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Yield levels in smallholder farming systems in semi-arid sub-Saharan Africa are generally low. Water shortage in the root zone during critical crop development stages is a fundamental constraining factor.
While there is ample evidence to show that conservation tillage can promote soil health, it has recently been suggested that the main benefit in semi-arid farming systems may in fact be an in situ water harvesting effect. In this paper we present the result from an on-farm conservation tillage experiment (combining ripping with mulch and manure application) that was carried out in North Eastern Tanzania from 2005 to 2008.
Special attention was given to the effects of the tested treatment on the capacity of the soil to retain moisture. The tested conservation treatment only had a clear yield increasing effect during one of the six experimental seasons (maize grain yields increased by 41%, and biomass by 65%), and this was a season that received exceptional amounts of rainfall (549 mm).
While the other seasons provided mixed results, there seemed to be an increasing yield gap between the conservation tillage treatment and the control towards the end of the experiment, and cumulatively the yield increased with 17%. Regarding soil system changes, small but significant effects on chemical and microbiological properties, but not on physical properties, were observed.
This raises questions about the suggested water harvesting effect and its potential to contribute to stabilized yield levels under semi-arid conditions.
We conclude that, at least in a shorter time perspective, the tested type of conservation tillage seems to boost productivity during already good seasons, rather than stabilize harvests during poor rainfall seasons. Highlighting the challenges involved in upgrading these farming systems, we discuss the potential contribution of conservation tillage towards improved water availability in the crop root zone in a longer term perspective.