Participatory systems research on conservation agriculture in the Maluti region

This project is funded by the Maize Trust and done in collaboration with the Maluti Study Group.

Maluti

CA refers to an agricultural management system based on the simultaneous application of three principles: minimum mechanical soil disturbance, an organic soil cover throughout the year and the use of crop and animal diversity, including crop rotations and associations, as well as livestock integration. These principles enhance natural biological processes above and below ground and involves interventions where soil tillage is reduced to an absolute minimum. The use of external inputs such as agrochemicals and mineral supplements are applied at an optimum level, at quantities and in a manner that does not interfere with or disrupt biological processes. However, CA leads to improved ecosystems’ functioning that helps to reduce the use of and dependency on external inputs.

Appropriate, locally adapted CA systems and healthier soils have proven to facilitate a gradual phasing out, but definitely lowering of, the application of synthetic external inputs (i.e. pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer), combined with obtaining and sustaining equally high (as conventional production practices) or improved yields, while reducing the increasingly threatening production risks. Combined with best practices for livestock integration it does make the farming enterprises economically more viable and less risky.

On the 13th February 2020 a meeting was held at the Farmers hall (Boereplek) in Clocolan, with a group of CA farmers from the Maluti region (including areas of Ladybrand, Clocolan, Ficksburg, Fouriesburg, Senekal, etc.). The meeting was a fact-finding mission to get a general idea about the groups’ strength, activities, vision, problems, opportunities, solutions, needs and possible actors (capacity) and their interest in a regional CA project. The group unanimously expressed their need and willingness to participate in such a project, which is really the key criteria for any CA Farmer Innovation Programme (FIP) funding. This meeting was facilitated by Dr Hendrik Smith (CA Facilitator at Grain SA), assisted by Dr Jaap Knot (independent CA facilitator).

The following issues or problems were listed during a brainstorming session that followed, that gave a good idea what the focus of the project will be:  More research is needed on various cover crop strategies & ley crop (permanent pastures) and how that fits in into most prevalent local crop rotation systems. Farmers expressed the need for good economic gross margins comparative analysis of the different CA strategies applied already by farmers (i.e. summer cover crops, winter cover crops, high density grazing, NT and strip till maize, soya, sunflower and wheat) as well the figures under the combined research trials. Farmers also expressed the need for researching practical differences between farmers’ production methods like coulter vs. tine planters, row width and plant population effect. Measurable indicators will be identified during the brainstorming activities later in the season. The Maluti CA group area consist out of a divergent and variable ecotypes with differences in soil types, soil depth, rainfall, slope and management. This is important that these ecotypes are identified, documented and treated as area-specific areas.

The aim of the project is to research, develop and adapt appropriate CA systems for a range of diverse and unique contexts in the Maluti region.

The following short-term objectives will assist the project in achieving its aim:

  • To establish and facilitate appropriate on-farm trials with the Maluti CA study group
  • To monitor and analyse a series of appropriate indicators from on-farm trials on selected farmers’ fields
  • To create wider awareness and innovation capacity in the Maluti CA study group and the broader farming communities on the practices and benefits of locally adapted CA systems.
  • To support farmer facilitation, administration and reporting processes.

The objectives of on-farm trials are to improve experiential learning, improve understanding and adaptation of technologies to local farmers and conditions, increase awareness among farming communities and facilitate farmer-to-farmer extension.