The practice, constraints and perceptions of improving soil quality through manure application : a case study of three smallholder farmer groups.
Land degradation and soil nutrient depletion have become serious threats to agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa. Soil fertility depletion in smallholder areas has been cited as the fundamental biophysical cause of declining per-capita food production in Africa. Manure application is a well established and known practice, but not effectively used among South African smallholders. This study investigated the practice, constraints and perceptions of improving soil quality through manure application through a case study of three smallholder farmer groups. Three groups from rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal (Mkhambatini, Mooi River and Richmond) were selected to participate in the study. Participatory methodologies were used to identify and clarify the study problem. Three participatory focus group discussions, one per area, were conducted with farmers at the study sites to discuss farming methods, experience and perceptions of manure use, manure management practices and constraints farmers experience with manure use. Force Field Analysis was used for each group to explore for forces against and in support for manure use. Random soil and manure samples were collected for laboratory analysis to determine fertility levels. Some farmers indicated that soil fertility was low. However, half the sample perceived the land to be productive to some extent. The study showed that 40 per cent of farmers reported improved soil fertility following the application of manure. Due to the limited availability of livestock manure, farmers prefer to use both livestock manure and commercial fertilisers. Furthermore, the study found that except for young farmers (20 per cent of the sample), farmers had not received formal training and very limited extension advice on composting and manure use and management. The study participants were aware of the consequences of declining soil fertility and were attempting to improve soil quality. However, low livestock numbers and poor management led to inadequate amounts of manure, and, limited access to information on manure and compost use. Unless better knowledge of optimal soil nutrient management practice is acquired by the farmers, soil fertility levels will continue to decline, further reducing production potential and rural household food security. Government needs to revisit extension support to meet the needs of smallholders and offer training on sound soil management, sustainable production methods, composting and livestock management. A handbook with graphic detail should be accompanied to provide smallholders with information and advice on how to manage soil fertility.
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