Agric success hinged on weather, water use and farmers’ attitudes

Source: Agric success hinged on weather, water use and farmers’ attitudes | The Financial Gazette September 29, 2016

By  Vincent Gwarazimba

WHILE land was given to many families who had no access to it or were settled on poor quality soils, few have been able to make use of it both for their own food security and national benefit, despite government efforts to provide equipment and inputs.
Some lands were fully equipped with irrigation facilities to match, but with lack of appreciation and use much of the equipment depreciated, sold or went into disrepair.
Furthermore government initiated farm mechanisation programmes and input support schemes and this failed to boost productivity in the sector.
While government must be commended for the various initiative, three factors come into focus, weather forecast, water use and farmers’ attitudes towards farming.
It is inexcusable to blame drought all the time.
There were some dotted good rains in the drought years, but have we been able to use weather systems to the advantage of our food production?
Perhaps we have not been able to or did not have equipment to capture, analyse and use data from elsewhere.
Moreso the country has over 10 000 dams to irrigate over a million hectares of food crops.
Equipment provided by the government is depreciating in sheds or open spaces.
Indeed, if everything is driven by greed government efforts will come to zero.
Attitudes must change for Zimbabwe to move forward.
In August 2016, the Government of Zimbabwe announced a US$500 million initiative to boost food security.
Maize production is the focus of the initiative through the programme code-named Command Agriculture where a maximum of 400 000 hectares is identified and farmers provided with the necessary inputs to produce a maize crop.
The target is 2 000 000 metric tonnes (mt) of maize grain. We need a yield of five metric tonnes per hectare (ha) to achieve this.
A very noble initiative, but hopefully with lessons learnt from the previous four initiatives since the land reform started in 2000, we might just succeed.
However, the success of this particular initiative will depend on a number of factors. The key factors are understanding maize growing areas and suitable varieties, weather forecast, water use, planning and implementation and monitoring.
To understand government’s focus on maize perhaps we need to understand the maize crop and indeed, Meteorological Services Department basing their weather forecasts on individual areas with details to assist farmer decisions.
Maize as a plant for crop production
Successful cultivation of maize depends on right choice of varieties with length of the growing period matching length of growing season.
Thus variety selection suits the a given area mainly based on weather and climate data provided by weather forecasters.
Maize is a very efficient user of water and for maximum yield, a medium season variety will require 500-800mm of water depending on climate to achieve 5mt/ha.
Soil must be kept at near field capacity especially in critical developing periods of the maize plant.
Perhaps irrigation can be timed to meet those requirements, but in the case of natural rain, frequently falls during the growing period.
The crop is tolerant to moisture stress only during vegetative and ripening periods with greatest yield losses which crop is stressed during tasselling, silking and pollination.
Severe water stress during these times can cause crop failure.
For farmers with irrigation facilities, irrigation must be well timed, while farmers on drying land cropping, must be timed to coincide with rain as predicted in the weather forecast.
While maize adapts to temperatures as low as 20 degrees centigrade, in the tropics such low temperatures result in slow growth and perhaps failure of the crop to coincide with predicted rainfall patterns.
Periods between September and early January have high temperatures and higher thermal units enabling maize to maximise growth.
Therefore early (80-110days) and medium (110-140 days) maturing maize varieties must be planted between first and third week of November to reach tasselling, silking and pollination in late December and early January.
During that period, temperatures are very high and there is likelihood of rainfall, but that will depend on detailed weather forecast.
Late maturing (140 days) varieties must be planted with irrigation in mid October, but most critical stages coinciding with high temperatures and rainfall as forecast.
Making weather forecast work for maize production
Climate and weather are natural phenomenon.
We attempt to predict climatic conditions that likely affect local weather.
As earth temperatures rise due to climate change arising from human activities, local weather conditions have become unpredictable as drought and floods hit different areas across the globe.
Forty years ago, weather patterns were predictable enabling farmers to plant maize at recommended periods.
Zimbabwe weather conditions are no exception with evidence of shorter and seasonal shifts and low temperatures affecting maize towards maturity.
However, new very short maize varieties have been developed for both short and seasonal shifts, but in some cases these are late planted to benefit from high thermal units between October and early January.
With government efforts to increase food production in Zimbabwe, the Met Department provides detailed weather forecast on targeted maize growing areas, providing estimates on when and total rain for each month from October, November, December, January, February and March.
The department also provides average temperatures for each month giving estimate dates for mid months “droughts” or rainfall shortages, While drying cropping will basically depend on natural weather phenomenon, estimated dates of water shortages will enable farmers with irrigation facilities prepare for their crops.
Using data from various seed companies and consultation with such companies, on maize varieties the department provides precise rainfall days to fit the maize growing cycle.
Maize Water Use
As highlighted previously, a maize plant requires 500-800mm of water.
This water is critical at certain stages of growth and shortages or moisture stress on the crop can result in reduced yield or total crop failure.
Moisture comes from rainfall.
