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Chapter 4. Practices that influence the amount of organic matter

Human interventions that influence soil organic matter

Various types of human activity decrease soil organic matter contents and biological activity. However, increasing the organic matter content of soils or even maintaining good levels requires a sustained effort that includes returning organic materials to soils and rotations with high-residue crops and deep- or dense-rooting crops. It is especially difficult to raise the organic matter content of soils that are well aerated, such as coarse sands, and soils in warm-hot and arid regions because the added materials decompose rapidly. Soil organic matter levels can be maintained with less organic residue in finetextured soils in cold temperate and moist-wet regions with restricted aeration.

Practices that decrease soil organic matter

Any form of human intervention influences the activity of soil organisms (Curry and Good, 1992) and thus the equilibrium of the system. Management practices that alter the living and nutrient conditions of soil organisms, such as repetitive tillage or burning of vegetation, result in a degradation of their microenvironments. In turn, this results in a reduction of soil biota, both in biomass and diversity. Where there are no longer organisms to decompose soil organic matter and bind soil particles, the soil structure is damaged easily by rain, wind and sun. This can lead to rainwater runoff and soil erosion (Plate 3), removing the potential food for organisms, i.e. the organic matter of the topsoil. Therefore, soil biota are the most important property of the soil, and “when devoid of its biota, the uppermost layer of earth ceases to be soil” (Lal, 1991).

Plate 3
Severe soil erosion removes the potential energy
source for soil microbes, resulting in the death of the
microbial population and thus of the soil itself.


Open cycle system

The factors leading to reduction in soil organic matter in an open cycle system (Figure 6) can be grouped as factors that result in:

Decrease in biomass production

Replacement of perennial vegetation

A consequence of clearing forest for agriculture is the disappearance of the litter layer, with a consequent reduction in the numbers and variety of soil organisms. While many temperate forest species appear to adapt well to grassland (Curry and Good, 1992), the effects of deforestation in the tropics appear to be more marked (Plate 4). Studies have shown that as soil biodiversity declines, adapted species may take over from the indigenous species and the composition may change drastically.

Soil macrofaunal biomass and population density fell to 6 and 17 percent, respectively, in cultivated plots, compared with primary forest in Peruvian Amazonia (Lavelle and Pashanasi, 1989). In Suriname, the number of animals per square metre has fallen to 36 percent and the diversity of species has fallen to 28 percent compared with primary forest (Van der Werff, 1990). The indigenous species have largely disappeared, but adapted species have been available for recolonization. The composition of the macrofaunal community has changed drastically (Figure 7).

Composition of soil macrofauna under primary forest, fallow, kudzu and grass vegetation

Source: Van der Werff, 1990

Plate 4
Clearance of primary forests often leads to rapid
mineralization of organic matter. This sandy soil used
to sustain a tropical forest.


Replacement of mixed vegetation with monoculture of crops and pastures

The simplification of vegetation and the disappearance of the litter layer under grassland and monocrop production systems lead to a decrease in faunal diversity. Although root systems (especially of grasses) can be extensive and explore vast areas of soil, the root exudates from one single crop will attract only a few different microbial species. This in turn will affect the predator diversity. The more opportunistic pathogen species will be able to acquire space near the crop and cause harm. Continuous cultivation and grazing also leads to compaction of soil layers, which in turn affects the circulation of air. Anaerobic conditions in the soil stimulate the growth of different micro-organisms, resulting in more pathogenic organisms.

High harvest index

One of the consequences of the green revolution was the replacement of indigenous varieties of species with high-yielding varieties (HYVs). These HYVs often produce more grain and less straw, compared with locally developed varieties; the harvest index of the crop (ratio of grain to total plant mass aboveground) is increased. From a production point of view, this is a logical approach. However, this is less desirable from a conservation point of view. Reduced amounts of crop residues remain after harvest for soil cover and organic matter, or for grazing of livestock (which results in manure). Moreover, where animals graze the residues, even less remains for conservation purposes.

Use of bare fallow

Traditionally, a fallow period is used after a period of crop production to give the land some “rest” and to regenerate its original state of productivity. Usually, this is necessary in production systems that have drawn down the nutrient supply and altered the soil biota significantly, such as in slash-and-burn systems or conventional tillage systems.

Some farmers use bare fallow to regenerate their lands. However, apart from spontaneous weed growth, this means there is no energy source for the soil biota present on the land. Instead of recovering the soil food web, the soil organic matter is degraded further and the lack of cover can result in severe erosion and runoff when the rains start after the dry season.

Plate 5
The burning of residues is a common practice for
clearing land, both in slash-and-burn systems and in
more intensive agricultural production systems.


Decrease in organic matter supply

Burning of natural vegetation and crop residues

The burning of maize, rice and other crop residues in the field is a common practice (Plate 5). Residues are usually burned to help control insects or diseases or to make fieldwork easier in the following season. Burning destroys the litter layer and so diminishes the amount of organic matter returned to the soil. The organisms that inhabit the surface soil and litter layer are also eliminated. For future decomposition to take place, energy has to be invested first in rebuilding the microbial community before plant nutrients can be released. Similarly, fallow lands and bush are burned before cultivation. This provides a rapid supply of P to stimulate seed germination. However, the associated loss of nutrients, organic matter and soil biological activity has severe long-term consequences.


