Grain farming: Take these 5 steps to start

African agriculture: Investment in agriculture on the African continent still looks like a very attractive prospect for foreign investors, argues Roux Wildenboer, sector head: agriculture at the Absa Group. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Investment in agriculture on the African continent still looks like a very attractive prospect for foreign investors, argues Roux Wildenboer, sector head: agriculture at the Absa Group. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Grains contribute significantly to the agricultural sector in South Africa, according to Mordor Intelligence, producing between 25% and 33% of the country’s total gross agricultural production. If you’re a starter farmer wanting to get a slice of this pie, look no further than our five steps to farming with grain.

If you are wondering what classifies as grain crops, there’s quite a list. But barley, sorghum, and rice are some of the other major grain crops grown in Mzansi. Maize and corn are also up there with the big contenders. 

Grains are staple foods that will always be in demand. The growth in regional trade, technology, and mechanisation advancement in the grain sector are also factors that are currently driving the market’s growth in the country.  

Buchule Pama, a Free State farmer with a mixed-farming approach, bought a plot in 2016 and was able to start specialising in maize, wheat and potato production in 2017.

“The challenge with grain farming is that the infrastructure and capital costs are extremely high,” he warns. “You need quite a lot of money.”  

In his case he got loans from a financier, and even though they loaned at quite a high price he says it was completely worth it. 

“Farming is hard, risky and unpredictable,” he says. “You should only get into farming if you have a passion for it.” 

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So, if you have a passion for farming, you love having your hands in the soil and creating jobs, continue reading on how you can become a grain farmer. 

1. Climate and soil 

First you need to know if you currently have the right land and environmental conditions to farm with grains, says Pama.  

Depending on the type of grain you want to farm with, there will be different climate requirements, or different times to plant them during the year. Besides climate preferences, they all also have their own soil types that they need to be planted in. 

All grains need a sunny location, but they don’t have require highly fertile soil.  

2. Choosing your grains 

Pama emphasises that you need to do research in order to get the right grain to plant, a grain that is right for your climate and soil type.

If you want to start farming with grain, there is a wide variety of different crops for you to choose from. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

According to the Modern Farmer, grains are divided between those that like to grow in warm weather and those that prefer cool temperatures. The majority fall in the latter group. This includes oats, rye, spelt and most types of wheat. These are typically planted in early autumn and are harvested in late spring the following year. Buckwheat, millet and certain wheat varieties need hot weather to mature and are planted in spring. 

When purchasing seeds, make sure it is of good quality, high yielding and disease free. You should also consult an experienced farmer in your area to help you choose the right variety. 

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Another question when choosing your grains is: Will this be a viable crop for me to plant considering the amount of farmland I have available? 

In order to calculate how much land you need for your crop to be viable, have a look at this report on estimating the production costs of summer grains. It outlines how to calculate your gross margin by looking at the different input costs per hectare and the value of the end product. 

3. Planting 

Since there are so many different types of grains, they all follow a different timeline. It is extremely important to plant your grains at the right time, otherwise you could miss the market. 

“You need to make sure that you plant exactly at the right time,” emphasises Pama. “If you miss your planting by a week or two, or even worse – a month, you will be left behind in the market.” 

Not only that, he says, but your yield and grade will also not be optimal. 

There are also local climate factors to consider if you want to start farming with grain. For instance, Agribook mentions that wheat is planted mainly between mid-April and mid-June in the winter rainfall area (Western Cape). On the other hand, it is planted between mid-May and the end of July in the summer rainfall area (eastern Free State). Wheat harvesting also starts from November or December in the winter rainfall areas and later in the summer rainfall areas. 

“You will need to get help from professionals on fertilisers, on planting dates, harvesting dates and irrigation data,” says Pama. “You need to know exactly what you are doing.” 

4. Maintenance and pest control 

According to the Agricultural Research Council you must apply appropriate soil cultivation methods when farming with grains. These include alleviation of compaction layers, crop residue management, weed control and seedbed preparation, with the main aim of maximising soil water conservation in the soil profile. You must also follow an effective spraying programme for control of weeds, insects and diseases during the growing season 

“You need to use equipment that is modern and automated,” advises Pama. “This is needed to get the best and highest yield possible at the best grade.” 

“If you are going to use sub-par machinery, you are going to fail on that point.” 

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5. Harvesting 

Some grains mature very fast after germination, whereas others take months. Again, this is dependent on the type of grain and the climate of your region. There are also specific moisture levels that your crop has to be at in order to be harvested effectively. 

You don’t want to harvest too early, but farmers should avoid delayed harvesting as it can lead to damage by pests and diseases, especially if it rains. 

Harvesting machines are necessary if you are a commercial farmer. Combine harvesters can harvest a variety of crops, including a wide range of cereals, legumes and oilseeds such as maize, wheat, barley, rice, soya beans, peas, beans, and sunflowers. 

“It is a science,” says Pama about grain farming. “You can’t guess it.”

Harvesting machines are necessary if you want to become a commercial grain farmer. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

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