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Pandamatenga: Tillage or no-tillage?

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Today, the Pandamatenga farming area covers almost 40,000 hectares. The Botswana government cleared 25,000 hectares of bush in 1984 to make way for the farmers. Before that the whole area was covered in grassland savanna and Mopane shrubland. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Pandamatenga: Tillage or no-tillage?

The soils in the Pandamatenga farming region in Botswana needs intensive management to continue producing satisfactory yields.  

By Leon Louw founder and editor of WhyAfrica

The Pandamatenga farming area in northern Botswana was established in 1984 when the government allocated an initial 25,000 hectares of virgin bush to commercial farmers.

The aim was to increase the country’s cereal production and boost food security. With fertile black cotton soils and annual rainfall of more than 600mm Pantamatenga was the most suitable area in Botswana for crop production.

The total Pandamatenga region covers a land area of almost 280,380 hectares of which, today, more than 40,000 hectares is farmed.

The area is flat, with a gentle slope and rainwater flows following natural drainage routes. The vegetation is extensive grassland savanna in association with Mopane (Colophospermum mophane) and thornbush.

In 2002 the government put up a fence around the Pandamatenga farms to keep wildlife out as animals like elephant, eland and kudu destroyed the crops. Today, wildlife migrating from the Chobe system in the north to the Botswana interior, is still a challenge, although the electric fence has limited damage to crops by wildlife. It comes at a high cost though, as farmers pay high levies towards maintaining the fence.

According to Mataba Tapela, Executive Director, Natural Resources and Materials at the Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI) another big challenge for farmers in the area has always been managing the vertisol soils using conventional tillage systems to produce satisfactory crop yield.

Vertisols such as the ones found in the Pandamatenga region are considered good farming soils, but they also have unique properties that require special management if full yield is to be realised. Most farmers in the area practiced conventional tillage to grow sorghum, sunflower and the occasional cotton. Conventional tillage means a lot of energy input and carbon emissions. It also often results in the degradation of soil.

In the research paper: Potential for no-tillage agriculture in the Pandamatenga vertisols of Botswana, Tapela and co-authors B. Kayombo and F. Pule-Meulenberg, argue that no-tillage methods might be better, although when they wrote the article, research in the area just got underway. “Minimising energy-related inputs of tillage, fertilisers, and monitoring changes in the physical, chemical and biological status of the soil are major areas that deserve attention,” they wrote.

The problem with no-tillage methods, on the other hand, is that it involves and promotes a reliance on herbicides and cover crops to suppress weed growth. The environmental effects of herbicides can be detrimental, and caution and more research are needed if this method is to be applied. However, the damage to soil caused by conventional tillage can be long lasting and detrimental to the entire area.

“Under a conventional tillage system, the whole field is ploughed using either a moldboard or disc ploughs followed by 1 to 2 harrowings before seeding. This system destroys soil structure leading to problems related to soil degradation and compaction,” says Tapela.

Soil compaction is caused by high field machinery traffic as well as continuous cropping that result in an increased exposure of soils to high intensity storms. The result in the long term is a decline in crop yields.

Problems of accelerated soil erosion, high costs of energy inputs, and low yields return associated with conventional tillage methods of seedbed preparation have led to increasing adoption of no-tillage systems for production of row crops. Research is ongoing.

Research will become increasingly important in the Pandamatenga area in the future. Utilising the most efficient farming methods, preserving the soil structure and minimising water loss are key to improve crop yields in an area of southern Africa where climate change is expected to have a significant impact.

Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in the extraction and responsible utilisation of natural resources, the primary sector of African economies and Africa’s political economy. 

WhyAfrica does research, and reports about, natural resources and the primary sectors of African economies, and the infrastructure, equipment and engineering methods needed to extract and utilise these resources in an efficient, responsible, sustainable, ethic and environmentally friendly way, so that it will benefit the people of Africa.

Furthermore, WhyAfrica promotes Africa as an investment and travel destination, analyses the continent’s business environment and investment opportunities, and reports on how the political economy of African countries affects its development.         

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