Conservation Agriculture (CA)

Conservation Agriculture (CA)

Importance of Conservation Agriculture

Soil degradation is one of many environmental problems caused by tillage and unsuitable agricultural practices. These practices are continuing unabated under maize-based crop-livestock systems in South Africa and poses a major threat to the sustainability of agriculture, food production and national security (Borrelli et al., 2017; Le Roux et al., 2008). Impacts can be severe, not only through soil erosion and fertility loss, but through a conspicuous number of off-site effects (e.g., sedimentation, siltation and eutrophication of water ways or enhanced flooding) and climate change.

As part of a growing body of scientists, practitioners and stakeholders, De Wit et al. (2015) supported the argument that these conventional (tillage-based) farming systems in South Africa are not sustainable, expressing the need for more sustainable agricultural production systems. These systems should focus on fostering synergies between agricultural production, conservation and enhancing rural livelihoods. As an alternative to conventional farming systems, Conservation Agriculture (CA) is gaining acceptance in many parts of the world (Kassam et al., 2015), as a proven sustainable and cost-effective production system.

CA refers to an agricultural management system based on the simultaneous application of three principles: minimum mechanical soil disturbance, an organic soil cover throughout the year and the use of crop and animal diversity, including crop rotations and associations, as well as livestock integration. These principles enhance natural biological processes above and below ground and involves interventions where soil tillage is reduced to an absolute minimum. The use of external inputs such as agrochemicals and mineral supplements are applied at an optimum level, at quantities and in a manner that does not interfere with or disrupt biological processes. However, CA leads to improved ecosystems’ functioning that helps to reduce the use of and dependency on external inputs.

CA constitutes a production system that is not only ecologically sustainable, but also economically feasible and socially acceptable (De Wit et al., 2015; Dumanski et al. 2006). CA is based on optimising yields and profits and not maximising yields per se whilst exploiting the soil and agro-ecosystem resources (Dumanski et al. 2006).

Although CA has been adopted as the preferred practice when producing crops in many countries, adoption of CA in South Africa has been relatively slow, especially in most of the summer rainfall areas, as well as among smallholders and new era farmers. This problem is compounded by several underlying factors including:

  • lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding of environmental problems,
  • lack of knowledge and understanding of the nature and function of natural resources (ecology), especially soils, and
  • ignorance of appropriate solutions to address these issues (e.g. CA principles and practices).

Sustainable governance of soil and wide scale implementation of CA at farm level has become a topic of fundamental importance. This topic and problem (challenge) is the prime focus of the CA FIP: How do we, as primary producers, develop and adapt regenerative conservation agriculture systems on our own farms? The CA FIP’s intention is to provide insight into and guidance on adaptive systems research in CA in South African maize production systems.

Vision, Mission and Strategic Objectives

The Vision of the CA FIP

The Vision of the CA Farmer Innovation Programme (CA FIP) is to provide the principles of and a broad implementation- and monitoring framework for The Maize Trust to support adaptive research on conservation agriculture with all South African grain producers.


The Mission of the CA FIP

The Mission of the CA FIP is to guide, coordinate and facilitate research, development and adaptation of appropriate CA systems for a range of diverse and unique situations in the whole grain production area of South Africa.


The key strategic objectives

The CA FIP identified the following key strategic objectives for the implementation of CA projects:

  1. Identify and select target regions and choosing research locations and participants
  2. Implement appropriate on-farm research trials
  3. Implement a monitoring and evaluation framework and process
  4. Create wider awareness and innovation capacity in the selected study areas and the broader grain production region on the practices and benefits of locally adapted CA systems.
  5. Support stakeholder facilitation, governance, capacity building, administration and reporting processes.


