Benefits of no-till farming

2008-07-25 00:00

The fertiliser industry is going through a torrid time. With the huge increase in international demand for commodities the price of fertiliser has soared.

A midlands farmer who paid R1,5 million for his fertiliser last year is now having to pay more than R4 million this year for the same amount of fertiliser. No wonder the farmers are feeling very scratchy about the forthcoming production year.

Unfortunately the suppliers of fertiliser often have to bear the brunt of the farmers’ frustration. What is even more unfortunate is that the fertiliser representatives, the people who have supplied fertiliser and valuable information to these farmers for many years, are in the front line.

Many of these reps are highly qualified agronomists and have put years of effort into serving their farmers. It is very sad to see the pain that these people go through when the majority of them are dedicated to seeing farmers survive and prosper.

Of course it is not only the reps that are taking strain but also the large fertiliser companies that employ them.

It is quite understandable that the farmers are frustrated with the increases in their input costs over the past year, but maybe they should give some thought to those who service them because they are also going through similar frustrations. Life is tough for everyone in the value chain.

It is at times like this that we should all take some time to consider everyone in the production process.

On Tuesday this week the large fertiliser company Omnia, based outside Howick in the old Stockowners office block, made an effort to put back something into their client base. An impressive farmers’ day was held by Omnia at the Royal Agricultural Showgrounds in Pietermaritzburg that was attended by 300 farmers.

Doug Stubbs, general manager of Omnia for the east coast region, organised a fascinating group of speakers for the day with the main topic being no-till farming. For the uninitiated, no-till is a relatively new concept of farming even though it has been around for almost 40 years. Conventional preparation of the soil involves ploughing up the soil whereas no-till is related to minimising mechanical disturbance of the soil and maximising organic matter placement on the soil surface.

The advantages of this procedure are enormous and these were attested to by Roberto Peiretti, president of the American Confederation of Organisations for Sustainable Agriculture. Peiretti was invited to South Africa by Omnia from his home in Cordoba in Argentina, where no-till farming practices are used in most of the enormous cultivated areas. Where South Africa produces 10 million tons of maize Argentina produces close to 100 million tons.

Local maize specialist Mart Farina opened the day, giving an outline of the history of no-till in KwaZulu-Natal. Change for the good is brought about by people and Farina paid tribute to those who had played an important role in this regard. John Mallet introduced the concept into Cedara and research began in 1968, involving Bill Berry and Peter Lang.

Many will remember Dougie Strachan, the first farmer in KZN to use no-till farming. According to Farina, the great breakthrough came around in about 1993 when “trash managers” were brought to South Africa to tell us how to manage crops growing on land covered by organic matter.

In 1995 Rene Stubbs, from the Karkloof, introduced no-till on his farm and has never looked back. Stubbs gave an excellent presentation on the realities, technicalities and advantages of practising no-till on his farm.

The KZN no-till club was formed in 1997 through the efforts of Anthony Muirhead, John Mallett and Bill Russell. Aubrey Venter was the driving force behind the process and has produced four excellent publications on the subject.

From 2001 rotational farming with maize and soya beans was researched by Guy Thibaud and Tony Matchett at Cedara. In addition, Omnia Fertiliser Company has a strong research programme as well.

To give balance on the day, Omnia also invited J. P. Landman, a political and trend analyst, to talk on the subject: “Prospects for the post-Mbeki era”. As usual, Landman gave a very positive scenario for South Africa’s future. It was obvious that not all the farmers agreed with his optimism but he backed up his ideas with some strong information. It was fascinating stuff, but it will have to wait until next week.

In conclusion, farmers may blame the fertiliser companies for the high cost of fertiliser but at the same time consumers will blame farmers for high food prices. Who is to blame? If there is a shortage of commodities on the international market, prices will rise whether we like it or not. Let us acknowledge the positive efforts that the service companies like Omnia and its staff provide in these tough times. Don’t shoot the messengers.

• Alastair Paterson is an agricultural consultant. He can be contacted at 033 330 4817, 082 880 9002 or e-mail


If you want to find out more about the no-till or zero-tillage method of farming visit:




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