Farmer Focus: Crops protected with wider firebreak

It is winter in South Africa and where I farm, winter is characterised by absolutely no rain, very cold frosty nights and warm sunny days. 

Winters here would be quite pleasant were it not for all the wind we now get. Very dusty, “grit in your eyes all day” kind of wind. The sand in your eyes, ears, nostrils and everywhere else is not the worst part of it, as this wind can bring fire.

In order to prevent a runaway fire we burn strategic firebreaks. The burning of firebreaks is very dirty and labour intensive work. It is also nerve racking as you don’t want the embers of your firebreak to start the next one.

See also: A regional guide to OSR variety choices for autumn 2019

Last year, a fire burnt out a portion of my farm and the wind was so strong that it jumped the firebreak that I had in place. No livestock was injured in the blaze, but there was significant damage on the arable fields. 

Fortunately the maize had been harvested, but the residue serves to protect the sandy soil from wind erosion. In the short term, the best way to prevent the wind from scouring the soil surface is to roughen it with a disc or tine implement.

By roughening the surface I had only alleviated the short-term erosion problem. As a no-till farmer, I need the crop residues on the soil surface for the summer growing season. This mulch improves rain infiltration, prevents soil erosion and reduces evaporation.

In order to grow a quick mulch, I broadcasted some wheat in front of the disc cultivator. This wheat then lay dormant in the dry soil until the first spring rain arrived and then it rapidly grew. 

I recently harvested the maize grown after this improvised cover crop and the yield on the burnt area was a little down compared with the unburnt section.

However, I feel that the cover crop did the trick, preventing erosion and protecting the little maize plants from sand blasting.

This year my firebreak is wider than last year and I hope that it isn’t needed but that if it is tested, it will hold back the fire.