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Farmers are not just farmers. They are so much more than that. They are also veterinarians, climatologists, soil scientists, agronomists, ecologists, engineers, maintenance specialists, machine operators, financial planners and computer operators. What I had not realised, is that they are also strategists.

Farmers battle

Farmers are waging a daily war to maintain a productive farm. It is the age-old war of good versus bad. The good is where the farm works for the farmer – a productive farm. The bad is where the farmer works for the farm – a constant struggle for productivity.

When a farmer cannot get the farm to work , then there will constantly be a struggle while he/she works for the farm. It is possible to win this battle, and have the land work for you. It is however important to know where attacks might come from, and who your allies are in the fight.

Farmers battlefield

Nutrient-use efficiency is one of the key battlefields for farm productivity. Having a farm system where there is optimal nutrient cycling, and minimal nutrient loss puts you well on the way to winning the war. Some of the key factors to consider in nutrient cycling are processes that make nutrients available, such as mineralisation, and processes that cause the loss of nutrients from the farm, such as volatilisation.

Farmers allies

Fortunately, you have allies in the soil that can help you cycle nutrients and fight against the loss of nutrients. A healthy soil is key to this fight and is something you can continuously build towards. A healthy soil has good soil life, balanced fertility and is well structured.

The diversity of life in the soil (e.g. fungi, bacteria) are your real allies. They can be viewed as soldiers in the battle, and when they are healthy and in balance they will fight to cycle nutrients, feed plants and limit nutrient loss. If your soldiers are happy and healthy and they have a safe place to fight from then you have a good chance of winning the war.

It is important to know that your allies can be strengthened.

Some management actions can be implemented in order to strengthen your allies:
  • Reduce N fertiliser application rates
  • Plant multiple crop types/different pasture species to add diverse organic matter to the soil
  • Switch to minimum-till practices
  • Optimise grazing management by ensuring grass is always given enough time to grow, and then utilised effectively when grazed
  • Implement irrigation scheduling practices

It is important to know that your allies are vulnerable to attacks.

Some management actions which may weaken your allies include:
  • Excessive N fertiliser rates kill off good fungi and bacteria
  • Soil tillage breaks structure and reduces carbon
  • Ineffective fertiliser practices which do not address soil fertility issues such as low pH, and low/excessive nutrient levels
  • The use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides
  • Mono-culture pastures and crops

It is thus very important to implement a clear strategy that keeps your allies strong and healthy. In doing this the good will triumph over the bad and you can enjoy a farm that works for you.

Marno Fourie

Marno is a Trace and Save researcher that works on the Woodlands Dairy Sustainability Project and has been part of the team since January 2013. He studied Conservation Ecology at Stellenbosch University. He is passionate about using natural resources in a way that leaves it in a better state for the next generation.

Marno loves the outdoors and to explore new places on his 250cc motorbike, which by the way, is a more eco-friendly mode of transport that generates less carbon emissions than his bantam bakkie. He enjoys good food and company. He also likes to look at natural vegetation in the rough when attempting to play a round of golf.

You can email Marno at or connect with him on social media:
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Marno Fourie