Cover cropping in South Africa continues to evolve and grow as more and more farmers from all cropping disciplines embrace the universal concepts of this conservation agriculture technique.
Written by Simon Hodgson
Examining roots of a multi species cover crop in Moorreesburg, Western Cape
The change of thinking which is demanded when considering cover cropping, seems to be happening more and more easily as farmers show themselves how to implement a successful cover cropping strategy. Farmers across the country from large grain, small grain, plantation and livestock enterprises are realising that their soils can be rehabilitated using this ancient practice. As farmer implementation grows so the commercialisation of cover cropping has to expand as well. In a conversation I had with a leading Bothaville farmer – Mr. Jaapie Grobler – some years ago he said
“If the maize industry fully accepts and implements cover cropping in SA then the seed companies are going to have to make a plan to increase supply of cover crop seed”
He was exactly right.
Supply of cover crop seed has increased over the years to meet farmer demands with more and more agents, distributors and technical sales staff servicing the needs of the industry.
When cover cropping was starting to gain popularity in the early 2000’s the cultivars available were limited with Crotalaria juncea or Sunn Hemp being the most popular warm season cover crop and Avena strigosa or Black oats the most popular cool season variety in the sugar industry in KwaZulu Natal.
Nowadays, across all disciplines things have changed and there are numerous cover cropping seed options available. As farmers have become more and more skilled in the use of cover crops the performance of the cover crop, has had to improve. Initially the use of single species planting was most popular. Modern thinking is that mixed cover crops benefit the soil better by increasing biodiversity both above and below the ground – so trends have shifted to mixed plantings. The species that make up the mix now all have a role to play and each one is included in the mix for the characteristics of that particular cover crop species.
Consider that a maize farmer plants a particular cultivar of maize for the traits of that cultivar. He deliberates his area, his soil, his rainfall, his planting and harvesting method, plant population, fertiliser requirements, marketing, yellow or white, GMO, Non GMO to name but a few of the choices he has to make when thinking what to plant.
Cover cropping and the selection of cover crops is following the same trend. Farmers are becoming more specific in their reasons for planting a cover crop. Accuracy in what is being aimed for and what the cover crop has to produce is all important. To improve the precision of a cover cropping undertaking the traits of the cover crop species has to be known and they have to fit precisely the end goal of the cover cropping strategy.
The introduction of livestock to utilise the animal food produced by the cover crop has also transformed thinking and the cost effectiveness of a cover cropping approach. Mixes are being formulated not only for grazing or for conserved fodder but also for soil conservation and improved soil health.
Formal research is being carried out by reputable South African universities to this end, as farmers are looking more and more for explanations as to why they are getting the results that they are and how they can be improved upon. Interplanting of cover crops into maize and other cash crops is being studied from a soil health, yield and grazing potential of the cover crops. Unpublished results gathered so far show promising potential for this concept in a South African situation.
Commercial cover crop seed suppliers have to expand their offerings in the cover crop seed market and provide improved varieties and cultivars as well as agronomic advice and information to farmers. These diverse options are increasing cost effectiveness, improving soil health and promoting accuracy in achieving the desired outcomes.