation.
Those without irrigation facilities and had received less than 20mm of rains were advised to delay planting.
The long and short of the matter is that MSD was telling farmers to delay planting until they were sure or had expert advice that the rainy season had set in so that they would not waste resources planting only to lose everything to the blistering sun in the event that the season would not have set in.
Of course, some of the early birds were fortunate in that there were more rains at the beginning of November, which rescued crops that were beginning to show signs of moisture stress but the situation seems to be going bad once again with the current dry spell starting to affect the crops.
Essentially, farmers should draw lessons from such experiences and avoid traversing the same route in future.
As a matter of fact, they should come out of this experience wiser and conversant with ways of handling similar situations and manipulating them for the good.
Farmers who planted early and recorded low germination percentages may need to find ways of nursing the plants that germinated to help them survive until the next rains but must bear in mind that gap filling will not be a good idea, as most of the plants are now more than two weeks old.
Crops planted under gap filling naturally get dwarfed by the already growing plants and will not grow to their full potential despite receiving equal fertiliser quantities and other agronomic requirements.
Climatic changes taking place globally require farmers to adjust and adapt to what is happening around them to survive hence the need to take charge where possible and turn the bad situations into productive ones.
Those that had not planted anything should consider the time of the season remaining and change their earlier plans especially in crop varieties and plant those that can now mature within the remaining time space.
Weather experts forecast a season with normal to above normal rains but the distribution pattern of the rains may be the farmers’ biggest undoing if they all come at once at the end of the season like what happened in the 2020/21 cropping term.
Last season many farmers were caught pants down after planning for a normal season and forgot to have contingency plans in place to deal with the excessive rains that came in the last half of the season (January to March).
But it is this dry first half (October to December) that has given farmers sleepless nights in recent seasons and requires them to have plans in place to make sure they mitigate the effects of the dry stretch on early planted crops.
Seasoned farming expert and agronomist Ivan Craig has always been urging farmers who plant early and encounter this dry spell to adopt mitigatory measures such as cultivating their fields deep to help the soil trap moisture.
He stresses that water harvesting is also one way of helping the situation.
This can only happen when farmers plan in advance and prepare their fields in ways that enable them to harvest even the first rains with which they plant so that their crops will eventually tap into the trapped moisture to survive when push comes to shove.
Some of the measures are not even difficult and do not require the farmers to have funding whose unavailability in most cases becomes their biggest challenge.
Digging 10 to 60cm trenches between plant rows, for instance, is one sure way of making sure rainwater is trapped and allowed to infiltrate the soil.
The effectiveness of the process will be consolidated through the addition of grass or any form of mulch to reduce evaporation.
On the one hand, farmers can also do trench contours whose ends will be blocked to stop the water from being directed out of the field but kept within the farm through seepage into the soil.
Crops will naturally make use of such water in times of need, which will reduce incidences of farmers losing whole crop batches to early or mid-season dry spells.
Farmers that are still to plant must realise that they need to work closely with their extension officers now and get expert advice on the varieties that they will eventually choose given that we are almost entering the last half of the season.
Those that had planned to use long season varieties must now settle for middle season or early maturing varieties so that they do not fall behind the season.
Developments in the weather should influence their eventual crop variety choices with those planting early next year for different reasons expected to choose very early or ultra-early maturing varieties that can grow and reach maturity within the confines of the remaining time of the season.
This is the time to make those break or make decisions to ensure that the season leaves them food secure and also capable of producing surplus that they will sell to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) and contribute to the country’s strategic grain reserves (SGR).
It is a fact that some farmers might have failed to put together everything they need for this season before it got underway in October so this delayed start should allow them to wrap up those preparations and add a bag or two of fertiliser to put on standby lest it becomes necessary to do split applications in case the rains come in excessive quantities.
This is also the time to address even those labour issues that could have haunted them last season while making sure all implements are in good working order to avoid unplanned work stoppages in the course of the season.
The season might have delayed setting in but that can be easily turned into an advantage if its eventual normalisation replicates what happened last year and we will have yet another bumper season.