Improved soil water conservation has become an important subject in semi-arid areas due to low and erratic rainfall which is often combined with higher temperatures to provide unsuitable conditions for successful crop productivity. Dryland agriculture remains vulnerable to yield losses in these areas. This calls for implementation of conservation agricultural practices that would improve dryland maize productivity. An on-station field trial was started in 2007 at Zeekoegat experimental farm (24 kilometers north of Pretoria), to establish the effect of different conservation agriculture practices on soil and plant properties. The experimental lay-out was a split-plot randomized complete block design, replicated three times, with each replicate split into two tillage systems (whole plots) and then each whole plot (reduced tillage (RT) and conventional tillage (CT)) was subdivided into 12 treatments (two fertilizer levels x 6 cropping patterns). The present study explored the impacts of different tillage practices, cropping patterns and fertilization levels on soil water content, soil temperature and dryland maize productivity during the 2010/11 and 2011/12 growing seasons. To improve the quality of soil water content (SWC) data, the effect of correction for concretions on soil bulk density and the relationship between volumetric soil water content (SWC) vs neutron water meter (NWM) count ratios was also investigated. Corrections for concretions on soil bulk density did not improve NWM calibrations in this study. In all seasons, significantly higher mean SWC was found under RT treatment than in CT at all depths except at 0-300 mm. For example, during the 2010/11 growing season, SWC under RT was 1.32 % and 1.10 % higher than CT for the 300 – 1350 mm and 0 – 1350 mm soil profiles, respectively. The mean weekly SWC was consistently higher for RT throughout both the growing seasons. Significantly higher SWC was also found under monoculture at all soil depths (except at 0-300 mm during 2011/12) compared to treatments under intercropping. For example, during 2010/11, at 0-300mm, SWC under maize monoculture was 1.72 % higher than under intercropping. The maximum and minimum soil temperatures were significantly higher at 100 and 400 mm soil depths under CT than under RT during 2010/11. During 2011/12, significantly higher minimum soil temperatures at 100 mm depth and lower temperature differences (maximum – minimum soil temperatures) at 400 mm depth were observed under intercropping. Despite the higher SWC and reduced soil temperature under RT, the maize seeds emergence rate was lower and plant stand was reduced. This is attributed to other factors associated with RT systems such as increased soil penetration resistance which often leads to poor root development. The lower soil temperatures under RT were generally within the range that would not be expected to inhibit growth and uptake of nutrients. Slower growth under RT resulted in lower biomass and grain yield. Plants that received high fertilizer rates grew more vigorously than plants under lower fertilizer levels when water was not a limiting factor, but produced lower grain yield due to water shortage in March, especially in 2011/12. The harvest index was therefore lower for treatments that received high fertilizer levels. Maize biomass under monoculture x low fertilizer level was significantly lower compared to other fertilizer x cropping pattern treatments. Maize plant growth under intercropping was improved throughout the seasons, which led to significantly higher grain yield than under maize monoculture. It is therefore recommended that farmers in dryland areas take the advantage of intercropping maize with legumes to obtain higher maize productivity. Further research should focus on investigating the possibility of roots restrictions occurring under RT conditions and under various environmental and soil conditions.
Dissertation (MScAgric)--University of Pretoria, 2014.