Globally, agriculture both contributes to and suffers from soil health depletion and the effects of climate change. There are many different approaches to more sustainable farming, such as permaculture, hydroponics and agroforestry. Then there is conservation agriculture, a type of sustainable agriculture that, according to climate change and agriculture researcher Professor Stephanie Midgley, has proved to be a valuable farming method during periods of drought.
According to the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), conservation farming holds tremendous potential for all sizes of farms. Where this type of farming has been implemented in the Western Cape, the farms performed better under drought conditions than the farms that did not practice conservation agriculture, says Midgley.
Conservation agriculture is all about diversity and building up soil health and nutrition. There are three pillars of conservation agriculture, she says.
1. Minimise or eliminate tilling
One of the first steps towards implementing conservation agriculture on your farm is to stop ploughing the soil every year, says Midgley.
According to Grain SA there is a multitude of benefits to minimising soil tilling:
- Large and demonstrable savings in machinery.
- Reduced energy use and carbon emissions.
- A rise in organic matter content and biotic activity in the soil.
- Less erosion.
- Increased crop water availability and thus resilience to drought.
- More reliable harvests.
2. Keep the soil covered at all times
Healthier soil with improved structure will improve the water-holding capacity of the soil, according to Midgley. That reduces the amount of water that evaporates from the soil.
By keeping the soil covered with crop residues or cover crops, you maintain the biodiversity of the micro-organisms in the soil, prevent the erosion and loss of valuable topsoil, and protect the roots of your crops.
“Use rotations and a diversity of cover crops,” Midgley advises. “That can include legumes and all sorts of other plants that can add carbon to the soil, keep it covered and add nutrients.”
Crop rotation is an important practice in sustainable agriculture that involves planting different crops in the same area at different times of the year or in different years.
You can even add livestock to that system, which is generally called regenerative agriculture, according to Midgley.
The ARC has a video series on YouTube about conservation agriculture. Watch the first video below:
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