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Use Technology in Maize Agriculture

Maize is of particular importance in South Africa, because it is a staple crop. Maize agriculture accordingly plays a pivotal role in food security, constituting of about 70% of grain production in South Africa. It is estimated that 60% of the population directly depends on agriculture for their livelihood. Against this backdrop, it is forecast that the mean rainfall over the next 50 years, will decrease by as much as 5–10% (Durand 2006). The Mvula Trust is therefore undertaking a study that is focused on increasing the water use efficiency in rain-fed as well as irrigated maize agriculture, without decreasing yield productivity in Limpopo province.

Background

Food security is one of the key requirements to long-term and sustainable economic growth in South Africa. The expected imbalance in food demand due to poor crop yields, scarcity in surface water resources, and the projected increase in population pose a great challenge to future economic growth. Just over the last season, maize production in South Africa decreased by approximately 15% from the previous season. It has long been accepted that in order to enhance food security under our dwindling water resources and the changing climate regimes, that a new approach is urgently required. Climate change is upon us and the challenges in water scarcity are developing rapidly. Our ability to develop and apply sustainable water use techniques will therefore determine the state of food security both at present and the future.

Current Scenario

At present, the challenges experienced by farmers include the aridity of the agro-ecological zones, the unreliability at the onset of the planting season as well as at the end of the growing season. In-season dry spells, declining water resources, changing climate, and poor agronomic water use are some of the additional challenges experienced by all farmers.

To date, fixed-time crop calendars are in use that advices farmers on the planting and irrigation process that are linked to specific seasonality, ground conditions and other factors. The variability in the seasonal conditions are however making it impossible to use those calendars. Even under conditions where supplementary irrigation is used, as is the case in most agro-ecological regions of South Africa, precipitation constitutes the major source of water.

The Challenge

Both rain fed and irrigated crops require the efficient use of available soil moisture, but lack of comprehensive cropping guidelines that are adapted to the current changing climatic and other farming conditions; means that the crops will still be exposed to poor germination and low crop yield levels (Hussein, 1987; de Jong, 1993). Considering these challenges, better on-farm operational decision-support systems are needed. It is also important however that these tools are technically simple in order to allow for ease of use by farmers.

The Approach

The research study is dealing with three key aspects that include building scientific knowledge, the development of new water management tools, as well as capacity building. In building scientific knowledge, critical gaps in water budgets in rain-fed and irrigated maize production will be identified, based on different soil types, maize varieties, and climatic as well as the different weather conditions.

The second aspect deals with the development of easy-to-use operational water management tools based on the analyses in aspect one. In this phase, two sets of experiments are taking place for the development of simplified operational weather-based crop calendars and evaluation; based on soil types, maize growing areas, and climatic conditions. The third aspect involves performing field trials with volunteer famers, as well as training farmers on how to use simple, operational, weather-based, cropping calendars for different maize varieties and different soil regimes.

The study includes novel exploratory experiments in order to collect indigenous knowledge, as well as the integration of the findings in order to obtain the guidelines needed to develop operational water management tools. Outcomes of the research study include the development of new maps of agro-climatic zones and the exchange of technology and methods between scientist(s) and farmers. Capacity building will take place at both a personal and community level, the empowerment of farmers with better tools and techniques and the publication of the research results for information dissemination purposes; are other outcomes of the study.

… the empowerment of farmers with better water techniques …