MOST farmers have missed the May 15 winter wheat planting deadline after failing to harvest their summer crop in time to make way for the new crop in what could result in output falling far below what is required to meet Zimbabwe's flour requirement.
Once again, the country will have to import flour to bridge the deficit, which could turn out to be more than what had been anticipated.
Government has set the target for the winter wheat crop at 55 000 hectares and has loosened its purse strings to fund the initiative to the tune of US$140 million under what it calls the Command Wheat programme.
At a yield of five tonnes per hectare, farmers are expected to produce 275 000 tonnes of wheat under this programme with another 75 000 tonnes coming from those who are outside the government-funded initiative.
Whereas government had projected a deficit of 50 000 tonnes from the national requirement of 400 000, the gap could widen given that farmers have missed their deadline.
Farmers are currently receiving seed, fertiliser and fuel under the Command programme hence the deadline could be stretched to May 31 or beyond although this will compromise yields.
Wheat production has sharply declined from 325 000 tonnes in 2001 to the current average 10 000 tonnes.
"Those who take the risk to continue planting into June risk having their crop damaged by early October and November rains. Late harvesting of the winter crop also pushes the summer season planting dates further," said agricultural economist, Peter Gambara.
"... The planning and implementation of the current winter Command Agriculture programme leaves a lot to be desired. The programme is littered with examples of poor planning and follow up implementation of decisions," he added.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president, Wonder Chabikwa, said farmers took long to prepare for the winter wheat crop because of the shortage of combine harvesters to cater for each and every farmer who is harvesting their summer crop.
"It is a big challenge that is affecting the preparations for the winter crop. We have never had such a huge crop such that the capacity of our combine harvesters is low and cannot meet the demand. Also the light rains and the drop in temperatures is affecting the moisture content of the crop," he said.
The ideal moisture content of grain for good storage is less than 13 percent.
Grain may be dried naturally in the field while on the plant or farmers can use driers, which are also in short supply.
Despite the challenges being faced by maize farmers, who are eager to plant wheat, some farmers managed to plant the crop before the May 15 deadline and are already applying top dressing fertiliser.
Commercial Farmers Union president, Peter Steyl, said farmers should plan their farming activities to give themselves enough time to prepare for the next crop.