No Till Farming

Wattled-Cranes-on-Gartmore

Wattled Cranes on Gartmore by Charlie McGillivray.

Britt and Rene Stubbs moved to the Karkloof valley in 1986. Britt describes the changes on their farms over the years.

Denleigh was a beef and maize farm at the time, but we developed it into a dairy farm, planting maize, soya beans, potatoes and carrots using conventional tillage methods. It soon became clear that this type of land use was leading to severe erosion, increased soil pests, proliferation of weeds and serious wear and tear on equipment. Seventeen years ago we decided to convert to No-Till for the maize silage, cover crops and autumn pasture establishment.

The positive results have been overwhelming! We have enjoyed increased yields from healthier soils due to an increase in earthworms and a decrease in soil pests. In addition to the commercial advantages (significant fuel savings) of converting to No-Till, we have observed positive environmental changes: improved water quality and availability; increased food sources and cover for wildlife; the return of indicator species and reduced erosion. We enjoy regular sightings of all three crane species and have a resident pair of Blue Cranes which have been breeding here for a number of years. We hardly ever saw cranes when we first arrived, but now, with most of the large-scale farmers having converted to No-Till, the increase in crane sightings has been significant.

We took a conscious decision not to plant trees on veld which had been granted a timber permit. Choosing instead to rehabilitate 200ha of contiguous mistbelt Themeda veld to regain its biodiversity and secure the farm’s water supply. Livestock was taken off the predominantly Aristida veld and a carefully managed burning regime was introduced. 26 years later there is a significant increase in Themeda cover and many other plant species have re-appeared. This area now hosts many wildlife species, including cranes, grass owls, Natal red rock rabbits, porcupines, ant bears, mongooses, genets, cervals, oribi, reedbuck and duiker.

Six years ago, we bought a neighbouring farm Bartersfield, also a beef farm which we have converted to dairy. As oribi occur here, we leave one of the four veld paddocks unburnt every year to provide cover for them. We have found that if the paddocks are not burnt in regular rotation the veld becomes moribund and overgrown, which prevents the healthy regeneration of Themeda and other plant species. Late autumn block-burning (particularly after rain) has proven to be the ideal time to burn the veld. This ensures that the fire is not too hot and doesn’t damage the Themeda. Burning in spring (in the absence of early spring rains) can destroy the growing tips and seeds of the Themeda which sets the plants back.

We have found that the reedbuck, bushbuck, duiker and, to a lesser extent, the oribi have adapted very easily to feeding on the ryegrass pastures which we have established. What a privilege it is to farm in harmony with the Midlands wildlife.

Neighbour, Charlie McGillivray adds “There is no doubt that in my 39 years of farming on Gartmore, the advent of No-Till farming has been one of the most gratifying experiences. My property has an agreement with the KZN Biodiversity Stewardship Programme (facilitated by the Midlands Conservancies Forum Biodiversity Stewardship Project) which illustrates clearly that farming and conservation can co-exist. I encourage as many farmers as possible, to engage in the Stewardship programme. It is, after all, our custodianship that will provide for those that follow us.”

More: www.midlandsconservancies.org.za/
Parts of this article first appeared in the KZN Crane Foundation Newsletter.