There is a tendency throughout the world to overstock grazing land above its carrying capacity. Cows, draught animals and small ruminants graze on communal grazing areas and on roadsides, stream banks and other public land (Plate 6). Overgrazing destroys the most palatable and useful species in the plant mixture and reduces the density of the plant cover, thereby increasing the erosion hazard and reducing the nutritive value and the carrying capacity of the land.

Removal of crop residues

Many farmers remove residues from the field for use as animal feed and bedding or to make compost (Plate 7). Later, these residues return to contribute to soil fertility as manures or composts. However, residues are sometimes removed from the field and not returned. This removal of plant material impoverishes the soil as it is no longer possible to recycle the plant nutrients present in the residues.

Plate 6
Animal at pasture in the area around Asmara.


Increased decomposition rates

Tillage practices

Tillage is one of the major practices that reduces the organic matter level in the soil. Each time the soil is tilled, it is aerated. As the decomposition of organic matter and the liberation of C are aerobic processes, the oxygen stimulates or speeds up the action of soil microbes, which feed on organic matter.

This means that:

Plate 7
Removed crop residues cannot serve as food for soil organisms.


Tillage induced flush of decomposition of organic matter

Type of tillage

Organic matter lost in 19 days

Mouldboard plough + disc harrow (2x)

4 300

Mouldboard plough

2 230

Disc harrow

1 840

Chisel plough

1 720

Direct seeding


Source: Glanz, 1995

In terms of short-term organic matter loss, the more a soil is tilled, the more the organic matter is broken down (Table 3). There are also longer-term losses, attributed to repeated, annual cultivation. Cropping systems that return little residue to the soil accelerate this decline. Many modern cropping systems combine frequent tillage with small amounts of residue, with resultant reductions in the organic matter content of many soils. Historically, manure application (from farm livestock) was common, and it was a dynamic way of maintaining organic matter levels despite repeated cultivation and low residue returns to the soil. Increased on-farm mechanization has reduced livestock numbers, so this source of organic material has been reduced considerably.

Organic matter production and conservation is affected dramatically by conventional tillage, which not only decreases soil organic matter but also increases the potential for erosion by wind and water (Plate 8). The impact occurs in many ways:

In some circumstances, imbalances of certain soil organisms can disrupt soil structure and processes, e.g. certain earthworm species in rice fields or pastures.

Plate 8
Intensive soil tillage makes the land vulnerable to
erosive processes, as the organic matter is lost through
increased oxidation in the soil, the upper subsoil is
compact, and the loosened topsoil can more readily wash away.

R. JONES/FAO/19862


Decomposition of organic matter occurs more slowly in poorly aerated soils, where oxygen is limiting or absent, compared with well-aerated soils. For this reason, organic matter accumulates in wet soil environments. Soil drainage is determined strongly by topography - soils in depressions at the bottom of hills tend to remain wet for extended periods of time because they receive water (and sediments) from upslope. Soils may also have a layer in the subsoil that inhibits drainage, again exacerbating waterlogging and reduction in organic matter decomposition. In a permanently waterlogged soil, one of the major structural parts of plants, lignin, does not decompose at all. The ultimate consequence of extremely wet or swampy conditions is the development of organic (peat or muck) soils, with organic matter contents of more than 30 percent. Where soils are drained artificially for agricultural or other uses, the soil organic matter decomposes rapidly.

Fertilizer and pesticide use

Initially, the use of fertilizer and pesticides enhances crop development and thus production of biomass (especially important on depleted soils). However, the use of some fertilizers, especially N fertilizers, and pesticides can boost micro-organism activity and thus decomposition of organic matter. The chemicals provide the microorganisms with easy-to-use N components. This is especially important where the C: N ratio of the soil organic matter is high and thus decomposition is slowed by a lack of N.

Practices that increase soil organic matter

Increased concern about the environmental and economic impacts of conventional crop production has stimulated interest in alternative systems. Central to such systems is the need to promote and maintain soil biological processes and minimize fossil fuel inputs in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and mechanical cultivation. All activities aimed at the increase of organic matter in the soil (Box 3) help in creating a new equilibrium in the agro-ecosystem.

For a system of natural resource management to be balanced, and thus sustainable, it must be able to withstand sharp climatic fluctuations, and to evolve steadily in response to social changes and changes in the costs and availability of inputs of land, labour and knowledge. The more diverse and complex an agricultural system is, the more stable and sustainable it will be in the face of unpredictable vagaries of climate and market. Thus, annual crops, woody perennials and nonwoody perennials may be combined in various ways with livestock or trees, or both, in what are now commonly called agrosilvipastoral systems.

Different approaches are required for different soil and climate conditions. However, the activities will be based on the same principle: increasing biomass production in order to build active organic matter. Active organic matter provides habitat and food for beneficial soil organisms that help build soil structure and porosity, provide nutrients to plants, and improve the water holding capacity of the soil.

Several cases have demonstrated that it is possible to restore organic matter levels in the soil (Figure 8). Activities that promote the accumulation and supply of organic matter, such as the use of cover crops and refraining from burning, and those that reduce decomposition rates, such as reduced and zero tillage, lead to an increase in the organic matter content in the soil (Sampson and Scholes, 2000).

Ways to increase organic matter contents of soils

  • compost

  • cover crops/green manure crops

  • crop rotation

  • perennial forage crops

  • zero or reduced tillage

  • agroforestry

Evaluation of the organic matter content of a soil in Paraná

Source: adapted from Derpsch, 1997.

