Getting More Crop Per Drop!
Farmer's Weekly|September 11, 2020
South Africa’s water scarcity and the necessity to import well over one million tons of wheat annually mean that the country’s winter wheat growers increasingly have to optimise their water-use efficiencies. KwaZulu-Natal farmer Egon Zunckel spoke to Lloyd Phillips about his family’s own efforts to achieve higher wheat yield from less water.
Lloyd Phillips

Egon Zunckel and his sons, Tyson and Carl, have been implementing conservation agriculture practices, especially no-till, on their farm’s commercial mixed grains operation since 1996. Yet they continue researching and experimenting with ways to improve on the delicate balancing act of increasing crop yields profitably while using natural resources, such as water, ever more sustainably.

The Zunckels’ 2 150ha farm, Rustenburg, lies 15km north-west of Bergville in KwaZuluNatal. The family produces irrigated winter wheat on about 120ha in rotation with both irrigated and dryland summer crops, typically comprising two-thirds yellow maize and one-third soya bean.

South Africa’s largest wheat-producing region, the Western Cape, receives the bulk of its annual rainfall in autumn and winter, the growing season. By contrast, most of Rustenburg’s 50-year average annual rainfall of 850mm falls in spring and summer. This makes it essential to irrigate winter wheat crops strategically. Zunckel says that before they introduced no-till, the farm’s predominantly Avalon-type arable soils had been prone to capping, poor moisture infiltration, and high water run-off and associated soil erosion. Collectively, these problems were a major contributor to suboptimal production across all of the family’s commodity crops. However, after only 10 years of no-till, in combination with covering soil surfaces with living or dead crop residue, the family were able to double the average level of beneficial soil carbon from approximately 1,4% to 3%. This, according to Zunckel, is similar to the average soil carbon level of virgin soils in the Bergville area. Rustenburg’s average soil organic matter level is approximately 6%.

MULTI-SPECIES COVER CROPS

To further enhance soil health, the Zunckels began planting multi-species cover crops between harvesting and planting the commercial crops. The summer cover crop mix comprises black oats, white oats, cowpeas, babala grass and Japanese radish, while the winter mix consists of white oats, black oats, Japanese radish, turnips, stooling rye and grazing vetch. In addition to their direct benefits, the cover crops are grazed by the family’s 300-head breeding cow Bonsmara-type and Boveldertype commercial beef herd.

The cattle’s dung, urine, saliva and hoof action also improve the soil, and the Zunckels generate additional farm income from the beef.

“We’re increasing the organic and clay colloids, which enhances the soil’s water and nutrient retention characteristics. In effect, we’re creating a bigger ‘bucket’ under the soil surface that can capture and retain more water from rain and supplementary irrigation. It’s especially important to retain as much late summer and autumn rainfall as possible so that this is available for the following winter wheat crop,” explains Zunckel.

ON YOUR MARKS. IRRIGATE. GROW!

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