Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Building on the benefits of conservation agriculture in North Africa

For the widespread adoption of conservation agriculture (CA) practices the understanding of its economic, agronomic, environmental and social benefits needs to be promoted amongst all stakeholders. A multidisciplinary, multi-institutional and multinational project, Conservation Agriculture for North Africa (CANA), supported by the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR) and implemented by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Area (ICARDA) with partners, worked across its three host countries -Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia - to drive and deepen the understanding of how CA conserves natural resources and cuts down production costs while reducing yield fluctuation and associated risks.

Promoting forage crops in Fernana platform, Tunisia (triticale and Vetch)
Some of the key challenges addressed by this project were changing the mindset of farmers, extensionists and decision makers toward zero tillage (ZT); making ZT machinery affordable and available; and the integration of livestock under CA and the trade-offs of residue management. The project also identified and tested improvements in weed management and enhanced the capacity of NARES staff and other stakeholders to practice and promote CA. A bottom-up approach, with close engagement of farmers, was adopted for the implementation of project activities.

Farmers’ perception and evidence from economic valuation

It was found that the adoption of CA was heavily dependent on the farmers’ perception of technology-specific characteristics about tillage. High price of seeder, unavailability of drill and the excessive drill-rental cost were some of the constraints, exacerbated by the lack of an adequate knowledge level.

However, empirical evidence emerging from economic valuation was important in influencing adoption decisions. In Tunisia, the benefit cost ratio (BCR) was about 2.3 in the case of CA against 1.7 in the conventional system. In Morocco, the adoption of CA system resulted in 12% reduction in production costs for durum wheat. In terms of profitability, the CA system showed about 58% increase in farmers’ net benefit. In Algeria, the BCR ratio was 3.61 under high rainfall system against 2.18 and 1.30 under medium and low rainfall systems, respectively.

Locally manufactured affordable ZT seeding machinery

Local manufacturers were engaged to test and demonstrate machinery to make zero-till drills accessible to farmers. In Algeria, large public companies (CMA and PMAT), are actively involved in CA seeder technology development.  A 20% CA adoption rate in Setif Wilaya alone would require 330-350 seeder units. In Morocco, the industrial partner ATMAR is involved in the development and manufacturing of an eco-seeder and is willing to produce 30 units for the coming cropping season. Two major agricultural equipment importers (Gil and Sola), have imported No-Tillage tine seeders and Gil has already sold eight machines.

Integrated weed management

Growing a forage crop in rotation with other crops reduced weed populations and increased subsequent crop yields without the use of herbicides. In some cases weed seed banks were reduced by almost 50%. Integrated weed management options improved the productivity by 50-90%. Comprehensive Weed Management Guides were produced for each platform.

Benefits of forage options

Forage mixtures (cereals*feed legumes) increased forage production (up to 8t/ha of dry matter), resulting in high quality hay which reduced animal production costs and labour inputs in feeding livestock. In Tunisia, with forage mixture (vetch*triticale) farmers observed a 25% increase in milk yield of the cattle, achieving greater income. New crops tested after wheat (faba bean and mixture triticale*vetch) increased Net Return by 312%, and BCR by 89%.

Building on and moving ahead
Project benefits were disseminated to around five million direct and indirect beneficiaries of which 22% were women. North Africa Network on Conservation Agriculture, an informal network of partners from North Africa and Australia, emerged from this project. Along with capacity building with the Australian expertise, this initiative has also brought together research centres and universities.

CANA project’s innovation platform approach of working with the synergies and complementarities is being used by other on-going projects. It is expected that the consolidation of CA innovation platforms and multi-stakeholder networks in North Africa will lead to a sustainable CA Hub. There is a strong emphasis on pushing ahead with machinery (with Public-Private Partnership), and key lead indicators, e.g. value of forage crops, sowing times, seed rates, and weed management.

Case Study: Integrated Crop-Livestock Solutions
Taoufiq Ben Ammar lives in Chouarnia (district Siliana, Tunisia), where ICARDA and INRAT (Tunisia’s national agricultural research institute) have been collaboratively developing integrated crop-livestock solutions under an IFAD-funded conservation agriculture project in Tunisia, Algeria and Tajikistan within the framework of CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.

Around late spring, when most farmers worry about the expected wheat yield, Taoufiq has 300 well-stacked vetch hay bales inside his barn, surprisingly high for a dry year. This would feed the lambs he wants to sell during Aid-El-Idha. Taoufiq’s fields are cropped under conservation agriculture. “I don't have to plough the land before seeding,” he points to the fuel savings.
INRAT’s Forage Specialist, Salah Ben Youssef, explains that although vetch is an ancient crop in North Tunisia, it is being rediscovered by the farmers in the region as a substitute to cereal stubble grazing under a zero-till cropping package.

Jamel Sahli, another farmer in the neighborhood, is ready to buy the harvest of vetch hay. Last year, he observed that when the ewes were allowed to graze vetch, there was a "burst" in the frequency of females displaying estrus, in contrast to when they were fed cereal stubble.

Vetch grazing can provide a synchronous provision of energy and protein which is highly beneficial to ovarian follicular growth and oocyte quality.

"We plan to set-up a flock monitoring and data collection scheme to quantify the effect of vetch grazing on sheep reproduction by retrospectively assigning the lambing data (fertility and litter size) to the nature of grazing material during mating time," says Mourad Rekik, small ruminant production scientist at ICARDA. The results will feed into better integration of crop-livestock systems and further scaling out of zero-till package amongst farmers.

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