Conservation Agriculture: A Focus on the Grains Industry

What is conservation agriculture? How is it important for both industry and individual farmers?

To answer these questions and better understand the importance of conservation agriculture within the grains industry, we spoke to Dr Hendrik Smith, the Conservation Agriculture Facilitator for Grain SA. 

What is conservation agriculture in the grains industry and why is it important?

Conservation Agriculture (CA) is an approach to managing agro-ecosystems for improved and sustained productivity, increased profits and food security while preserving and enhancing the resource base and the environment. CA is characterized by three linked principles, namely:

  1. Continuous minimum mechanical soil disturbance.
  2. Permanent organic soil cover.
  3. Diversification of crop species grown in sequences and/or associations.

CA principles are universally applicable to all agricultural landscapes and land uses with locally adapted practices. CA enhances biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below the ground surface. Soil interventions such as mechanical soil disturbance are reduced to an absolute minimum or avoided, and external inputs such as agrochemicals and plant nutrients of mineral or organic origin are applied optimally and in ways and quantities that do not interfere with, or disrupt, the biological processes.

CA facilitates good agronomy, such as timely operations, and improves overall land husbandry for rainfed and irrigated production. Complemented by other known good practices — including the use of quality seeds, and integrated pest, nutrient, weed and water management, etc. — CA is a base for sustainable agricultural production intensification. It opens increased options for integration of production sectors, such as crop-livestock integration and the integration of trees and pastures into agricultural landscapes.

Why has Grain SA decided to support a transition to conservation agriculture and what are the implications for the industry as well as for the individual farmers?

In South Africa, crop production systems based on intensive and continuous soil tillage have led to excessively high soil degradation rates in grain producing areas. This adds to the growing problems with profitability and poverty in some of the rural areas. If we have to offer farmers a better chance to survive on the farm, and if sustainable and economically viable agriculture is to be achieved, then the paradigms of agriculture production and management must be changed.

There is general agreement among key stakeholders in SA, that the reversal of environmental degradation processes, such as soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and climate change, as well growing problems with profitability and poverty, will be achieved through the adoption and implementation of CA. CA is seen as an ideal system for sustainable and climate-smart agricultural intensification, through which farmers can attain higher levels of productivity and profitability (i.e. or ‘green prosperity’) while improving soil health and the environment.