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Conservation Agriculture

Adoption of Conservation Agriculture techniques

How does a farmer start conservation agriculture?

  • Start with composure and concentrate on achievable objectives
  • In order to gain experience, start on a small part of the farm
  • Initiate in an area where there is enough cover and use equipment designed to do the job
  • In the case of herbicide use, take time to learn to identify and use herbicides correctly. This includes understanding the calibration of the herbicide applicator. Talk to other farmers who are practicing conservation agriculture and learn from their experiences and mistakes.

Before starting with conservation agriculture one very important aspect is to plan a good crop rotation.

As CA is based on soil life, soils have to be brought up to a condition where life can develop. Physical and chemical soil limitations, such as: compaction; drainage; pH; P and K levels, should be corrected before starting CA. This is especially true in highly degraded or depleted soils where some sort of amelioration investment might be necessary to rehabilitate them. The required actions might include:

  • subsoiling to remove compaction; 
  • levelling; 
  • liming; 
  • use of green manure and synthetic fertilizer to correct extreme nutrient deficiencies.

Soils under CA generally improve with time. This means the rate of degradation and erosion is less than the rate of soil build-up. For this reason even highly degraded soils should improve and become productive under CA.

In the initial years, the focus of conservation agriculture will concentrate on weed control; management of crop and cover crop residues; and monitoring pest and disease incidence. A farmer should be prepared for new habits and timetables. 

Conservation agriculture is based on restoring naturally occurring processes and therefore needs a conversion period before the CA system is established and the natural balances are restored. It is advisable that farmers new to CA consult with practitioners to share experiences and set realistic expectations.

New CA farmers will require an initial period to gain experience with the innovation. A lot of information will be needed on the use and adjustment of tools and implements. The Brazilian idea of "planter clinics" is very useful for farmers to learn not only about the tools and implements, but also the time needed for conversion to the new system, crop yields during and after the conversion period, labour and time requirements in agricultural activities before and after the change. The experiences of farmers who have been implementing conservation agriculture for a longer time can give indications to new farmers on which key practices generate success and what mistakes to avoid. The formation of Farmer Field Schools is another group action concept that has been successful in many countries.

Environmental conditions

A number of environmental conditions might speed up the successful promotion of conservation agriculture. Generally the following conditions lead to a sub-optimal crop yield, farm income or environmental problems resulting from agricultural activities in these areas:

  • Hilly topography
  • Erosive rainfall
  • Arid climate, with very hot and dry periods
  • Degraded and eroded soils High production costs
  • Diminishing labour capacity
  • Diminishing agricultural subsidies

Under these conditions a change in system to conservation agriculture might quickly generate momentum, as the results are clear, especially to farmers. With the presence of conservation agriculture organizations, farmer organizations and farmers who have experience with conservation agriculture, conservation agriculture can lead to a quick change in the social and economic circumstances of the people. 

Innovative farmers who are looking for alternative production systems in order to save money, improve their productivity and their soils, are probably the ones who will adopt CA first. They will also be the ones to promote CA in their communities.