It’s probably (cheaper) corn


Dr. Gawie du Toit

For any country, self-sufficiency in affordable high-quality food is crucial for survival. For South Africa, the maize industry is the cornerstone for the sustainable supply of this food to the population. So food security consequently rests squarely on the shoulders of the maize!

In this connection, one must bear in mind that maize is directly responsible for the energy needs of humans and indirectly the protein needs through the livestock industry. In addition, the necessary vitamins are provided by vegetables and fruits.

Seen against the background of a large-scale discussion by various people worldwide about problems with food supply to eight billion people, the millions who are already starving (especially in Africa), further aggravating circumstances with war in the Middle East, the Suez Canal being blocked is it is absolutely imperative that South Africa must have a financially sound maize industry – which must be able to produce largely financially independently.

Now, however, this is where the “twist in the cable” comes – corn farmers’ debt burden is too great, and it doesn’t have to be that way. According to Statistics South Africa and observers, debt for the maize industry amounts to frightening billions of rand.

The definite question then is: To what can this debt be attributed, what gave rise to it? Many answers can probably be cited and even technology and innovation could not prevent production costs from increasing. The reality is that costs are out of control and too high.

The wrong problem

However, the price structure is consistently singled out as the main cause, especially the prices of input products which increase excessively. Fertilizer prices are particularly mentioned as an example, as they are the biggest cost item for the maize farmer.

On the other hand, no consideration is given to the fact that the physical means of production applied may be far too much. Has the question ever been asked whether, for example, too much fertilizer has not been applied in the past and so also “other” inputs?

Won’t the reduction of excess NPK input in particular make a much greater contribution to reduced production costs than its price increase? This matter of possible unnecessary excess NPK input, which drives production costs of maize through the roof, will now be scrutinized.

High fertilizer input

A clear answer should emerge as elucidated by research results in the following two figures. This comes from a recent trial action that serves as an example of a series of similar trials that have been undertaken in the past more than 40 years.

Harvest results for NPK treatments now follow in the figure below.

The harvest increase therefore gradually decreases from 2.4-, 0.55- to 0.19 t/ha. So no linear increase takes place, but a gradual decrease. The real meaning of these crops’ shrinking increase will only gain value when fertilizer costs are subtracted from the gross income of each, to produce “profit” over fertilizer input.

Now a well-known natural and economic law of diminishing returns states that no maximum harvest can ever produce the best profit. The meaning of said law will now be considered, as elucidated by comparing the values ​​of “profit” for the various crops:

According to the above figure, it is clear that the maximum harvest of 9.14 t/ha could not repeat the performance to also produce maximum profit. Then compare R22 877/ha profit with the smaller harvest of 8.95 t/ha’s bigger profit of R23 454/ha. The maximum crop (9.14 t/ha) then indeed performed R482/ha worse than the smaller crop (8.95 t/ha) – and this despite R1 147/ha greater expenditure compared to the smaller crop’s lower NPK -cost.

We must therefore seriously guard against the syndrome of spending R1 to make only 90 cents, which is definitely not good business.

Always remember that risk with unpredictable climate should not be lost sight of with extra spending to chase large crops that are not profitable.

The answer then?

There is no doubt that there is a big screw loose with fertilization of maize. NPK recommendations with consequent excessive fertilizer application are seriously off track.

It is now very clear that the only way to get out of this debt trap is to reduce costs (especially NPK), also spend less and especially not to chase maximum harvests. So it’s about money in the pocket (maximum profit) and not the yield cup for maximum harvest in the corn club!

Maize farmers will have to be very judicious in choosing the right amount of fertilizer application for profitable production. They will have to be particularly careful that fertilization advisers let them apply fertilizer unnecessarily, which does not produce a positive financial result – choose the right adviser.

A success story

An example of one of a number of producers who already follow a sober fertilization approach to achieve maximum profit and not chase maximum harvest, is Sjaak van der Smit van Cullinan.

This photo is of Sjaak with green maize which for the sixth harvest only received nitrogen (plant and top fertilization of N). Soil values ​​of pH, P and K are favorable and are monitored through soil analysis to ensure they are adequate throughout.

For the larger corn industry, soil P values ​​in the past have mainly (with minor exceptions) been built up to high levels, so that it can pay farmers to make ample use of it, along with similarly well-supplied K figures. Likewise, corn on the previous year’s soybean fields can also get by with significantly less N, apart from no P and K.

A sustainable maize industry

Finally, it must be emphasized that due to the world food problem, it is absolutely essential that South Africa must be assured of a solid and sustainable maize industry that must be financially sound in order to compete with the world market.

This means maize will have to be produced profitably and cheaper for sustainability and food security. And this can only happen with sensibly reduced production inputs, based on research, especially with NPK trials.

If producers carefully apply the mentioned approach to produce maize profitably, a “new dawn” may appear on the horizon which is of crucial importance for economically sustainable food production.

From the previous trial results and discussion, it is undeniably clear that there is money in maize production and it can indeed be produced profitably and sustainably.

  • Dr. Gawie du Toit is a land expert.