Increased biomass production

Increased water availability for plants: water harvesting and irrigation

In dry conditions, water may be provided through irrigation or water harvesting. The increased water availability enhances biomass production, soil biological activity and plant residues and roots that provide organic matter.

The concept of water harvesting includes various technologies for runoff management and utilization. It involves capture of runoff (in some cases through treating the upstream capture area), and its concentration on a runon area for use by a specific crop (annual or perennial) in order to enhance crop growth and yields, or its collection and storage for supplementary irrigation or domestic or livestock purposes. The objective of designing a water harvesting system is to obtain the best ratio of the area yielding runoff to either the area where runoff is being directed or the capacity of the storage structure (volume of water collected). In this way, the water captured for crop production during runoff periods can be stored either directly in the soil for subsequent use by plants or in small farm reservoirs or collection tanks (Plate 9). This aids stabilization of crop production by enhancing soil moisture availability or allowing irrigation during a dry period within the rainy season or by extending crop production into the dry season. Some factors to be considered regarding these runoff farming systems and reservoirs include: site selection, watershed size and condition, rainfall distribution and runoff, and water requirements of crops. Where a minimum water depth of about 1 m can be maintained in a reservoir, fish can be raised to provide additional food (FAO, 1984).

Numerous water harvesting systems have been developed over the centuries, especially in arid areas. The principle of collecting runoff for crop production is also inherent to many other soil and water conservation technologies that apply the concept of runoff and runon areas at a microwatershed level, such as negarims, trapezoidal or “eyebrow” bunds and tied ridges.

Plate 9
Hollows are dug in the ground to gather water during the rainy season.


Balanced fertilization

Where the supply of nutrients in the soil is ample, crops are more likely to grow well and produce large amounts of biomass. Fertilizers are needed in those cases where nutrients in the soil are lacking and cannot produce healthy crops (FAO, 2000) and sufficient biomass. Most soils in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are deficient in P. P is required not only for plant growth but also for N fixation. Unbalanced fertilization, for example mainly with N, may result in more weed competition, higher pest incidence and loss of quality of the product. Unbalanced fertilization eventually leads to unhealthy plants. Therefore, fertilizers should be applied in sufficient quantities and in balanced proportions. The efficiency of fertilizer use will be high where the organic matter content of the soil is also high. In very poor or depleted soils, crops use fertilizer applications inefficiently. When soil organic matter levels are restored, fertilizer can help maintain the revolving fund of nutrients in the soil by increasing crop yields and, consequently, the amount of residues returned to the soil.

Cover crops

Growing cover crops is one of the best practices for improving organic matter levels and, hence, soil quality. The benefits of growing cover crops include:

A range of crops can be used as vegetative cover, e.g. grains, legumes and oil crops. All have the potential to provide great benefit to the soil. However, some crops emphasize certain benefits; a useful consideration when planning a rotation scheme. It is important to start the first years with (cover) crops that cover the surface with a large amount of residues that decompose slowly (because of the high C:N ratio). Grasses and cereals are most appropriate for this stage, also because of their intensive rooting system, which improves the soil structure rapidly.

In the following years, when soil health has begun to improve, legumes can be incorporated in the rotation. Leguminous crops enrich the soil with N and their residues decompose rapidly because of their low C:N ratio. Later, when the system is stabilized, it is possible to include cover crops with an economic function, e.g. livestock fodder.

The selection of cover crops should depend on the presence of high levels of lignin and phenolic acids. These give the residues a higher resistance to decomposition and thus result in soil protection for a longer period and the production of more stable

Reduction of dry matter of different cover crops

Source: Ruedell, 1995 humus.

Another determining factor in the dynamics of residue composition is the biochemical composition of the residues. Depending on species, their chemical components and the time and way of managing them, there will be differences in decomposition rates (Figure 9). The grain species (oats and wheat) show more resistance than common vetch (legume) to decomposition. The latter has a lower C:N ratio and a lower lignin content and is thus subject to a rapid decomposition.

Agricultural production systems in which residues are left on the soil surface, such as direct seeding and the use of cover crops, stimulate the development and activity of soil fauna at many levels.

The term green manure is often used to indicate the same plant species that are used as cover crops. However, green manure refers specifically to a crop in the rotation grown for incorporation of the non-decomposed vegetative matter in the soil. While this practice is used specifically to add organic matter, this is not the most effective use of organic matter (especially in hot climates) for two reasons:

In general, the greater the production of green manure or crop biomass, the greater is the microbial, mesofauna and macrofauna population of the soil - from fungi and micro-organisms to earthworms and termites. The dynamics of surface residue decomposition depend inter alia on the activity of micro-organisms and also on soil mesofauna and macrofauna. The macrofauna consists mainly of earthworms, beetles, termites, ants, millipedes, spiders, snails and slugs. These organisms help integrate the residues into the soil and improve soil structure, porosity, water infiltration, and through-flow through the creation of burrows, ingestion and secretions.

The natural incorporation of cover-crop and weed residues from the soil surface to deeper layers in the soil by soil macrofauna is a slow process. The activity of microorganisms is regulated by the activity of the macrofauna, because the latter provide them with food and air through their bioturbation activities. In this way, nutrients are released slowly and can provide the crop with nutrients over a longer period. At the same time, the soil is covered for a long time by the residues and is protected against the impact of rain and sun.

