Farmer Focus: South African ploughed field proves no-till is best

Summer has arrived in the southern hemisphere and it is now time to plant. As I have no irrigation, I am totally dependent on rain for my farming existence.

It is up to me to manage the rain that I receive to its best potential. The previous two seasons have been drought years, with last year being the worst on record.

Despite this, the last two crops have been good and fair respectively. I largely put this down to the fact that I have been no-tilling my fields for the past 20-plus years and, in more recent years, have been growing cover crops.

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The drought has caused the prices of our crops to rise, which has more than offset the lack of yield.

I have recently purchased another piece of land which, unfortunately, required a lot of lime. For this lime to be effective, it had to be ploughed in.

This scar on the earth left it vulnerable to an African storm. That rainstorm came, twice. In two days I received two storms of 40mm each.

I am not complaining about the rain, it is an absolute godsend. Those two storms caused the water to run and wash out little runnels in places.

The intensity of the rain also caused the sandy soil to cap. A few days later, while we were planting that field, a strong wind blew. It was like a mini dust bowl. 

To me, that field was an exception, I was forced to plough it this once and hopefully never again. To most South African farmers, tillage is the norm.

They don’t see what damage they are causing (probably blinded by the dust engrained in their eyes). When I see what damage was caused in one season of turning the soil, there is absolutely no way that tillage can be sustainable.

When I go back to conventional tillage, I am more resolute than ever that no-till combined with cover crops is the only way forward, both form an economic and environmental point of view. 

Bruce Shepherd farms in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He plants 320ha of rain-fed summer crops. He also runs 2,200 weaner oxen on pastures, finishing them in a feedlot with maize grown on the farm.

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