Zero-tillage shows high potential to increase wheat yields in Kazakhstan

Rome – In the northern part of Kazakhstan, zero-tillage (no-till or direct seeding) technology has the potential to increase wheat productivity by 20 to 50 percent above current levels. In general, conversion from conventional tillage to conservation agriculture techniques such as zero-tillage, can take a long time as the technology requires critical investments and farm organizational changes. However in Kazakhstan, great progress is already being seen as the current area under zero-tillage appears to be rapidly increasing every year, and is now estimated to be 1.2 million hectares. The country has therefore, in the medium-term (3-5 years), the capacity to adopt conservation agriculture on about 30-40 percent of its cereal production area (3 to 4 million ha) with adequate investment. The possible average production increase from this achievement could be about one million additional tonnes of wheat annually. In the longer term, wide adoption of zero-tillage technology could also bring about a global benefit by contributing to improved carbon storage, which would also have a positive effect on climate change due to decreased greenhouse gas emissions.

A World Bank-financed Agricultural Competitiveness Project, which was formulated during 2003-05 with the assistance of FAO’s Investment Centre Division with the aim to increase production at lower cost, is supporting the expansion of conservation agriculture technologies in Kazakhstan through its Competitive Grant Scheme. Since then the Centre has been assisting supervision of the project. A mid-term review of the project undertaken in March-April 2009 resulted in proposals being made by the Centre staff to restructure and improve component activities based on lessons learned during the first two years of its implementation. A technical paper was prepared by one of the Centre’s senior agronomists drawing on the results of two recent missions carried out by teams of Centre, World Bank and national staff. The paper notes that continued support and increased emphasis on conservation agriculture could significantly contribute to improving food security and the overall cereal and grain production system competitiveness in Kazakhstan.

Investment in conservation agriculture has been promoted for some years by FAO. In cold arid countries, zero-tillage allows high stubble (35-45 cm) to trap snow and increase soil moisture for higher grain yield. In addition to financial benefits, zero-tillage can help the environment through erosion control and carbon sequestration. However zero-tillage does not mean no-farming input – in fact it requires investment to adapt or buy new machinery and use of herbicides, during the first years of technology establishment. Yet the payoff can be well worth it with a potential rate of return on the investment as high as 18-23 percent.

For further information on the on-farm trial results achieved so far in Kazakhstan and the potential for zero-tillage use in similar climates and farming systems in other countries, see the Centre’s new technical paper entitled: "Importance of zero-tillage with high stubble to trap snow and increase wheat yields in Northern Kazakhstan".