Impending drought: Farmers should plan carefully

by Elijah Chihota

The Meteorological Services Department (MSD) report released on 28 August 2018 showed that from October to December (OND) 2018 and January to March (JMF) 2019 periods will be characterised by “normal with a bias towards below normal” rainfall across the country.

This prediction spells doom for local farmers as it points to a season with less rainfall, which is not enough to support crop life, and threatens food security.

This article mainly focuses on cereal production which forms the larger part of Zimbabweans’ food source. Examples of seeds are largely drawn from Seed-Co maize varieties which the writer is familiar with.

Since the turn of the century, issues of drought and climate change became topical. It has also become a reality that rain fed agriculture is no longer sustainable. In Zimbabwe the 1982 and1992 droughts were a wakeup call which saw some serious farmers investing in their farming operations to mitigate the effects of the climate change-induced erratic rainfall patterns.

As the effects of climate change take their toll on agriculture against the backcloth of global warming, farmers are facing the critical effects of unreliable rainfall or flooding on their farms. It is therefore prudent for our farmers to shift their focus on irrigation development. Farmers should at all costs install drip irrigation systems at their farms in order to maximise on the available water and reap more yields. At this juncture, it is important for farmers to borrow a leaf from the Israeli model of drip irrigation fronted here in Zimbabwe by Netafim to put to maximum use the available water resources. This method entails directing each drop of water to a plant rather than wasting some of the water on some inter-row spaces.

Zimbabwe is endowed with numerous water bodies and farmers should invest into water harvesting. There are seasonal streams and rivers which criss-cross many farms, but farmers let this water go only to be discharged unutilised into the seas and oceans. In light of erratic rainfall each farmer should strive to construct a sizeable dam to capture this run-off water for future use. On the other hand, Government has done a lot and continues to do more in a bid to harness water for irrigation purposes. This has seen it constructing the Tugwi-Mukosi Dam in Masvingo Province and those under construction such as the Gwayi-Shangani Dam in Matabeleland North Province and Marovanyati Dam in Manicaland Province among others. Even cyber troll TeamPachedu‏ @PacheduZW, which is usually critical of Government, under its #KnowYourGovernment campaign could not help and tweeted “Great news, Semwa Dam construction is now underway near Rushinga, Mashonaland Central, and will help bolster irrigation-based agricultural activities. We are unveiling the real-time development tracking for all projects on the EagleEye system soon”.

In view of the increasing scarcity of water, farmers need to adopt cropping strategies which enable them to make them the most of the available moisture. Farmers may plant their crops on the troughs of ridges. This method ensures that rainfall will be directed to the plants, thus the crop of benefit from the little available water.

Given that the rainfall will not be sufficient during the 2018/19 agricultural season, farmers should go for those maize varieties which thrive in low rainfall situations. Early maturity varieties with good yields include Seed-Co 3, 4 and 5 series such as SC301, SC403, SC513, SC529 and SC537 which generally do well in these circumstances. Farmers at all costs should avoid long season varieties unless they are so sure that they have enough water resources to supplement the natural rainfall. In this regard it is wise to heed the words of Seed-Co Agronomist, John Basera, on seed selection, who pointed out that “Choosing the right seed variety suitable for one's cropping system or region is like choosing a spouse, if you do it correctly, it's rewarding but if you do it wrongly, you regret with losses.” Farmers should also seek agronomists’ advice on the right seed to use given the negative rainfall prediction for the impending season.

Good crop selection would also go a long way. Instead of going for those crops which take longer to mature and require a lot of water, farmers should plant small grains which are drought resistant and equally nutritious.

Another important aspect is to carry out land preparation in time so that at the onset of the rains farmers will plant straight away and achieve high germination. Basera noted that “A farm is like a porous bottom. The duty of the farmer is to plug the porous bottom which leaks value. Late planting can cause up to 50 percent (yield) loss...”.

The 2017/18 season saw farmers experiencing erratic rain especially from November to January which latter improved. Therefore farmers need to stagger their planting so as to minimise their losses by not bunching their planting.

While a farmer cannot totally prepare for and prevent the effects of droughts and mid-season drought completely, adopting some of the foregoing would go a long way in mitigating them and ensure food security.