Expected Outcomes and Strategic Significance

Adoption of appropriate on-farm systems research approaches and CA will lead to the achievement of the following measurable outcomes:

  • Highly innovative and adaptive CA farmers
  • A CA FIP involving key stakeholders
  • A CA evaluation panel to assist in the identification and evaluation of new CA project proposals, as well as annual progress reports. Key resource persons and producers will be involved in this CA governance structure.
  • The restoration of soil health and soil ecosystem services.
  • A reversal in cost-pressure and declining gross margins of farming enterprises.
  • Competitive, stable yields with the use of less external synthetic production inputs.
  • A reversal of the negative effect of agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
  • A positive impact on climate change and weather patterns, water regimes, biodiversity and ecosystems services
  • Increased water infiltration that reduces runoff, soil erosion and sedimentation, and improve surface and groundwater levels and quality.
  • Increasing the resilience and sustainability of farmers.
  • An improvement in the resource use efficiency and competitiveness of farming practices.

Panel Members

The major stakeholder groups, their key institutions, and their value and extent in the CA FIP is summarised in the table below.


Stakeholder Group Key Institution(s) Value – Expected Roles and Functions Extent – Expected Resource Contributions
Producers Maluti study group, Mpumalanga Highveld CA network; Ottosdal no-till club; Smallholder communities, Grain SA, GFADA, SAGRA, Free State Agri; Mpum Agri; KZN No-till club;

Active participation in on-farm experimentation, awareness, social learning; willingness and availability to learn, share and adapt; capacity and willingness to lead and facilitate project activities;

Monitoring and evaluation;



Provision of land, inputs, implements;

Time and expertise for experiments, leadership and facilitating project activities;

Time to share their experiences and data;

Time to organise and participate in awareness actions, e.g. talks at farmers’ day


Research and extension

Asset Research, Independent scientists, ARC, PDA, DAFF, Universities (UFS, NWU, UN, UM, US, etc.); The Maize Trust; Winter Cereal Trust; TerraSim; Mahlathini Development Foundation; Blue North; Soil Health Solutions;


Involved in planning, design, experimentation, facilitation, awareness and PM&E; research managers; students and their mentoring; interns and funding; incentives; research platforms / study groups; Work Package implementers;

Time, expertise, skills, mentoring, facilitation, presentations;


Coordination and management of funding;

Specialised instruments, models and facilities for measuring and analyses;

Students and interns



Dept. of Agriculture (National, provincial, district, municipal);



Involved in planning, design, experimentation, facilitation, awareness and PM&E; incentives; research platforms / study groups

Time, expertise, skills, mentoring, facilitation, presentations;


Coordination and management of funding;

Specialised instruments / implements and facilities for measuring and analyses;

Students and interns



Cooperatives (OVK, VKB, etc.); seed, fertiliser, agro-chemical companies; mechanisation companies


Participate in on-farm trials;


Provide specialist products, implements and expertise on specific themes and treatments;

Time and capacity

Private sector

NGOs, businesses, public, communities, churches, etc.


Participate in key activities, e.g. group facilitation, awareness and incentives Time and capacity


The panel of experts to assist with the evaluation of proposals and reports as part of the implementation of the Conservation Agriculture (CA) Farmer Innovation Programme (FIP)

  1. Dr Andre Nel (Independent)
  2. Dr Johann Strauss (CA Western Cape)
  3. Charity Dhlammini (ARC)
  4. Lientjie Visser (ARC)
  5. Dr Corrie Swanepoel (ARC)
  6. Edzi Nemadodza (ARC)
  7. Marius JV Rensburg (Mpum Dept Agriculture)
  8. Mmakgabo Matlou (ARC)
  9. Dr Aart-Jan Verschoor (ARC)
  10. Dr Jack Armour (FS Agric)
  11. Jaco Heckroot (VKB)
  12. Conrad Badenhorst (VKC)
  13. Prof Charlie Reinhardt (NWU)
  14. Prof Juan Vorster (UP)
  15. Dr Elbe Hugo (Syngenta)

Publications and Reports

Reports are uploaded on an annual basis.