How to make your maize more marketable

Saturday March 20 2021
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Maize cobs affected by ear rot are not good for human consumption. Photo | George Katongole

By George Katongole

Farming is very a difficult work. Like any other difficult activity, farmers expect to be rewarded at the end of the toils with a good harvest at the end of the season. A good harvest provides food to feed the family and money when you sell your maize for a good price.

Experts explain that for a successful harvest, timing is key. It must also be done properly.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industries and Fisheries (Maaif), the quality standards of maize grain produced is generally low, and the post-harvest losses during harvesting, transport, storage and processing are relatively high. This coupled with aflatoxin contamination render Ugandan maize uncompetitive on the regional market.

In Uganda, the most prominent areas where maize is planted are Kapchorwa, Iganga, Masindi, Mbale, Mubende, Kasese, Kamuli, Jinja and Kabarole districts.
Timely harvesting can help in one way or another in the prevention of the maize weevil pest breeding and ear rot.

Good quality maize attracts better market prices that help farmers earn high incomes. But farmers continue to experience high losses of their maize right from harvesting to marketing. It is estimated that Ugandan farmers lose up to 40 per cent as a result of poor post-handling practices that compromise the quality of the maize.

Proper harvesting
Dr Charles Lwanga Kasozi, a senior research officer of National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro), Namulonge emphasises that maize should be harvested at the right stage depending on the intended use.

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“Although time of harvesting falls under the pre-harvesting period, its effect has direct linkage to post-harvest challenges. During harvesting, care should be taken to make sure that the produce is not affected in quality or quantity,” said Dr Kasozi.

He adds that if a harvest does not coincide with the end of the rainy season, maize will not dry properly and might go bad easily. To ensure that this does not happen, he encourages farmers to talk to area extension workers about the maturity period of their desired maize variety. 

Maize harvesting is usually between 90-180 days depending on the variety and agro-ecological zone.
“This will help you in planning the time to plant your crops because different varieties have different maturity periods,” he says.

When the harvest does not coincide with the dry weather, farmers should break the stem just below the cob and hang it downwards to prevent water entry into the cob. He also recommends using maize varieties with ear rot resistance.

Maize may be harvested dry or green. Dr Kasozi says that farmers should not delay harvesting too long after maturity in case they do not plan to share their harvest with pests, bush fires or thieves. Delayed harvesting may also cause a problem as the fields need to be prepared for the next crop.

He says that maize is mature for harvest when a black layer develops at the base of grains.
“If you want to harvest it green and fresh, it is better to do that when the silk turns brown. To harvest it dry, leave it on the field until the silk, the husk and the leaves are completely dried up,” he cautions.

At this time, he says, the grains will feel very hard when pressed with fingers and the planting cobs will all be brown in colour, the maize cobs begin to droop on the stalk and grains become too hard and uncomfortable to chew when it is roasted or cooked for eating.

To harvest properly, he advises farmers to start early in the morning when the sun is not very hot and if possible, beef up labour. Harvesting should be done in an orderly manner - from one end of the field to the other. Missing some plants means losing some money.

He says there are many ways to do this but the common practice is to break the cob from the base of the plant and gather them in heaps at several points of the field for easy gathering. After the whole field has been harvested, you can gather all the individual heaps into one big heap for collection.

It is not advisable to heap the harvest on bare ground. Farmers are advised to use tarpaulin or platforms to avoid damage to the cobs or grains and reduce the chances of fungal/aflatoxin contamination.

The next stage is dehusking. At this stage, Dr Kasozi says farmers should protect the harvest from the rains, thieves and pests.
“If you harvest on time and do it properly, you will get good money and you will have enough time to plant for the next season,” he says.

Managing moisture
At harvest time the grain moisture content is around 26 per cent yet the desired storage moisture content should be at least 13 per cent.

The maize stalks can also be stacked in pyramid-shaped heaps (stooking). Stooking allows the sun and air to dry the cobs for easier dehusking. Maize can be stooked for two or more weeks to dry in the field to reduce the moisture content up to at least 18 per cent. 

Stooked maize should not stay too long in the field because of theft cases. After the maize has dried, remove the ears from the stalks and dehusk the ears manually.
Clean maize, Dr Kasozi says, should be separated from rotten or pest infested cobs.

Dr Kasozi explains that tools such as tarpaulins, carts, wheelbarrows, bags and baskets used during harvesting, should be dry and clean.
For farmers’ groups and cooperatives, he says maize should be delivered to a clean dry facility for temporary storage. The maize can also be stored in PICS bags.

Extra care
As a general rule, farmers should avoid shelling maize through beating with sticks to avoid damaging the grains. Smallholder farmers should use bare hands or manual hand shellers and motorised shellers.

Maize should also be sorted, sieved or winnowed to get rid of foreign matter and broken grains as these can be entry points for microorganisms that can lead to aflatoxins and rejection in markets.

Dr Kasozi explains that for commercial purposes, maize grains should be graded according to the size, colour and variety to achieve uniformity and attract better prices on the market. Storage is another key item in the maize production chain and emphasis should be put on a clean facility free from rodents, moisture variations and humidity. The bags should always be put on pallets away from the walls to avoid rodents and moisture pick up.

Farmers are also advised to ensure that maize for human food consumption is properly dried to reduce toxins such as aflatoxins that cause liver cancer in humans.

Quick tips
On a well prepared land, open up holes of about 5-7cm for hand planting.
Sow at least two seeds per hole. Sowing should be in rows. Thinly cover with a layer of soil.

Weed the field after 2-3 weeks after planting.
Harvest your maize when the comb is well filled and dry.

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