As the population grows and land spaces continue to shrink, the concern for smallholder farmers is the limited space for farming. Gone are the days when farmers used to have acres of arable land. Nowadays, due to sub-division, even a quarter of an acre is a blessing.
In the tropics where Kenya lies, intensive cropping is the ideal farming method with the current reality. Very few farmers can increase land sizes. Now that land increment is out of the question, how do you maximise your profits with limited space?
The answer lies in cropping systems. This refers to a combination of crops — it is simply a plan for efficient utilisation of time and space by crops planted.
This approach ensures that production increases through proper use of natural resources like water, sun, land, soil and social-economic resources like capital, labour and markets among others. All the resources are to be used in a sustainable way.
So how can a small-holder farmer develop sustainable cropping systems?
First, you need to identify the resources at hand and these can be split into two:
i. Internal resources (farm-derived, renewable resources). These alternatives rely heavily on new information about how biological systems operate and interact with the environment.
ii. External resources (Resources outside of a farmers control like farm inputs, markets, skilled labour, climatic conditions etc).
Planning with strategy
After identifying the resources you have, plan the production activities over time and space in relation to natural resources available. Say you identify that rain water is going to be scarce this season, then plan for irrigation if resources are available or practice water saving agronomic practices like mulching, early planting or planting a drought resistant crop variety.
If you plan your activities with such insights, you will avoid huge crop losses when rains fail. Almost all seasons in Kenya there will be regions which experience crop failure and most of the maize crop: our staple food dries up and looks like onions instead. This is because farmers ignore different factors in their cropping system. It could also be that the farmers lack the right knowledge.
To improve production, farmers need to adopt intensive multiple cropping systems over monocultures. In multiple cropping, farmers must take into consideration the following before adapting a technique and selecting the crop and variety to grow:
a. The amount of rainfall received. Information can be sourced from local and national weather institution or even agricultural organisations like Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro).
b. The length of the rainy season. Predicted length can be gotten from weather stations in the county or national
c. The type of soil in your farm. A simple soil test is enough. Soil tests nowadays cost as low as Sh1,500-Sh2,500 per test depending on the soil laboratory.
d. Risks involved. A farmer can use historical data to assess the risk of a crop and if there is a new crop under consideration always consult your county agricultural office to know which crops suits your agro-ecological zone then work with that. There are insurance companies that offer this service at a fee and this should be added to production records.
e. Crop type and variety to grow in your location. Consult your local extension officers to understand the best crop adapted to your area. After identifying the crop, narrow down to the variety best suited to the region. For instance, for drylands a farmer is expected to identify drought resistant crops like ndengu then narrow down to a specific green gram variety. This increase the success rate of said crop considerably.
f. Type and timing of land preparation. If in dry areas, prepare your land in advance to allow early planting, other options for dry areas would be zero tillage to preserve spoil as much soil moisture as possible.
Onions are great pest repellents
g. Pests and diseases management. In multiple cropping systems, farmers should keep a close watch on pests as they can influence such populations either positively or negatively. For example, onions have few pests as compared to potatoes. Onions also have chemicals that repel a number of pests hence they would be a great intercrop for a vegetable garden.
Push-Pull Technology for maize
A perfect example of a cropping system that works would be the Push-Pull Technology for maize in the control of Striga weed and maize borers and fall armyworm.
Push-pull technology is actually an intercrop of maize (main crop) and desmodium (intercrop-push crop) with a boundary of Napier grass (pull crop). Desmodium roots give off chemicals in the soil that discourage the growth of striga and fix nitrogen in the soil allowing maize to thrive. The leaves of the same plant also discourage pests like fall armyworm and maize stalk borers from attacking the field hence pushing them away from the maize. The pull crop, Napier instead attracts the pests and since it is a fodder and is harvested frequently, the pests in the Napier are controlled through the harvest as they pose no harm to livestock consuming the grass.
Why rows and holes are key
h. Plant densities and geometry. This is influenced by the crop and variety selected. Plant density refers to the number of plants in a given space. Geometry is the pattern of how the crop is planted on the farm. Geometry influences land preparation during the last stage where you make rows or holes. It also influences the crop intensification techniques and planting methods.
Smart farmer vs random grower
Consider the following farmers John, Eve and Don. John decides that he won’t consider plant density and geometry and decides to broadcast the seeds in his farm. John’s farm will have no particular plant population and pattern making it difficult for him to plant another crop on the same land. Eve on the other hand, decides to adopt row planting and grows her maize in rows and her beans as well. This results into a perfect maize- bean intercrop with minimal competition. A third farmer, Don, decides to plant maize in rows but plants the bean intercrop randomly! Who among the three gets yield advantage from the intercrop? Eve is the smart farmer here! She reaped more because she reduced on the crop interactions by the use of rows.
Farmers should note cropping systems refer to how we manage our crops only. Once the livestock aspect is included, it becomes a farming system instead. Some of the crop intensification techniques include:
This is the most common crop intensification technique adapted by most farmers in the country. It allows a farmer to grow two or more crops on the same piece of land at the same time. However, it may not always be the best choice as it demands high inputs for success.
2. Sequential Cropping
Sequential cropping refers to growing two or more crops in succession in the same field that is after first crop or first intercrop is harvest another crop is planted immediately.
3. Ratoon Cropping
Ratoon cropping is a technique that is mostly practiced on monocots like rice, sugarcane, banana and pineapple. During harvest, the crop is cut in a way that allows for regrowth of the shoots for a second crop. Ratooning is an option where next planting season resources are low for a farmer. For instance, if you don’t have enough labour to dig and plant for the next season, ratoon-cropping can be an option to consider. This technique however results in a lower yield of the ratoon crop.
4. Relay Cropping
Just like relay running, a farmer practising relay cropping grows crops simultaneously where a part of the first crops growth cycle interacts with the other crop. Normally, the first crop should have reached reproductive stage before the next one is planted. For example, planting sweet potatoes in a field of maize after the maize has reached the green maize stage would be considered relay planting.
5. Alley Cropping
This cropping system adapts the growth of trees in the farm and is referred to as agroforestry practice. It involves the growth of beneficial trees and shrubs in rows and growing crops in between the alleys formed by the trees. Farmers should routinely prune the trees and shrubs to avoid over shading the crops.
In conclusion, selecting a perfect cropping system calls for a farmer to consider all the above. However, heavy emphasis is on the crop variety selected. Varieties contribute greatly to the success or failure of your crop enterprise. Plant varieties suitable for your agro-ecological zone. All the best.
[The writer is FarmKenya Initiative project leader and agronomist (BSc Agriculture, Egerton, MSc AICM, UoN]