Improved vegetative stands

In many places, low plant densities limit crop yields. Wide plant spacing is often practised as “a way to return power to the soil” or “to give the soil some rest”, but in reality it is an indicator that the soil is impoverished. Plant spacing is usually determined by farmers in relation to soil fertility and available water or expected rainfall (unless standard recommendations are enforced by extension). This means that plants are often spaced widely on depleted soils in arid and semi-arid regions with a view to ensuring an adequate provision of plant nutrients and water for all plants.

However, it is important to maintain the recommended plant spacing in order to optimize biomass production and rooting density and, hence, organic matter for food, moisture retention and habitat for soil organisms. Once the crop is established, reduced sunlight between closer crop rows may also reduce regrowth of weeds.

Planting pits

Planting pits achieve fast rehabilitation of severely degraded land, especially in a semi-arid climate where a short fallow period of natural grass growth (2-6 years after 2-3 years under crops) cannot be expected to maintain or restore the land’s agricultural productivity (FAO, 1994).

An example of the rapid restoration of productivity of degraded land is an indigenous method in the Sahel region called “zaï” (FAO, 1994). During the dry season, farmers dig out pits 15 cm deep and 40 cm in diameter every 80 cm, tossing the earth downhill. The dry desert Harmattan wind blows various organic residues into the excavated pits. The organic materials are consumed quickly by termites, which excavate tunnels through the crusted surface, allowing the first rains to soak down deep, out of danger of direct evaporation.

Two weeks before the onset of the rains, farmers spread one or two handfuls of dry dung (1- 2.5 tonnes/ha) in the bottom of the pits and cover it with earth to prevent the rains from eroding away the organic matter.

Millet is sown into the pits at the onset of the rainy season. As the first rains wash over the surface crust (of the degraded land), the basins capture this runoff (enough to soak a pocket of soil up to 1 m in depth). The sown seeds germinate, break up the slaked surface crust and send roots down to the deeper stores of both water and nutrients (recycled by the termites).

At harvest time, stalks are cut at a height of 1 m and left in situ to reduce wind-speed and trap windborne organic matter. In the second year, the farmer either digs new basins between the first ones and dresses them with manure, or pulls up the stubble and sows again in the old basins. Stubble clumps laid between basins are in turn used as a food source by termites.

Planting pits are a way of increasing biomass production and crop yields on severely degraded land in semi-arid conditions. Rainfall is concentrated near the plants, and soil faunal activity and organic matter accumulation are concentrated in the planting pits (Box 4 and Plate 10). Planting pits have been introduced successfully in Zambia as a conservation practice for smallholder farmers, who do not have fertilizers or tractor services available to them.

Plate 10
Half-moons around newly planted Acacia
seedlings catch and retain rainwater.


Agroforestry and alley cropping

Agroforestry is a collective name for land-use systems where woody perennials (trees, shrubs, palms, etc.) are integrated in the farming system (FAO, 1989). Alley cropping is an agroforestry system in which crops are grown between rows of planted woody shrubs or trees. These are pruned during the cropping season to provide green manure and to minimize shading of crops (FAO, 1993).

Agroforestry covers a wide range of systems (Box 5) combining food crops, forestry and pasture species in different ways (agrosilviculture, silvipasture, agrosilvipasture and multipurpose forest production). There are two different approaches to agroforestry. One uses agricultural crops or pasture as a transitional means of utilizing the land until forest plantations are fully established. The other is to integrate trees and shrubs permanently into the crop or animal production system, to the benefit of both crop production and land resource protection. Thus, agroforestry encompasses many traditional land-use systems such as home gardens, shifting cultivation and bush fallow systems (FAO, 1989).

Examples of agroforestry systems worldwide

Poro (Erythrina poeppigiana) has been grown extensively in coffee plantations in Costa Rica for shade, soil enrichment, live mulching and live fences.

Albizzia spp. have been used in tea plantations in many Asian countries.

In Indonesia, leucaena (Leucaena leucocephala) has been planted as contour hedges on hillsides for erosion control, soil improvement and green mulch. It is estimated that some 20 000 ha of undulating land have been converted to these systems.

In West Africa and Rwanda, many farmers use trees, fruit trees, bushes and grasses planted with agricultural crops on their farms.

Many coconut plantations in the Caribbean are partly planted with bananas or used as pastures. Some small farms in Jamaica plant coconuts, banana and citrus together.

(FAO, 1989)

Alley cropping can be considered an improved bush fallow system. Small trees or shrubs are planted in cropland in rows, preferably along the contour (even where east-west orientation of the rows may minimize shading of crops). The optimal spacing between rows depends on: slope; soil type and its susceptibility to erosion; rainfall; crop species; and the soil and crop management system (FAO, 1995).

Besides adding organic matter to the system, perennial trees and shrubs recycle plant nutrients from deeper soil layers through their rooting system. Through litter and pruning, these can be used again by annual crops. Probably the most important contribution of perennials in a production system lies in the fact that throughout the whole year their roots excrete root exudates and decaying root cells, which in turn are used as an energy source by soil microorganisms. The food web in the soil is maintained, even during dry seasons when no annual crops are grown. The result is that soil biota are in place to provide the crop with nutrients at the beginning of the next cropping season.

Direct seeding is the easiest and cheapest way of establishing hedgerows around fields or in the fields (alleys). However, emerging seedlings may not be able to compete with weeds without additional care. Therefore, starting plant growth in a nursery and transplanting may be necessary for some species. Other species may be established by cuttings. With good establishment, the plants will be better able to withstand both dry spells and browsing by livestock. Crucial to a successful establishment of the hedgerow is that the selected plants should be tall enough to outgrow the weeds at the time of the first crop harvest.

