MG Lotter, who farms at De Vlei near Caledon in the Western Cape, has experimented in several ways over the years to improve wheat production sustainability. These have even included planting summer cover crops and the use of non-synthetic fertiliser. One of his latest experiments, however, has resulted in a complete re-evaluation of his 1 800ha production system.
Up to a few years ago, he used a winter crop rotation that included a long-term lucerne pasture cycle on all his lands. He then switched from this to a continuous winter crop rotation on the best two-thirds of his lands and permanent mixed medics-lucerne pastures on the remainder.
“The main idea was to reduce input costs and risk by not planting crops on the poorer soils,” he explains.
While a crop mixture can improve soil health, Lotter’s main reason for planting medics and lucerne was to extend the availability of forage on the farm. Medics is available from just after the first winter rain up until October, depending on climatic conditions, while lucerne helps fill the gap that usually occurs in summer.
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
For the first three years, the trial worked well; thereafter, broadleaf weeds started taking over the pasture, leaving very little biomass for the sheep to eat. Lotter asked a number of dairy farmers for their advice, and was told that they planted a medicsclover mixture at least once every four years for optimal production.
This made him think that the same could hold true for the lucerne-medics mixture. So he decided to plant black oats with seed mixes in the pastures, and the results were astonishing. The medics-lucerne combination helped loosen and improve the soil, resulting in a good multi-species crop, and the pasture recovered so well that there was no need to replant it the following year.
In addition, the black oats yield was excellent, a fact that Lotter ascribes to the beneficial impact of the medicslucerne mixture on the soil.
“Lucerne is not that great, but it helps to loosen the soil and keeps the soil active during dry periods. Medics, on the other hand, is amazing, as it helps to fix nitrogen and increase the soil carbon level. But only if you let the medics get to its full potential.”
The crop mix also enabled him to get the broadleaf weeds under control, which helped the pastures recover.
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