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Soil Degradation threatens Wheat Production

The vast plains of Northern Kazakhstan, belonging to the region known as Siberia, are characterized by harsh climatic conditions. Long and cold winters with temperatures reaching -20°C and low precipitation in the range of 200-300 mm per year make agriculture a difficult and risky business. Nevertheless the region was under Sovjet times an important wheat producing area with high wheat quality. The total area under wheat at that time in northern Kazakhstan was 23 million ha producing some 24 million tons of wheat. However, intensive cultivation took its toll on the originally very fertile soils. Soil degradation became a serious impediment to agricultural production. From the time cultivation started on these soils more than 50 % of the soil organic matter has been lost, resulting in soil compaction, nutrient losses and wind and water erosion. Wheat farming lost profitability and after the collapse of the Soviet Union the wheat production area dropped down to 11 million ha. Vast agricultural areas of northern Kazakhstan were abandoned. The problems with soil fertility, profitability of farming were aggravated by the old and obsolete stock of machinery which all together led to the reduction in farmland. Newly privatized farmers and farming enterprises resulting from the previous state owned cooperatives found it difficult to keep the old machinery working or to invest into new equipment.

Conservation of the Natural Environment

In this situation FAO TCP support was requested to assist in improving the profitability of wheat farming in the region and to reduce the environmental impact of farming on the soil resources. The technical approach chosen is known as conservation agriculture, which is based on the following three principles:

• Minimum soil disturbance, ideally no-tillage and direct seeding
• Permanent soil cover with residues or crops, ideally on 100 % of the soil surface
• Diversified crop rotations

Of these principles the project concentrated on the first two. Local seeders were modified to allow direct seeding of wheat into not prepared soil. The components for the modification were partly imported and partly produced locally, to provide also a low cost option. Residues of the crop were left in the field and not burned, ploughed in or grazed. During the fallow period, which is often inserted between two crops in order to accumulate water, the weed control was done chemically rather than by repeated cultivation. The participating farmers were encouraged to consider other crops than wheat in order to obtain a more diversified crop rotation. Along with the Ministry of Agriculture and a newly formed Kazakh Farmers’ Union four private pilot farms were selected, strategically distributed over different parts of Northern Kazakhstan, and the above mentioned concept of conservation agriculture was introduced on demonstration areas of 200 ha on each farm. Intensive training, study tours, farmers visits and field days resulted in a good promotion of the concept. The Farmers’ Union was a very important element in this technology transfer. The results of conservation agriculture on all farms were very encouraging. With few exceptions the yields increased, though initially only slightly, but the production costs, especially in fuel and machinery operation, were reduced. Overall profitability of conservation agriculture was encouraging and the improvements in soil fertility were noticeable. During a particularly dry year the conservation agriculture demonstration areas performed better than the conventional areas.

To Till or Not to Till......

At the end of the project all project farms had increased their area under CA and started to purchase additional no-till equipment presenting plans to convert their entire farms within 2-3 years to CA. Other farmers became interested and the government encouraged the adoption of CA with an official policy to convert the wheat growing areas of Northern Kazkhstan over a 10 years period to CA. Supporting policies for that included subsidies for locally produced desiccants used for the chemical fallow and credit lines to purchase no-till equipment. A manual on conservation agriculture produced under the project has been widely distributed in the farming community of Kazakhstan.

New projects for the rehabilitation of abandoned lands and degraded pasture areas have picked up the no-till direct seeding technologies to recover the land without ploughing. The FAO project ended in 2004. Today, two years later, no-till farming is booming in Northern Kazakhstan. The number of different no-till seeders imported into the country is steadily increasing, agricultural machinery fairs are organized every year. Farmers are investing into their business and are breaking out of the vicious circle of poverty. The total area under no-till technology in Kazakhstan according to the Ministry of Agriculture in 2006 was 1 790 600 ha. The main part of this land under no-till technology is in North Kazakhstan, namely 1 311 300 ha. The Ministry anticipates for 2007 an increase of the no-till area to 2 847 000 ha in Kazakhstan and 2 114 000 ha in North Kazakhstan.

Direct seeding of wheat in Northern Kazakhstan

Modifications of equipment for no-till seeding on one project farm

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