Plate 11
Agroforestry plot with suboptimal stand of maize
because of shading by trees.


During the cropping season, hedgerow pruning is needed in order to avoid shading of the crop (Plate 11). The timing, frequency and extent of pruning depend on the species used and the season. As a general rule, the lower the hedgerows and the taller the crop, the less frequently is pruning required. Fastgrowing plants such as Leucaena leucocephala and Gliricidia sepium may require pruning every six weeks during the cropping season. They are often pruned to a height of about 50 cm. Care must be exercised as too frequent pruning can result in tree dieback.

The integration of trees and woody shrubs into the cropping system offers additional uses and many benefits, as mentioned by farmers using the Quezungual system in Honduras (Plate 12 and Box 6). However, farmers with short-term land tenure may not be interested in these benefits. Furthermore, the plantation of trees sometimes has an effect on the land tenure status; therefore tenants may not be allowed to establish trees on agricultural land. Agroforestry systems can also inhibit mechanization and may need increased labour inputs, especially for hedgerow pruning.

Farmers' perceptions of the Quezungual system: benefits and disadvantages

The Quezungual system has many benefits according to local farmers:

  • improved soil moisture conservation, which permits a good development of the crop even during the dry spells of 2-4 weeks halfway through the rainy season (and during the dry period of El Niño in 1997);

  • production of fuelwood and fruits from the trees and shrubs;

  • agricultural production is greater than in traditionally managed plots;

  • plots with the Quezungual system can be cultivated for longer periods than under the slash-andburn system;

  • timber trees can be cut after about 7 years and used for construction and/or sold;

  • the mulch obtained through the pruning of the trees and shrubs protects the soil surface from the impact of rain showers, thus there is less soil erosion (even during the heavy rains produced by hurricane “Mitch” in 1998 there was little soil erosion);

  • minimal labour is required to establish and maintain the Quezungual system;

  • the soil becomes more fertile and the effect of fertilizers on production improves;

  • the workability of the soil improves because the soil becomes softer, hence less labour is needed during sowing;

  • the Quezungual system provides shade for farmers while they work the plot;

  • harvested products, such as beans and maize, can be dried by hanging them over the tree trunks;

  • cattle can feed on the residues after maize and sorghum harvests;

  • mulch cover reduces the incidence of disease in the bean crop;

  • the presence of trees and shrubs in the plot attracts animals and insects, e.g. birds and butterflies.

Disadvantages mentioned by the farmers are:

  • in the first year, the production is the same as or slightly less than grain production obtained with the traditional system;

  • in the early years of implementation, the incidence of slugs in the bean crop is greater.

  • too much soil cover can impede seed germination;

  • the shade of the Quezungual system can result in a higher incidence of disease during intense rainfall periods (because of greater humidity).

(FAO, 2001)

Plate 12
Example of the “Quezungual” system, an indigenous
agroforestry system.


The hedgerow species have to be selected carefully in order to avoid negative impacts on crop production because of the complex relationships (competition for light, water and nutrients, allelopathy, occurrence of pest and diseases, etc.) that are inherent to agroforestry systems. Many farmers may consider the hedgerows as not useful, especially where their positive effects are not secure or visible. Where livestock are allowed to graze freely, it can be difficult to establish hedgerows without taking special measures to protect the young plants. Fencing or control of grazing animals may require collective efforts and agreement by the local community.

The increased labour requirement, the reduced cropped area and the difficulty of mechanization may make alley cropping uneconomic unless the hedgerow species produce direct benefits such as fruits, fuelwood or poles/timber for construction purposes (in addition to the nutrient recycling and erosion control effects).

Plate 13
Afforestation of “badlands” in the Niger.


Reforestation and afforestation

Afforestation means the establishment of a forest on land that has not grown trees recently. It can serve two principal soil and water conservation purposes: protection of erosion-prone areas, and revegetation and rehabilitation of degraded land (Plate 13). Afforestation is specifically used to provide protective cover in vulnerable, steep and mountainous areas. Afforestation helps to replenish timber resources and provide fuelwood and fodder (FAO, 1979).

The establishment of a forest cover under good management is an effective means of increasing organic matter production. However, the land must have the productive capacity to support an appropriate forest type, which differs according to climate, soil, slope and the specific purpose of the forest (timber production, livestock grazing, etc.). Therefore, the choice of species and the selection of an appropriate site are of particular importance for successful afforestation.

The procurement of adequate quantities of good quality seed of the species and provenances (adapted varieties) required is a prerequisite for any afforestation effort. However, it is often difficult to find suitable and reliable sources of such seeds.

A number of species require special pre-treatment of the seed or seedling in order to achieve satisfactory germination and uniform stand. Such treatment may consist of soaking the seed in water for varying lengths of time, alternate soaking and drying, scarifying or chipping the seed coat to render it permeable to water, plunging the seed into boiling water or even boiling it for a short time. Some tree seedlings may need a mycorrhizal treatment when planted in soils that are deprived of associated mycorrhizae species as well as rhizobium species (e.g. Casuarina in Senegalese sandy soils). The aim is to ensure that good numbers of plants germinate and that germination after sowing is both rapid and uniform (FAO, 1974).

