Boeboe Louw, owner of the farm Bloudrif on the banks of the Vaal River in the Wesselsbron district, has been producing lucerne under irrigation from the river for the past 15 years. Initially, he planted the crop to provide feed for his dairy herd. But after he stopped milking a few years later, he decided to continue with lucerne, and even increase production. With access to ample water and good soil, he was keen to take advantage of the ever-increasing demand for the crop.
“Despite the fact that I have to spend a relatively large sum to re-establish the lands every five years, lucerne production remains decidedly more profitable for me than crops such as maize and sunflower. The only prerequisite is enough water,” he says. Lucerne, a perennial summer legume, is well adapted to almost all areas of South Africa, but prefers deep, well-drained soils with a neutral to high pH.
On Bloudrif, approximately 180ha are planted to lucerne, irrigated by 10 pivots that each cover between 10ha and 35ha.
“A neighbour of mine recently had the water quality tested and I’m glad to say that it was good,” says Louw.
The lucerne receives about 40mm a week (four days of irrigation followed by a three-day break) for four weeks. Irrigation is then withheld for a week before the lucerne is harvested. Louw harvests seven times a season, resulting in an annual water requirement of between 800mm and 1 200mm, which averages about R7 700/ha/year at present.
Irrigation is adjusted according to the weather. Louw explains that lucerne struggles with extremes: dry weather or an excess of water.
“The plants don’t like to stand with their feet in water,” he says. This makes heavy clay soils and a shallow water table unsuitable for lucerne production.
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