Morocco: Heavy Winter Rains Assure a Large Grain Crop But Intensity and Timing Prevent Record
Staff from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) traveled in Morocco during late March and early April 2010 to assess crop conditions. Morocco is a significant producer of two cereal crops: wheat and barley. It typically produces between fifty and sixty percent of Northwest Africa’s grain production. Morocco is also one of the world’s largest grain importers as even in its best years, the country isn’t able to meet domestic demand. The Moroccan grain crop is almost exclusively rain-fed and production is notoriously variable, having to rely on the prevailing storm track. If storm systems don’t follow a favorable southern route over Morocco, the country’s agriculture, particularly in the central and southern regions, suffers high yield losses due to the lack of precipitation. If high summer-like temperatures come early in the late growing season, they can exacerbate low soil moisture conditions.
Each of Morocco's last two seasons has experienced exceptionally high cumulative precipitation because of a re-occurring southern storm track. The 2010/11 Moroccan wheat crop is estimated at 4.5 million tons from 2.8 million hectares, while the 2009/10 crop is estimated to be a record 6.4 million tons. Unlike the 2009/10 crop year when rainfall was favorably distributed throughout the growing season, the 2010/11 crop experienced a winter deluge that produced heavy rains during a relatively brief time period. Durum wheat typically accounts for one-third of the Moroccan wheat crop. Barley is estimated at 2.8 million tons from 1.9 million hectares, compared to 3.8 million tons last year.
The 2010/11 winter crops (planted during the autumn and winter 2009-10) experienced a delayed start this year because of late-arriving rainfall. The rainy season, which typically begins by mid-November, did not begin in Morocco until mid-December. While some farmers sow their fields prior to the first rains of the season, others, particularly in more marginal areas, do not risk taking planting costs until after autumn rains have fallen. The season’s delayed planting rains postponed the seeding of many fields until January. Complicating matters, once the rain arrived in December, it rained frequently until March. Farmers however, largely made up for the late start by rapidly sowing late into the season. In general, for a semi-arid country like Morocco, above-average rainfall will almost always guarantee an above-average crop. This was certainly the case for the 2009/10 crop of 6.4 million tons. While almost never unwelcome in Morocco, this year’s rainfall was excessive and caused problems for the country’s grain crop. Heavy rain fell during the winter months from mid-December to March. Flooding is estimated to have reduced area by 100,000 -140,000 hectares. Inputs were often neglected because there were few breaks in the rainfall for applying them. Soggy fields allowed few opportunities for farmers to apply fertilizer, fungicide, and herbicides. Weeds were abundant and thriving from the increased rain and minimal field work. Nonetheless, the most committed or professional farmers took advantage of any available window between storms to apply treatments. Farmers who spread fertilizer saw much of it washed off the fields during the heavy rain. One large wheat field visited by the group was completely overrun by a very advanced stage of yellow rust. It had consumed most of the flag leaves in the field; preventing photosynthesis, and prohibiting grain development. While the spikes of the plant had developed, the heads were empty. The field was a total loss.
Another problem observed by the group was not moisture related but temperature related. In this case, wheat plants developed shorter-than-normal spikes because low temperatures during early March interfered with full polinization. These low temperatures damaged flowers and ended pollination prematurely. The later emerging grains did not get to develop. Temperature in this area of Morocco had dipped to between 2 and 4 degrees Celsius while the wheat was in the flowering stage. The temperature was cold enough to lower the number of kernels per spike, and hence lower yields in the affected region.
Another sign of lowered yield potential was that fewer tillers were observed in some fields because of higher than normal winter temperatures (December-February). Apparently, other factors such as the spike size or grain size are unlikely to compensate for the yield losses already incurred from fewer tillers. Bird damage was also observed to have been significant in some wheat fields.
Most of Morocco's planting seeds are not certified varieties but are used from the previous year’s crop. The wheat sown in Northwest Africa is a short season variety with low water requirements, well suited for a semi-arid environment. Although wheat is planted in the fall, it does not go fully dormant during the mild Moroccan winters. Durum wheat comprises about a third of the total national wheat crop. Wheat is grown in the country’s best soils and where precipitation is the highest. Areas near and along the coast tend to be these premiere locations. Barley is grown in the central uplands, plateaus, and in the south on the rockier, poorer soils. While constrained in their cropping choices because of limited rainfall, one option farmers have exercised is planting fava beans. The crop is used for animal feed and has the added advantage of adding nitrogen to the soil.
The team observed fields in more marginal areas with a mixture of grains. For example, a wheat field had a significant amount of barley and durum randomly dispersed throughout the field. Quality control and other yield-affecting decisions are not as important in these marginal areas as they are in the best wheat producing areas close to the coast. The more marginal the area is, the fewer expenses farmers are willing to incur. Harvest begins in the south of Morocco and goes north, beginning in May and ending in late June. In early April 2010, the country’s grain crop was two to three weeks behind schedule because of the late planting and the heavy rainfall.
Morocco’s irrigated grain area is primarily comprised of gravity irrigation systems either drawing water from nearby lakes or pumped from areas with high water tables; however, irrigation accounts for less than ten percent of the cropland. Water supplies were plentiful in the irrigated regions this year after unusually high rainfall during the last two seasons, bolstering Morocco’s reservoirs to 97 percent of capacity.
Climate and financial issues were the problems most cited by farmers as obstacles for maximizing yield. Yield loss continues to be a problem even after the grain is mature. A significant amount is lost during harvest and in out-dated storage facilities.
NDVI graphs and NDVI maps.
The Moroccan government is attempting to increase and stabilize grain production without increasing area by a strategy called the Green Plan, which was introduced in April 2008. Some of the principle objectives include reducing the spread of diseases, increasing the use of certified seeds, and enabling more technology transfer to farmers in the form of machinery and management practices. The government of Morocco has instituted the Green Program whose aim is to double grain production by 2020 and improve wheat quality. Part of its focus is to increase farm size and efficiency. Currently 70 percent of country's farms are less than 5 hectares. Support in the Green Program would also include assistance for improvements in irrigation, certified seeds, fertilizer, and loans. According to regional agricultural officials, the program is now in effect and has been increasingly utilized by farmers.
Additional information can be found on the FAS GAIN reports website at:
Some of the Moroccan reports released by the US agricultural attache in Rabat include:
http://gain.fas.usda.gov/Recent GAIN Publications/Grain and Feed Annual_Rabat_Morocco_3-25-2010.pdf and
http://gain.fas.usda.gov/Recent GAIN Publications/Grain and Feed Update_Rabat_Morocco_2-8-2010.pdf
The USDA's June estimates will be released in the WASDE and WAP reports on June 10th. They can be found at:
Current USDA area and production estimates for grains and other agricultural commodities are available on IPAD's Agricultural Production page or at PSD Online.