To till, or not to till? That is the question many small to medium-scale farmers may ask. In Africa, farmers understand the importance of regenerative agriculture more than ever before as they see the nutritional characteristics of the soil decline. For many, the choice is clear: There is no choice, only no-till cultivation.

Realistically speaking, choosing no-till methods are not as clear-cut today. Luckily, in the information age, farmers across Africa can feel empowered in their choice as they have access to information about the different methods and can reach specialists who can advise them on the best practices.

Tilling or no-till are still toiling – to some degree

Whether you choose the one or the other, many farmers can argue that the result is still the same: a completely prepared and planted soil bed, ready to sprout after the first rains.

Traditional tilling methods aim to form a fine, porous seedbed without any clods. It uses tools such as ploughs, harrows, tillers, cultivators and at the end of the process, rollers that break up the hard soil crust or hardpan layer and aerate it for roots to easily spread, incorporating organic matter, and enhance soil distribution.

No-till cultivation, however, means just what the description says. None ofthe above equipment is used. For this reason, it is necessary to consider because it involves minimal disturbance of the soil. Instead of turning over the entire field, this method leaves the previous crop residue on the soil surface. No-tilling means that the residue acts as a natural mulch, reducing erosion, improving water retention, and promoting soil structure.

This method also assists in preserving beneficial micro-organisms and fungi in the soil, enhancing overall soil health. The downside, however, is that weeds are harder to control, and specialised equipment is used to drill seeds into the soil. These include seed drills, no-till planters and minimum till-age equipment.

The reason why no-till cultivation is often chosen is because traditional tilling comes with its downsides. One major drawback is the potential for soil erosion. When the soil is exposed, it becomes vulnerable to wind and water erosion, leading to the loss of valuable topsoil. Tilling also disrupts the soil structure, reducing water retention and increasing the risk of drought stress.

No-till cultivation requires specialised planters like this Jumil Global planter.

No-till cultivation has proven itself across Africa

Africa’s agricultural transformation largely depends on the widespread adoption of conservation agriculture and no-till practices, according to Saidi Mkomwa, Executive Director of the African Conservation Tillage Network (ACT). More than 25 African countries have embraced conservation agriculture as a fundamental element of community-supported farming, leading to a remarkable 210% increase in no-tilled hectares since 2008-09. Notably, 99% of these new no-till practitioners are small-scale growers, each cultivating approximately 2½ acres.

In Kenya, no-till has shown potential for a 300% increase in yields, as shared by local farmers who have experienced improvements in crop yields, soil health, and community well-being. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe aims to train nearly 2 million farmers in conservation agriculture, striving to climate-proof agricultural production for the majority of smallholder farmers, who constitute 80% of the farming population.

The history of no-till cultivation in South Africa can be traced back to Dr JB Mallet’s research at Cedara in the 1970’s. His studies in the USA and the UK led to the adoption of no-till technology for South African conditions. No-till involves minimal soil preparation, relying on chemicals for weed control and preserving a uniform mulch cover from the previous crop. Long-term commitment to no-till systems in South Africa has demonstrated profitability through various trials.

Farmers in Uganda, Algeria, Lesotho,  and Zambia have reported environmental and economic benefits from adopting no-till, including improved crop emergence, reduced labour requirements, and enhanced soil structure. Despite its advantages, no-till farming requires specialised equipment such as disc seeders or agricultural drills, with some potential drawbacks, including an initial investment in machinery and a learning curve for farmers transitioning from conventional tillage.

No-till cultivation improves soil health and promotes the soil microbiome too. (Source: Pixabay)

Is no-till cultivation the better choice?

When deciding between tillage and no-till practices for your farm, you must consider factors such as soil health, equipment availability, and costs. The specific characteristics of your soil determine the best practice to adopt. Sandy soils, for instance, benefit from tilling to improve water retention, while heavier clay soils may benefit from the structure-preserving aspects of no-tilling.

Financial implications and available resources can also influence the decision. While tilling equipment may require a substantial initial investment, ongoing costs for fuel and maintenance can add up. No-tilling equipment, although initially pricier, may result in long-term savings and reduced environmental impact.

Furthermore, assess your climate, water management needs, and crop rotation plan. Think about the size of your farm and whether you prefer a system that reduces soil erosion and promotes sustainability. It is wise to consult with local experts and weigh personal preferences and long-term goals. Keep in mind that transitioning to no-till may have a learning curve, so a trial period can help evaluate the practicality and benefits of each method in your specific farming context.

Ultimately, the choice between tilling and no-tilling should align with your long-term sustainability goals. Assess the impact of each method on soil health, water conservation, and overall farm resilience. No-tilling, with its focus on conservation and reduced environmental footprint, often aligns well with sustainable farming practices.

Minimal cultivation is also an option if you are not ready to completely switch to no-till cultivation. This is a ripper with rollers that prepare the soil for the planter through minimal cultivation. (Source: Ripper Tillage Equipment)


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