Afforestation can be achieved by direct sowing or replanting young plants from a nursery. The main advantage of direct sowing is the reduced cost. However, this is usually much less reliable and is only justified where:

Regeneration of natural vegetation

Regeneration of natural grasslands and forest areas increases biomass production and improves the plant species diversity, resulting in more diverse soil biota and other associated beneficial organisms. Natural regeneration may be more reliable where land is not very productive. In some cases, natural regeneration of a given area may lead to the infestation of plots by weeds. Increasingly, natural vegetation is being recognized for its multipurpose benefits, for example, fuelwood, fibre, biocontrol (e.g. neem) and medicinal species, as well as restoration of soil fertility (Acacia albida and other leguminous species) and habitats for various beneficial species (pollinators and natural enemies) as well as wildlife.

Increased organic matter supply

Protection from fire

Burning affects organic matter recycling significantly. Fire destroys almost all organic materials on the land surface except for tree trunks and large branches. In addition, the surface soil is sterilized, loses part of its organic matter, the population of soil microfauna and macrofauna is reduced, and no ready-to-use organic matter is available for rapid restoration of the populations. However, this practice is widely used (e.g. in Africa) in order to enhance pasture regrowth for livestock (using residual P), to control pests and diseases, and even to catch small animals for food.

A specific and difficult case is the burning of sugar cane before harvesting. It has both a technical dimension (CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions, mechanization of harvest, sugar content, etc.) and a social dimension (manual cutting, source of survival resources for poor/landless workers). The damage depends on fire intensity, which is a function of vegetation type and climate conditions and frequency. The costs and benefits of burning and the methods to minimize harmful effects need to be identified with local populations.

Crop residue management

In systems where crop residues are managed well, they:

Depending on the nature of the following crop, decisions are made as to whether the residues should be distributed evenly over the field or left intact, e.g. where climbing cover crops (e.g. mucuna) use the maize stalks as a trellis.

An even distribution of residues: (i) provides homogenous temperature and humidity conditions at sowing time; (ii) facilitates even sowing, germination and emergence; (iii) minimizes the development of pests and diseases; and (iv) reduces the emergence of weeds through allelopathic effects.

The most appropriate method for managing crop residues depends on the purpose of the crop residues and the experience and equipment available to the farmer. Where the aim is to maintain a mulch over the soil for as long as possible, the biomass is best managed using a knife roller, chain or sledge in order to break it down but not kill it (Plate 14). Where the decomposition process should commence immediately in order to release nutrients, the residues should be slashed or mown and some N applied because dry residues have a high C:N ratio. However, in order to avoid nitrate emission, urea should not be broadcast on the surface but injected where possible.

Plate 14
Crop residue management by using a knife roller.


Utilizing forage by grazing rather than by harvesting

In many places, there is competition for the use of crop residues that can be used as fodder, for roofing, artisan handicrafts, etc. Where residues are to be used for animal feed, either the animals graze the residues directly, or they are stall- or kraal-fed.

Removal of the residues from the field can lead to a considerable loss of organic matter where animal manure is not returned to the field. By controlled grazing, the animal manure is returned in the field without a high labour input.

The experience of Guaymango, El Salvador, demonstrates that it is possible to achieve successful integration of crop and livestock components without creating competition in the allocation of crop residues (Vieira and Van Wambeke, 2002). The amount of residues produced by the system is enough to serve both as soil cover and as fodder for livestock (Choto and Saín, 1993), mainly because of the use of local sorghum varieties (instead of HYVs) that have a high straw/grain ratio (Choto, Saín and Montenegro, 1995). As farmers value crop residues as soil cover, a fodder market has developed where grazing rights, number of cattle and duration of grazing are traded.

In the northern zone of the United Republic of Tanzania, farmers have found a compromise between using the residues for grazing or soil cover, albeit one that is rather labour intensive. They separate the palatable and non-palatable parts of the crop residues. They use the non-palatable parts to cover the soil and act as food for soil organisms, while they feed the palatable parts to cattle and goats that are kept close to the homestead (Plate 15).

Integrated pest management

As with balanced fertilization, proper pest and disease management results in healthy crops. Healthy crops produce optimal biomass, which is necessary for organic matter production in the soil. Diversified cropping and mixed crop-livestock systems enhance biological control of pests and diseases through species interactions. Through integrated production and pest management farmers learn how to maintain a healthy environment for their crops. They learn to examine their crops regularly in order to observe ratios of pests to natural enemies (beneficial predators) and cases of damage, and on that basis to make decisions as to whether it is necessary to use natural treatments (using local products such as neem or tobacco) or chemical treatments and the required applications.

Plate 15
Farmer giving fodder to cattle


Applying animal manure or other carbon-rich wastes

Any application of animal manure, slurry or other carbon-rich wastes, such as coffee-berry pulp, improves the organic matter content of the soil. In some cases, it is better to allow a period of decomposition before application to the field. Any addition of carbon-rich compounds immobilizes available N in the soil temporarily, as micro-organisms need both C and N for their growth and development. Animal manure is usually rich in N, so N immobilization is minimal. Where straw makes up part of the manure, a decomposition period avoids N immobilization in the field.

Plate 16
Preparation of compost made from discarded bits of
fish and village waste. The compost plant is run by a
cooperative of young people.



Composting is a technology for recycling organic materials in order to achieve enhanced agricultural production. Biological and chemical processes accelerate the rate of decomposition and transform organic materials into a more stable humus form for application to the soil. Composting proceeds under controlled conditions in compost heaps and pits (Müller-Sämann, 1986).

