In a study conducted by Dr Nkanyiso J. Sithole, evidence demonstrates that conservation agriculture could be the key to improving soil quality and crop yields in South Africa. This method of agriculture could offer solutions for the country’s soil degradation and mounting food security challenges, particularly in the face of climate change.
“Sustainable soil management is crucial for increased crop production and ensuring food security for future generations,” Sithole, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, stated in his research. He emphasises that conventional tillage has led to substantial soil and soil organic matter (SOM) loss over the years, disrupting the soil structure and disturbing macrofauna populations, which are crucial for nutrient recycling.
In his research, Sithole pointed out that “Conventional tillage has resulted in physical disruption of the soil structure, displacement of the macrofauna population and exposing SOM to microbial attack and thus, facilitating its oxidation process and the loss of nutrients.”
In light of these findings, Sithole set out to explore how conservation agriculture could influence these factors. Using the Bergville region in KwaZulu-Natal as his test site, he observed three tillage treatments over a span of 13 years: no-till (NT) with permanent residue cover, annual conventional tillage (CT), and rotational tillage (RT) every four years.
The results of the study were compelling. The mean density of individual orders was significantly higher under NT (46%) and RT (38%) compared with CT (16%). Furthermore, the total soil organic carbon (SOC), a key indicator of soil quality, did not vary across the tillage treatments but was notably stratified in the 0-10 cm depth in NT and RT.
“The results of this study showed that reduced soil disturbance improves physical protection of SOC, soil structure, and infiltration,” reported Sithole.
Additionally, NT and RT methods increased the availability of vital nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This approach also led to improvements in the soil’s cation exchange capacity, which affects nutrient availability to plants.
As for crop yields, the study revealed higher maize yields under NT and RT methods when a higher rate of nitrogen fertilizer was applied. Moreover, this improvement in yield was even more pronounced during periods of drought.
“Yields improve over time under conservation agriculture and this was more pronounced during the drought period,” Sithole noted. He went on to recommend that “conservation agriculture is implemented in semi-arid subtropical areas to improve soil conditions, water conservation, and to achieve optimum yields.”
However, Sithole also recognised the need for further research and advocated for more widespread adoption of conservation agriculture practices in South Africa. Although it is gaining momentum, the adoption rate remains low, accounting for just 2.8% of the country’s arable land. Sithole’s findings signal a promising future for conservation agriculture in South Africa.
In the face of climate change and mounting food security issues, such approaches may prove vital in sustaining the country’s agricultural sector. His study will hopefully spur more extensive research into conservation agriculture practices and inspire a shift in traditional agricultural methods to preserve soil quality and enhance food production.