Ethiopia: Crop rotation, intercropping, and mulching help farmers improve soil fertility and productivity
At first, Yonas Ugi was hesitant to start laying down crop residues on his farmland as mulch. He feared that, because he also needed crop residues to feed his animals, this conservation agriculture practice was not compatible with raising livestock.
Mulching improves soil structure and helps retain moisture in the soil by stopping it from evaporating into the air. It also suppresses weeds. This results in better yields.
Mr. Ugi lives in Damot Weyde in the Wolayta zone of southern Ethiopia. When an extension worker visited to teach him how to use crop residues as mulch, Mr. Ugi didn’t miss a word. But he was skeptical. He told the extension worker that mulching would starve his livestock because crop residues are scarce. In his area, farmers use banana, maize, avocado, and pigeon pea leaves and stems as animal feed.
He says: “I was not pleased with [the] mulching practice, but I had to give it a try. When I started, my three oxen came and ate all the maize and pigeon pea crop residues that were laid down on the ground in my field.” Mr. Ugi was so devastated that he wondered whether he could ever effectively practice mulching.
He says: “Keeping away the animals from the farm was very difficult for me, but the extension worker told me that I should have a grass field [pasture] for my animals to feed [on], thereby saving my crop residues for mulching.”
Mr. Ugi was also advised that, instead of using all the aboveground parts of the crop for mulching, he should use just the stems as mulch and feed his animals the soft, dry leaves.
He also discovered that he could acquire more crop residues from neighbouring farms who were not using all of their crop residues.
After following the extension worker’s advice, Mr. Ugi found the key to combining livestock farming and mulching. He reserved land for a pasture and built a fence around the field where he grows crops with mulch.
Mr. Ugi explains, “After our discussion, I fenced my 50-square-metre farm to block the animals from eating the crop residues. Now the problem is gone.”
Genet Penta is another farmer who is combining the same practices.
Mrs. Penta explains: “Three years ago, my two oxen came to my farm and ate crop residues. But after I started practicing mulching on my farm, I do not allow the animals to enter in the field … I prepared [a] small plot where I pile grasses and other crop residues as feed for the animals so that they don’t come in my farm to look for feed.”
She says that, though mulching seemed impossible at first because there are so many livestock in her area, it has helped boost her family’s food security and income.
She adds: “Two years ago, getting [enough] maize to feed my husband and two children was unthinkable. We were spending some money to buy food at the market. But now … we are growing potatoes, cabbage, and maize under mulching, which is giving us money for our family.”
Tilahun Bergena works as the supervisor at Table Development Association in Ethiopia. He says that the two challenges that make it difficult for farmers to practice mulching are a shortage of crop residues and a lack of animal feed.
Mr. Bergena explains: “No one in the area has fully covered his land with crop residues. The residues farmers get from the crops is not enough for mulching and animal feed. But in the future, as the farmers get more production from mulching, they will get more residues which will help them to cover more land in their fields and keep other residues as feed for their animals.”
Mr. Ugi is happy that he is able to rear livestock at the same time as practicing mulching. Before starting to intercrop pigeon peas and maize and use mulch, he used to grow maize only and harvested not more than 70 kilograms per year. He says, “Now it is ok because mulching is giving me at least three quintals (300 kilograms) of maize and a quintal (100 kilograms) of pigeon peas.”
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.