As the world economy is ravaged by COVID-19 and inevitable lockdowns, one of the few things that matter to humanity is food, and sustaining food chains beyond the pandemic has been the subject of engagements, agitations and demands among agricultural scientists, technologists, government agencies, research institutes and farmers, among many other stakeholders.
Maize, as a short-term and multipurpose crop, has proven to be a reliable source of income to farmers and vendors, as the crop is consumed fresh, used in value chain production, and as a base ingredient in animal feeds as well as in ethanol and starch processing around the globe.
Bio-fortified maize (Vitamins A, C, etc) is also being promoted as a means of fighting malnutrition, popularly called hidden hunger. Harvest-Plus Nigeria, International Potato Centre and Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA), among many other not-for-profit international agencies combatting malnutrition, place emphasis on using bio-fortified foods such as maize to reach a cross-section of the population consuming primarily what they produce as farmers and artisans.
Hence, as the world and Nigeria in particular aggressively head towards a predictable economic recession, youths, retirees and those who might lose jobs to the tragedy of the time could make a fortune from maize cultivation, as food would become the most important thing that millions of people around the world would readily buy.
Sources from research institutes in Nigeria, such as the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Institute of Agricultural Research and Training (IAR&T) have disclosed that the country still lags behind in maize production, and the deficit is in the region of 8 million metric tonnes. A tonne is weighed 1000kgs.
Professor Samuel Ajala, a maize specialist at IITA, disclosed that Nigeria produces about 12 million tonnes of maize while it consumes about 16 million tonnes for food, animal feeds and other products.
To close the deficient gap, he said, an additional 4 million tonnes would have to be produced yearly and to become maize-secure, another 4 million tonnes would be required to clock 20 million metric tonnes yearly.
Professor Samuel Olakojo, another grain breeding specialist at IAR&T, affirmed that though accurate data on production in Nigeria is practically unavailable, maize production is around 12 million tonnes. Nigeria, he added, has a long way to go to close the gap.
Hence, the maize deficit in Nigeria presents a great opportunity to enterprising Nigerians to become essential role players in the food chains in the country and globally.
How to maximise yield per hectare?
Maximising yield per hectare is the key to profitability in maize or any other grain farming, so said Professor Olakojo. And this, he explained, could be achieved with a number of steps.
The first factor, he said, is the improved varieties with the best genetic potential for maximum yield per hectare. High-yielding varieties with good farming practices and management would make maize farms produce above the average. This translates to higher profitability and sustainability. He disclosed that research institutes and seed companies had done great work in developing, registering and releasing new improved varieties to farmers, though they might be a bit more expensive than ordinary grains.
The second most important factor, he said, is ensuring recommended plant density. Population per hectare should be between 52,000 and 60,000 stands of maize. This, he said, would boost production per hectare significantly provided other necessary things are done to complement the population.
The third aspect, Olakojo added, includes fertiliser application, weed control, army warm prevention and good post-harvest management of the crop.
Similarly, Mr Temitope Falaye, a Chief Agricultural Engineer at the National Centre for Agricultural Mechanisation (NCAM), also explained that to achieve maximum plant population per hectare, farm mechanisation is inevitable.
Farm mechanisation, he said, involves using mechanical devices in land clearing, preparation, planting, weed/pest control and harvesting. In planting maize, planters mounted on tractors could give the desired number of plants per hectare based on the calibration of spacing in-between ridges and on the rows.
Manual planting could hardly be accurate, leading to either overpopulation or under-population of the farmland under cultivation, he explained. In contrast, mechanisation, he added, enhances speed, intensity, commercial farming, higher productivity and standard agricultural practices.
Managing high-yielding maize varieties
In the forest ecology of southern Nigeria, professionals recommend that farmers should, in the first season, plant in mid-March through April, after rains have established good soil moisture. In the second season, farmers should plant in late July through mid-August. In the savanna ecology of northern zones, farmers should plant maize in late May to June.
They also recommend that farmers should plant a minimum of 20,000 seeds per acre and 50,000 per hectare, at 75cm space between rows and 25cm space between seeds on the same row. Seeds should also be planted at 5cm deep, while starter fertiliser containing nitrogen and phosphorous should be applied at 5cm away from the base of the seed and at 10cm deep in the ground.
It is often recommended that farmers should use a pre-emergence herbicide for grass and broadleaf control immediately after planting and post-emergence herbicides at eight weeks after planting if needed for weed control.
If post-emergence herbicides are needed, farmers are advised to ensure to follow the directions on the label carefully and avoid spraying any herbicide into the maize whorls and avoid spraying products such as 2, 4-D or nicosulfuron over the top of corn that is more than two weeks old.
Farmers should also use foliar-applied insecticides as needed against insects and fall army warm infestation. They could also use foliar-applied fungicides if needed for disease management.
For a 2Mt/acre (5 tonne per hectare yield target, farmers are advised to apply 80kgs of nitrogen per acre by placing 45kgs of nitrogen in bands next to seed, 5cm to the side and 10 cm deep at planting. Top dress with 35kg nitrogen four weeks after planting. Farmers are also advised to use 35kg phosphorus/acre, and if possible, place around 20kg of phosphorus in the starter fertiliser band. It is also recommended that 35kg of potassium should be applied per acre.
The fertiliser programme can be achieved by using some commonly available formulations at planting, applying four bags (200kg) of 23-10-10 blend with a half of a handful placed next to each seed. Farmers can top-dress the seedlings four weeks after planting with three bags (150kg) of 23-10-10 blend with half a handful placed near the base of each the plants.