Majority of farmers practice dryland farming and therefore depend on rainfall.
Yields from these farmers vary with areas with rainfall and soils being the determining factors. There are farmers with irrigation facilities and can provide the 500-800mm of water required for each maize plant.
Soil moisture will be maintained at field capacity enabling the maize plant to grow vigorously (and achieve high yield) with temperature and nutrient being equal.
Zimbabwe has over 10 000 dams of different capacities and each could be used effectively for irrigation at local levels.
There are farmers with centre pivot irrigation systems and these could achieve better yields (perhaps government could have spent money to develop irrigation systems as a strategy against unpredictable weather conditions).
Have we planned for command agriculture?
Productive agriculture is not about working up one day to announce an initiative of US$500 million.
This has been the case with the four initiatives of the last 15 years.
The result, total failure with public money lining the pockets of some individuals.
Planning should have started in January 2016) involving everyone in the sector, but most critically:
•The participating farmers. Who are they, where are they located and what equipment and facilities do they have? Can these farmers make a small investment of their own (that will encourage them to be honest and work hard and recover the money). Some of these farmers believe what comes from government is ‘free’.
•Training and developing business attitudes. Maize farming is not subsistence, but producing for the nation.
Most farmers on the land came from rural areas where they practiced mixed farming, a practice further adopted in commercial land, with maize taking a small potion of land and other crops like cowpea, nyimo bean, groundnuts etc occupying valuable land for the staple crop.
•Identification of maize producing areas and farms checking on functional irrigation facilities. This should have been done as early as January 2016, with farmers made to prepare for the initiative.
•Identifying farmers with centre pivot irrigation systems, hectare sizes and constraints. Some have centre pivots just for show with no water connection (for example, next to Mutare River near the Harare-Mutare highway or one next to Grain Marketing Board railway siding depot just after Macheke towards Mutare. This was installed years ago, but never worked). Centre pivots need a lot of water and on that centre pivot, there is no evidence of water.
•Farmers with irrigation systems can be targeted for high-yielding late season varieties. Planning be advanced to plant these crops by mid October without fail. Planting short or medium season varieties on irrigation is a waste of resources.
•Irrigation break downs especially centre pivots. Plan for a back up support from local irrigation companies.
•Climate and weather data for targeted local areas. Enabling targeting of suitable maize varieties. Giving dry land farmers long season varieties is also a waste of resources. The Met Department provides details of climate and weather data indicating areas of excessive rain and erosion and nutrient leaching and areas with low rainfall to make informed decisions.
•Soil analysis. Over the years soils have become acidic or alkaline with improper use of fertilisers and chemicals. Properly planned initiative should have done soil analysis for targeted farmers and lands with data published for farmers to seek advice from experts. Yields will never be achieved if soil analysis is not done before planting.
•Farmer selection must be guided by farmer history and ability to make effective use of the government resource “benevolence”. However, participating farmers must be held accountable and pay back government money with yield and the produce purchased by government. Zimbabweans are wary of public money being wasted due to lack of planning. A plan for accountability must be put in place.
•An amount of US$500 million and 400 000 hectares are not mean for a government with no capital. Indeed, there is need for a coordinated plan with tacit involvement of Agritex and ensuring input are properly accounted for.
•In collaboration with financial institutions and other development partners, develop a structure of funding the purchase (cash basis) of grain from farmers. A tentative preplanting price perhaps equal or just above world prices (based on Futures market).
•In planning for command agriculture, government must create a conducive and enabling environment for farmers outside the command structure, making same inputs available at affordable prices. Command agriculture will not be working in a vacuum, but interacts with other activities of maize production.
Previous initiatives failed partly because of poor coordination and lack of monitoring. While government has good intentions to feed the nation, our farmers may have different objectives.
Some farmers have farms to let or make money through selling inputs and equipment, others are speculators, given what this government has gone through, proper accountability and proper resource utilisation must be a priority.
Government must understand weather conditions and assess impact on maize justifying investing US$500 million.
While so, however, selecting competent and committed farmers, with business farming history, despite political, religious and racial inclination, will enable better monitoring and return of investment for the good of the nation.
A monitoring plan improves resource use and accountability.
Possible methods of monitoring
There are two possible methods of monitoring and gathering data for production.
First, putting people on the ground, monitoring land preparation, planting dates, soil moisture levels, correct fertiliser application, weed control, rainfall dates, crop growth and moisture levels at tasselling, silking and pollination and grain filling and crop maturity and yield estimates.
That will be the task of extension officer gathering this data and feeding the central system.
The second method is to GPS (global positioning system) each field and monitor activities through satellite mapping.
This could even be followed by field officers to make further analysis depending on the data required.
To get the US$500 million rolling, involve everyone. Failure is not an option.

Vincent Gwarazimba is an agricultural expert contactable on