Choosing the right maize variety

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With thousands of different varieties of crops available for farmers to choose from, it is important for farmers to select varieties most suitable for their conditions. Although many institutions are involved in promoting appropriate crop varieties to farmers, some recommendations do not take into account the wide range of factors that influence the farmers’ decision-making. This has partly contributed to limited adoption of new crop varieties by smallholder farmers.

What the farmers want:

  • A variety that can improve their livelihoods, providing both food and income.
  • A variety that performs well each season, providing yield stability. Drought or any other environmental conditions should not endanger food/income security.
  • A variety that is not too expensive to grow. This cost perception will depend on farmer preferences. For instance, if farmers can recycle seed by using open pollinated maize varieties (OPVs) instead of hybrid maize varieties, they could save money for acquiring other inputs (such as fertilizer).
  • Seed that is easily accessible on the market, affordable to purchase, and from a trusted source.


Why is it important to get it right?

Choosing the wrong or inappropriate variety can result in:

  • Loss of yield, resulting in food insecurity and loss of profits. (For example, some imported varieties may never mature or may yield much lower than expected because they are not adapted to environmental conditions in a particular area. This problem often occurs when when farmers use the grain from relief efforts or food help for sowing.)
  • General loss of confidence in improved varieties and in the source of the seed (i.e. seed companies).
  • Rates of future adoption being affected.


Figure 1. Seed may fail to emerge (foreground) even when the inapropriate variety is used.

To select the right variety, it is important to know the general characteristics of your area in terms of:

  • Length of the growing season (depends on water availability/rainy season and optimum temperatures). This determines the ideal maturity group.
  • Yield potential of the area. This is related to the environment (agroecological zone): rainfall and temperature patterns, soil characteristics, elevation, etc. Some varieties are more suitable for low and some for high yield potential areas.
  • Prevalent diseases and pests in the area. Look for varieties with resistance or tolerance to prevalent diseases and pests.
  • Crop choice of neighboring farms. Learn from successes and failures of neighboring farmers.

Availability of such information helps to determine what characteristics a variety needs to perform well. These may include, for example, the degree of disease resistance, the maturity group or whether drought or soil acidity tolerance is required.

General maturity groups of maize varieties

An early-maturing variety can either be planted early and be harvested before the end of the season, late and be harvested by season-end, or in areas where the rainy season is short.

An intermediate-maturing variety does not require a full season to mature, and tends to produce higher yields than early-maturing varieties. It can be planted in areas where the rains may stop early or harvested before the end of the season.

A late-maturing variety needs to be planted very early in the season, often with the first rains. Under favorable conditions, it gives the highest yields.

It is also crucial to keep in mind grain consumers’ criteria, considering:

  • Targeted use of the final product. Different varieties are often preferred when the grain is for home-processing and storage compared to when it is intended for sale, processing, feed/silage, or for other special purposes.
  • Current market conditions – which variety suits market requirements?
  • Quality attributes in terms of the end-product. In maize, intrinsic characteristics such as starch, oil, and protein content are closely related to the end-use value. A variety that produces sweet and large cobs may be chosen for green mealie consumption. Some varieties are particularly favorable for home-processing and home-storing, while some are preferred simply because they fetch a high price at the market.
  • It is understandable that farmers see new varieties as risky; their survival is depending on the success of their crops. New varieties may be tested on small areas before being adopted for the entire farm.


Figure 2. There are better returns when the right variety is planted.

Where can farmers find more information?

Contact with local extension workers is important. They can provide information on new varieties and technologies tested for local environmental conditions. A trusting relationship should be established so that farmers can feel confident in using new varieties.

The information and experiences of other farmers is also important. Social networks can play a critical role in the adoption of new technologies.

It is important to remember that varietal selection can only take the farmer a part of the way: agronomic practices are also an essential component in producing high yielding, high quality crops.

Developed with input from F. Mtambanengwe, J. Jones, P.Kosina • 2007