Compost heaps should have a minimum size of 1 m3 and are suitable for more humid environments where there is potential for watering the compost. Compost pits (Plate 16) should be no deeper than 70 cm and should be underlain with rough material for good aeration of the compost. Pits are suitable for drier environments where the compost may desiccate (Müller-Sämann, 1986). Dry composting relies on covering the compost with soil and creating an anaerobic environment. However, this is a slower process than the more usual moist aerobic process. The ratio of C to N in the compost pile is important for optimizing microbial activity. Thus, a mixture of soft, green and brown, tougher material is used. Ash and phosphate rock are often added to accelerate the process.

Composting can complement certain crop rotations and agroforestry systems. It can be used efficiently in planting pits and nurseries. It is very similar in composition to soil organic matter. It breaks down slowly in the soil and is very good at improving the physical condition of the soil (whereas manure and sludge may break down fairly quickly, releasing a flush of nutrients for plant growth). In many circumstances, it takes time to rejuvenate a poor soil using these practices because the amount of organic material being added is small relative to the mineral proportion of the soil.

Successful composting depends upon the sufficient availability of organic materials, water, manure and “cheap” labour. Where these inputs are guaranteed, composting can be an important method of sustainable and productive agriculture. It has ameliorative effects on soil fertility and physical, chemical and biological soil properties. Well-made compost contains all the nutrients needed by plants. It can be used to maintain and improve soil fertility as well as to regenerate degraded soil. However, materials for compost production may be in short supply and the technology demands high labour inputs for proper compost production and application. Therefore, compost application may be restricted to certain crops and limited application areas, e.g. vegetable production in home gardens.

Mulch or permanent soil cover

One way to improve the condition of the soil is to mulch the area requiring amelioration. Mulches are materials placed on the soil surface to protect it against raindrop impact and erosion, and to enhance its fertility (FAO, 1995). Crop residue mulching is a system of maintaining a protective cover of vegetative residues such as straw, maize stalks, palm fronds and stubble on the soil surface (Plate 17).

The system is particularly valuable where a satisfactory plant cover cannot be established rapidly when erosion risk is greatest (FAO, 1993).

Mulching adds organic matter to the soil, reduces weed growth, and virtually eliminates erosion during the period when the ground is covered with mulch.

There are two principal mulching systems:

Crop residue mulching has numerous positive effects on crop production. However, it may require a change in existing cropping practices. For example, farmers may conventionally burn crop residues instead of returning them to the soil. In situ mulching depends on the design of appropriate cropping systems and crop rotations, which have to be integrated with the farming system. The greater labour demands of cut-and-carry systems represent a major constraint. Mulch may be more relevant in home gardens or for valuable horticulture crops (Box 7) than in less intensive farming systems.

Plate 17
No-till maize under black oat mulch, Santa Catarina, Brazil


Mulch affects the soil life. Holland and Coleman (1987) have demonstrated that litter placement on the soil surface (as opposed to incorporation with ploughing) increased the ratio of fungi to bacteria - the reason being that fungi have a higher carbon assimilation efficiency than bacteria. In addition, it encourages bioturbating (mixing) effects of macrofauna that pull the materials into surface layers of the soil.

Decreased decomposition rates

Reduced or zero tillage

Repetitive tillage degrades the soil structure and its potential to hold moisture, reduces the amount of organic matter in the soil, breaks up aggregates, and reduces the population of soil fauna such as earthworms that contribute to nutrient cycling and soil structure.

Avoiding mechanical soil disturbance implies growing crops without mechanical seedbed preparation or soil disturbance since the harvest of the previous crop. The term zero tillage is used for this practice synonymously with terms such as no-till farming, no tillage, direct drilling, and direct seeding.

Compared with conventional tillage, reduced or zero tillage has two advantages with respect to soil organic matter. Conventional tillage stimulates the heterotrophic microbiological activity through soil aeration, resulting in increased mineralization rate. Through breakdown of soil structure, it decreases upward and downward movements of soil fauna, such as earthworms, which are largely responsible for “humus” production through the ingestion of fresh residues. Reduced or zero tillage regulates heterotrophic microbiological activity because the pore atmosphere is richer in CO2/O2, and facilitates the activity of the “humifiers” (Pieri et al., 2002).

Plate 18
Farmer at work in a field of lettuces.


Mulching in the highlands of northern Thailand

Why certain crops receive mulch and others do not
Mulching provides a particular benefit to the cultivated crop. Mulching is practised for various cash crops for specific reasons. Onion and garlic are mulched mainly to control weeds (early hand weeding would be difficult without damaging the crop). The mulch is also important to keep the soil moist and cool as these crops are usually grown during the dry season under irrigation. Mulch is also applied under flowers and strawberries, mainly to protect the fragile and valuable products from becoming soiled.

Mulching saves labour. Mulching is often seen in maize fields, before as well as after crop establishment. Maize can compete reasonably well with weeds. Therefore, some farmers plant maize without tillage in a mulch of weeds previously killed with herbicides - a system that is less labour-demanding than a tillage operation. Because maize is planted with large spacings, it generally requires less rigorous weeding. Weeding is often done by slashing, and the weed residues are left on the ground.

Plate 19
Mulching in the highlands of Northern Thailand.


