Farming in harmony with nature - FutureFarming

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Farming in harmony with nature

Arthur Gray
Tony Matchett is an ardent proponent of No-Till, claiming that in his case, it has resulted in massive cost savings due to the reduction in horsepower requirement, reduced erosion and increased water infiltration.

Tony, one of the founding members of the KwaZulu-Natal No-Till club, has been farming since 1967 and for the past 27 years he has been at Benson Farming in the Karkloof Valley in the KZN Midlands, South Africa. He is the Agricultural Manager for Benson’s where he has operated a No-Till system for 20 consecutive years. During this time there has been no ripping or any other form of land preparation other than on the headlands where there is a certain amount of compaction caused by vehicles turning. No-Till has resulted in the creation of excellent soil structures, a proliferation of earthworms and myriads of other organisms. Soil clay percentages average about 50% and organic carbons around 3.5%. This means that organic matter is about 6%.

Planting through the heavy trash. Photo: Martin Adams
Planting through the heavy trash. Photo: Martin Adams

1.25 million worms

After 3 years of No-Till a High School science project conducted very methodically by Jessica Matchett, Tony’s daughter, discovered that compared to conventionally tilled neighbouring lands, the No-Till fields on Shannon farm had substantially more worms per square metre. In fact the count, extrapolated to ‘worms per hectare’, went from less than 20,000 worms per hectare on the conventionally tilled fields, to more than 1.25 million in the fields that had been under No-Till for just 3 years. In the final paragraph of her report Jessica quoted Charles Darwin, “The plough is one of the most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was being, and still continues to be ploughed – by earthworms” - 1881.

No irrigation possible

There is no irrigation, all crops are dryland. The annual rainfall on this farm is 1,200mm, although for the past 4 years it has only been 800mm. The area farmed is 700ha with an 800 sow pig production unit as the core business. There is also a 400 head Red Angus beef breeding herd. 200ha of maize is grown for use in the pig unit and also for an in-house business manufacturing specialised horse feed. These are mixed on the farm and approximately 600 tons of top quality feed per month is sold to racehorse breeders and other horse enterprises. Land unsuitable for cropping is established to kikuyu pastures.

Tony Matchett with a soil sample, checking the worms! Photo: Martin Adams
Tony Matchett with a soil sample, checking the worms! Photo: Martin Adams

Yield has nearly doubled with No-Till regime

Maize is planted with a 6-row John Deere 2111 planter pulled by a 92kW John Deere tractor. Planting rate is 75,000 plants/ha at a 760mm row spacing. A custom blended granular fertiliser is applied by the planter. Some 20 years ago, before commencing the No-Till regime, average yield was 6 ton/ha. It has now almost doubled to more than 11 tons/ha. The cultivar currently giving the best yields unfortunately requires spaying for blight up to 4 times a season but this isn’t a problem for the farm’s John Deere 4730 self-propelled sprayer. This machine has revolutionised spraying operations thanks to its high tech capabilities with GPS swath control.

Harvesting the tall maize crop. Photo: Martin Adams
Harvesting the tall maize crop. Photo: Martin Adams

Aiming for less than 10%surface acidity

A John Deere S660 6-row combine takes care of harvesting. This is equipped with GPS yield mapping and moisture recording telemetry. The maps are used to identify areas of weak yield; these are subjected to soil sampling and the necessary corrective measures taken. A hand held GPS device is used to flag areas due for corrective treatment. Dolomitic Lime is used to correct surface acidity and Gypsum if sub surface acidity is detected. These materials are surface applied and due to the high infiltration rate caused by the vastly improved levels of organic matter in the soil, it is not necessary to work them in. All unnecessary infield traffic is avoided in order to prevent compaction. The thousands of channels created by the earthworms and decaying roots from previous crops facilitate movement into the soil profile. The aim is to have surface acidity of less than 10% and sub soil acidity close to zero. The combine is equipped with trash spreaders that ensure an even cover of maize stover. It also has ‘stalk stampers’ on the header in order to reduce damage that could be caused to vehicle tyres by the maize stalks.

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