Farmers improve yields with traditional soil-building practices that restore and fertilize damaged soils
Grace and Daniel Zephania are middle-aged farmers who entered into farming in a unique way. The husband and wife team were the largest livestock keepers in Azimio, a small village 20 miles north of Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania.
Like many other livestock keepers in the village, cattle are their greatest source of income. But the couple also farms, and got into farming when they purchased 20 hectares 15 years ago. The two enterprises are linked, with one often subsidizing the costs of the other.
For example, a large farm can generate high costs for equipment, labour, and inputs. The Zephanias often sell cattle to finance these expenses.
But today, the Zephanias know that, to make the most of both livestock keeping and farming, they need to separate the two businesses, at least when it comes to the soil.
In the past, the Zephanias didn’t worry about where to graze their cattle, and simply let them wander loose on farmland. This was common in Azimio. Mrs. Zephania adds, “Sometimes we would pay neighbours to allow our cattle to graze on their harvested fields.”
But over time, their crop yields fell. The Zephanias blamed climate change, and sold some cattle to cover their losses. But three years ago, the couple learned that their poor yields were partly due to their mixed enterprises. Allowing cattle to graze on their fields after the harvest was a big mistake.
The cattle increased soil erosion and, as their hooves compacted the soil, made it more difficult for the soil to hold water. In the long run, the Zephanias harvested less and less.
The cattle grazed on plant residues. Mrs. Zephania says that allowing cattle to graze on farmland made the soil dry, and made it more difficult for the soil to hold water when it rained.
They learned this valuable lesson from the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, an NGO that educates farmers on conservation agriculture, and the impact of livestock on the soil.
Lawrence Lwanje is the monitoring and evaluation officer with the Diocese of Central Tanganyika. He explains that, when soil is compacted, it is difficult for new shoots to penetrate the soil and emerge. Also, the soil does not drain as well. When the soil is full of water, pools form after rainfall.
Conservation agriculture involves minimum or zero tillage, which minimizes turning of the soil, even during planting. The Zephanias plant medium- and early-maturing varieties of white millet and sorghum, which mature quickly and better withstand changes in rainfall. But the Zephanias do not plow their field when planting.
The Diocese of Central Tanganyika is having an impact with their message. Mr. Lwanje explains, “Farmers are now changing. They are no longer grazing on their farmland.”
Instead, the villages where farmers are practicing conservation agriculture have set aside special areas for grazing, and impose penalties on farmers who let their cattle graze on farmers’ fields. Depending on the size of the field, fines vary from 20,000 Tanzanian shillings ($9 US) per hectare for goats and sheep, to 50,000 Tanzanian shillings ($22 US) per hectare for cattle. The penalties also reduce conflict between farmers and cattle owners.
Jane Daudi is a farmer who is benefiting from this change. She has noticed improved yields on her three-and-a-half acre farm, located in Chihanga village. She says, “I used to harvest less than five sacks of white millet. Now I am sure to harvest 30 sacks.”
She says her village’s penalty for grazing livestock on farmland is working. She adds, “I urge the government to help spread the knowledge to ensure food security across the country.”
Grace and Daniel Zephania in their field
This work was created with the support of Canadian Foodgrains Bank as part of the project, “Conservation Agriculture for building resilience, a climate smart agriculture approach.” This work is funded by the Government of Canada, through Global Affairs Canada, www.international.gc.ca