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How can irrigation and soil fertility be improved while also reducing the environmental impact of farming? The use of no-till methods

Context:

In 2002, Nuno Marques, a Portuguese farmer of beef, cereals, and forestry, in collaboration with the Instituto de Ciências Agrárias e Ambientais Mediterrânicas (ICAAM), young graduates, and irrigation and veterinarian services began a project on his farm. The goal was to find a method of sustainable agricultural intensification that improved irrigation, increased soil fertility, and controlled erosion. The team wanted to decrease the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, reduce water contamination, and increase biodiversity, while reducing the farm’s overall environmental impact. This year Mr. Marques was awarded the European Landowners Organisation Land and Soil Management Award for the success of the project entitled “Creating new land and soil management opportunities under Mediterranean soil and climatic limitations”.

The Mediterranean region experiences a rainy winter season followed by a dry summer season. This cyclical weather pattern results in excess water accumulation in the winter and drought-like conditions in the summer. Widely used agricultural methods such as tillage and pesticide and herbicide use in such a context can lead to low soil organic matter content, loss of soil fertility from erosion, and, during the summer months, expensive and energy-intensive irrigation demands. Fertilizers and nutrients flow off of tilled fields during heavy winter rains leading to local water contamination and river silting which exacerbates flooding. The transport of forage from off the farm when the farm cannot produce sufficient feed during the summer months is energy demanding.

Activities:

In this context, a context found in several mountainous regions across Europe, Nuno Marques’ goal was to create a sustainable farm adapted to the climate. To do so, he and his collaborators combined scientific knowledge of farming and the environment, practical experience, and cross-cultural awareness of no-till methods used in South America to develop a strategy that involved:

  • Sowing crops in the autumn instead of the spring to take advantage of natural rainfall patterns.
  • Use of no-till combined with irrigated forage to make drainage more efficient (irrigation ceases in May so that soil can crack and plant roots can extend down to soil layers where water is naturally stored through the summer).
  • Precise timing of planting, fertilizer application, and crop protection so as to be able to extend the grazing period and reduce demand for off-farm or stored forage.

Results:

Using these methods, Mr. Marques has seen significant results:

  • No-till methods have increased soil fertility and output and decreased fertilizer use.
  • Fields drain more effectively meaning animals can graze in the fields into the rainy season.
  • By timing fertilizer and herbicide application, winter cereal yields have been increased.
  • Forage and grain quantity and quality (protein-content) increased so that more animals could be raised. More animals led to more manure which could be placed on the fields.
  • Energy consumption decreased as less forage had to be brought to the farm.
  • Pesticide use decreased; fewer pesticides flow off fields and contaminate water sources.
  • Plant species diversity has increased. Greater species diversity can protect the farm from pests and ensuing loss of crops.

Mountainous regions face unique and trying agricultural conditions. Fruitful collaborations between farmers, scientists, veterinarians, and irrigation experts as well as adoption of successful farming techniques from across the world can allow farms to increase their productivity and the quality of their products while decreasing their environmental impact. Mr. Marques’ findings are applicable in part or in whole to other regions challenged by variations in rainfall, flooding, and decades of unsustainable agricultural methods.

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28 June 2016

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