(Source: Van Keer et al., 1996)

Tillage has become the most common method to control weeds. However, mulching is a more environmentally sound practice than tillage for weed control. The loose soil that results from tilling has less structure than before; the appearance is deceptive. Subsequent traffic or heavy rain soon packs this loosened soil, not only negating the expensive cultivation that produced the loose soil but also culminating in a degraded environment for water entry, seed germination and root growth. Further cultivation is then required to re-loosen the soil; more expense with the same outcome - subsequent repacking and degraded soil structure. This is a typical “downward spiral” of conventional agriculture. Moreover, tillage when the soil is too moist or too dry leads to compaction or pulverization of soil; but farmers may not have the option to wait for optimal conditions.

Severe, accelerated soil erosion and the high costs in terms of labour and energy associated with plough-based methods of seedbed preparation have led to the widespread adoption of no- or zero-tillage systems for cropping in temperate and tropical climates. In no-tillage systems, the crop is sown into a soil left undisturbed since the harvest of the previous crop. Crop residue mulch is maintained and anchored firmly to the ground. Weed control relies on mechanical slashing or cover crops (FAO, 1993). Contact herbicides are also used in some cases.

In reduced- or zero-tillage systems, soil fauna resume their bioturbating activities gradually. These loosen the soil and mix the soil components (also known as biotillage). The additional benefit of the increased soil organic matter and burrowing is the creation of a stable and porous soil structure without expensive, time-consuming and potentially degrading cultivations.

In zero-tillage systems, the action of soil macrofauna gradually incorporate cover crop and weed residues from the soil surface down into the soil. The activity of microorganisms is also regulated by the activity of the macrofauna, which provide them with food and air through their burrows. In this way, nutrients are released slowly and can provide the following crop with nutrients.

Several authors have demonstrated that some crop rotations and zero tillage favour Bradyrhizobia populations, nodulation and thus N fixation and yield (Voss and Sidirias, 1985, Hungria et al., 1997, Ferreira et al., 2000). Figure 10 indicates a 200-300-percent increase in population size of root nodule bacteria in a zero-tillage system compared with conventional tillage. The presence of soybean in the crop rotation resulted in a fivefold to tenfold increase in population size of the same bacteria compared with cropping systems without soybean.

Population size of root nodule bacteria with different crop rotations

Note: S = soybean; W = wheat; M = maize.
Source: Voss and Sidirias, 1985.

Strictly speaking, the term zero tillage applies to methods involving no soil disturbance whatsoever, a condition that may be difficult to achieve. Broadcasting of seed is one way of applying zero tillage (Plate 20). The seed is broadcast over the previous crop residues and, where necessary, the residues are shaken to ensure that the seed falls on the soil surface.

In direct drilling, seeds such as maize, sorghum, soybean, wheat and barley are sown directly into shallow furrows cut into the previous crop residues (Plate 21). Weeds are controlled mechanically with a knife, which knocks down the plants and breaks their stems, or chemically with herbicides.

Traditional practices such as the burning of crop residues may inhibit the introduction of no-tillage systems. In many situations, a conflict exists between leaving crop residues on the surface or feeding them to livestock in the dry season when there is a shortage of fodder.

Mechanical soil disturbance also includes soil compaction through wheel impact of machinery, especially important in large-scale mechanized agriculture, e.g. plantations (sugar cane) or biannual crops (cotton). In a zero-tillage farming system, consideration must be given to reducing both the random placement of tyres/wheels in fields as well as the potential for compaction from animal hooves. Pietola, Horn and Yli-Halla (2003) reported the destructive effect of cattle trampling on the soil structure. Proffitt, Bendotti and McGarry (1995) demonstrated the almost total loss of soil porosity in the soil surface as a result of trampling by sheep. There is a belief that draught animals cause less land degradation than tractors. However, there are reports of soil compaction on smallholder farming enterprises in both Malawi (Douglas et al., 1999) and Bangladesh (Brammer, 2000). The hooves of draught animals and the shearing effect of ploughs or hand hoes, which are used repeatedly at a constant depth, can cause severe compacted layers. Grazing animals should be removed from zero-till fields in moist-wet soil conditions as the compaction risk is greatest at these times.

Plate 20
“Frijol tapado” or broadcast beans
on the residues of maize; a common
practice in Latin America.


Plate 21
Maize seedling directly drilled in residues of wheat.


Plate 22
A sign on a farmgate in Australia. The farmer has achieved a
working combination of zero tillage and controlled traffic and is
reaping the benefits of excellent water holding capacity in the soil,
improved organic matter status, more guaranteed harvests, and a
more predictable and rewarding farming system.


Controlled traffic, where the wheels of all in-field equipment follow permanent, defined tracks, ensures that compaction is restricted to specific known areas (Plate 22). Alternatively, flotation tyres (low ground-pressure tyres) should be fitted to all large tractors, harvesters, in-field grain bins, etc. in order to reduce their compacting potential.

Recent research has demonstrated the devastating effects of compaction from wheel impact on the occurrence and survival of eartworms (Pangnakorn et al., 2003). Earthworm incidence was greater under controlled traffic than under wheeled traffic. Figure 11 shows the immediate effects of wheeling and tillage on the earthworm population. It appears that wheeling has the most detrimental effect on earthworm survival and that where wheeling is followed by tillage the survival rate is much greater. This may indicate that earthworms are able to survive an initial compaction in the field as long as it is relieved immediately. Where it is not, earthworms are inmobilized and unable to find air and nutrients.

Live and dead earthworm numbers per square metre at 0-15 cm of soil depth sampled immediately after treatment

Source: Pangnakorn et al., 2003.

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