AGRICULTURAL productivity in Manicaland is at high risk due to limited and unreliable rainfall. The province received poor rains and intense dry conditions that made the season unbearable. Most areas have been characterised by limited and unreliable rainfall which was concentrated during a short period with the following weeks tending to be relatively or absolutely dry.
Besides being water deficient, dry lands of Manicaland were synonymously characterised by exceptionally high summer temperatures, low humidity, high run off and soil erosion.
These negative factors compromised crop productivity, whose vibrancy hinges on twin strengths of rainfall intensity and frequency.
Yields have dwindled as crops failed.
Thus life of both people and livestock in Manicaland remains unbearably difficult and insecure.
The picture is not good.
The bulky of the crop, especially in areas that lie in the rain shadow, has reached the wilting point before reaching maturity. Farmers in natural regions three, four and five are sweating under severe effects of drought as lack of rain and scorching heat irreversibly damaged crops and pastures.
It also forced some to leave fields untilled.
Agronomists concurred that the damage has already been done and farmers can hardly salvage enough from their burnt fields, though the rain is welcome.
Even small grains are succumbing in the scotching heat.
Most parts of Manicaland last received beneficial rains mid January and what followed was an arid spell which burnt the early planted staple maize. The severe impact was being felt in Buhera, Chipinge and Mutare districts, and portions of Makoni, Nyanga and Mutasa where some could not till their fields because it was not worthwhile.
The crop in regions one and two is at various stages of growth, but not safe either. The quality of the crop is inferior. These regions are naturally expected to receive normal to above normal rains, but crops and livestock in these areas are at risk owing to a combination of erratic rains and the current severe mid-season dry spell.
The crop is at temporary wilting point and will recover if it rains within a week.
The whole province is in dire need rainfall otherwise it might turn out to be a disaster.
There is need also for contingencies as the province has no potential to harvest enough to feed its growing population. In terms of crop yield, Manicaland should start mobilising or else its inhabitants will starve the worst.
The lengthy dry spell also caused pastures to dry up, but the impact was being mitigated by the current wet spell. The current rains are beneficial in rejuvenating pastures and replenishing water reservoirs for livestock drinking water. Cattle are dying due to a combination of feed and water shortages as well as exposure to diseases like tick bone, foot and mouth and anthrax.
One would hope the current wet spell continues as farmers cannot afford such losses.
The clever ones are already destocking and preparing fodder banks of either crop residue or green grass to feed their cattle at a later stage.
The danger on human life and livestock coupled with crippling impact of food prices, should concentrate the minds of policymakers, agronomists, farmers and other stakeholders to evolve an appropriate package of practice for these dry areas.
It is crucial to come up with appropriate technology to spur dry land farming, a practice of growing profitable crops without irrigation in areas that receive annual rainfall of below 500mm, despite the fact that farming is increasingly dependent on rainfall as its sole source of water.
The big question is what are the possibilities of increasing crop production in dry lands without further inputs of water? Secondly, what are the possibilities of increasing the rainfall-use efficiency of dry land crops?
Manicaland cannot be complacent with its dry lands since improved dry land farming is necessary for equity and prosperity.
There is need to educate farmers on new practices of improving crop yields such as contour bunding to conserve soil and water and deep ploughing once in three years for better intake and storage.
Farmers must also plant on ridges to enhance moisture retention and apply fertilizers carefully because the lack of moisture in these areas can make top-dressing wasteful and meaningless.
Dry land farmers must also heed agronomic advice and plant drought resistant crops, especially cassava and sweet potatoes.
The major undoing in Manicaland is that farmers in these regions are so obsessed with growing maize, regardless of the implications.
Instead, they must take up sorghum, millets, cowpeas and pigeon peas, oilseeds like sunflower and groundnuts, root crops cassava, sweet potatoes; cotton; fruit and vegetables and small livestock like goats, sheep, road runners and turkeys.
Partners should assist Government to equip farmers with technical skills in small livestock health, feeding and management.