Tips on Best Practice Maize Production
Before we start there are some basic fundamentals about crop farming:
- Farming is a business. You should make a profit from your farming activities. The money you spend on inputs like seed, chemicals, fertilizers, electricity, water, labour etc. should be kept less than the total value of the crops and livestock you produce. You farm for maximum production at minimum cost.
- Farming should be treated as a 12-month of the year activity, not a five-month of the year activity; it is a full time job.
- Plan your farming activities in advance and follow a strict rotation of cropping. Alternate planting of a grass e.g. maize or sorghum with a legume like soya beans. Avoid growing the same crop in the same land in two consecutive seasons.
- There are four golden rules which should always, always, always, be borne in mind:
a. Do everything on time. Know in advance what you have to do and be ready to do it.
b. Do everything to a high standard. A high standard means good management, and precision to achieve maximum yields. Do not take shortcuts.
c. Do not waste anything. Be efficient with your inputs and your time. Wasted inputs and time is results in wasted money.
d. Be a good steward of the land. Make sure you preserve the land and the environment. Always give something back to your farm.
Growing Maize under Small-Scale Agriculture in Zimbabwe
If you want to produce the maximum amount of maize for minimum input, the best method to use is called Conservation Agriculture (CA), which has been promoted locally as “Farming God’s Way”.
The features of this method are:
- Minimal tillage. YOU SHOULD NOT USE A PLOUGH and thus, you do not need draft power to prepare your fields. Do not disturb or compact the soil’s natural structure. Rather dig precise planting holes in a uniform pattern throughout the field.
- Mulch to keep the moisture in the soil and to protect the soil from being washed away. You should never, never, never burn vegetation that covers the soil. Conversely, avoid leaving the soil bare, because you will lose moisture and erosion will occur. Rather slash, cut or graze the plants and previous stover, which will spread it more evenly over the soil.
- High quality and precise plant spacing. Plan out the field and measure where each planting hole will be for an optimal distribution.
- Precise placement of seed and fertilizer. Do not wastefully broadcast seed and fertilizer on to the soil as this will likely result in poor seed-soil contact, wasted fertility and ultimately lowered yields.
- Planting in early- to mid-November, or immediately following the first effective rainfall of the season to ensure even germination and maximize on the use of water.
- Thinning out/removal of weaker germinated plants so as to maximize yield.
- Maintain a disciplined and regular weed control. Weeds take moisture which should be available to your crops.
The following is a step-by-step guide to non-mechanised CA:
Step 1: Early in the preceding winter months. Plan the lay-out of your lands and crop rotations. Know how much land will be used and calculate how much seed and fertilizer will be required. If you plan to sell the maize upon harvest have some idea of where you will market it, how you’ll get it there and how much you expect to be paid for it.
Step 2: Start preparing your land(s), as planned, during the dry season, well before the estimated start of the rains. Control weeds as you go. A little work each day means you will be ready on time. Cut the grass, weeds and stover and lie them evenly over the soil as mulch. Precisely measure out the correct spacing with measuring sticks, or two stakes joined by a string with knots at the distance where each planting hole will be dug. Holes should be precisely 60 cm by 75 cm apart. Use the diagram below as a guide.
Step 3: Apply basal fertilizer requirements before the rains. Use a soft drink/beer bottle-top to measure out the amount of Compound D fertilizer to place into each hole. Cover the fertilizer with a small amount of soil so that there is no contact with the seed, which will cause chemical burn. Use a full cup of well-composted manure in each hole if you cannot afford, or don’t have access to fertilizer.
Step 4: Plant immediately following the first effective rainfall. Choose a seed variety that suits the expected rainfall you receive in your area. Use short-season varieties in dry areas, and only choose a long-season type if you are in a very high rainfall area or you have access to irrigation. If necessary, water each of the holes by bucket, watering can or hose and leave to settle. While the hole is still moist, place three seeds in an evenly-spaced line in each hole, with one pip at each side and one in the middle. Cover the seeds using the soil heaped next to the hole to leave a level surface. Make sure no stones or heavy soil clods cover the seeds. Leave the mulch cover between the holes intact. Try to complete planting in a day to ensure an even germination and later, an even crop canopy, which will shade out any weed growth.
Step 5: The first round of weeding should be done two weeks after planting. Hoe weeds when they are small. Weeding should be done with a minimum disturbance to the soil. Remove the weakest seedling from each hole two to three weeks after germination, thus leaving an average of two seedlings per hole. If only one seed germinates in a hole, you can leave all three in the adjacent hole.
Step 6: After the maize plants are established and have developed to the three-leaf stage, apply ammonium nitrate (AN) fertilizer. Weed your field before and after top- dressing. You do not want weeds to feed off the fertilizer intended for your maize. Use a soft drink/ beer bottle-top to measure out the AN. Use one measure of AN per planting hole. You must apply AN to wet soil, so it is best to apply AN just before or after it rains. Apply the AN between 5 -10 cm away from the plants and do not let the fertilizer touch the plants. On sloping ground, apply the AN to the soil above the planting hole.
Step 7: Harvesting between March and June will prevent grain loss to birds. After removal of the cobs, leave the remaining stover lying in the field to protect and improve the soil quality. Leave roots in the soil to breack down and further improve its structure. Slash weeds (if any) immediately after harvest to prevent them from producing seeds. Thereafter, prepare holes in the same position as the previous season, and re-use these holes, with minor repairs, for your next crop. Soyabeans, groundnuts and sugar beans are suitable legumes to rotate with maize.
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