Maize productivity and profitability in Conservation Agriculture systems across agro-ecological regions in Zimbabwe: A review of knowledge and practice
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Conservation agriculture (CA) is increasingly promoted in southern Africa as a strategy to improve food security and reverse soil degradation in the face of climate change. However, the performance of CA under different environments and its ability to improve ecosystem services is still unclear. The effects of the CA options; direct seeding, rip-line seeding, and seeding into planting basins on maize grain yield, soil health and profitability across agro-ecological regions in Zimbabwe were evaluated through a review of literature in combination with meta-analysis. Overall, CA improved maize yield over conventional agriculture. Compared to conventional agriculture, direct seeding, rip-line seeding, and seeding into planting basins increased yield by 445, 258 and 241 kg ha!1, respectively. However, there was an initial yield decline in the first two years. CA practices reduced soil erosion and bulk density, and increased soil water content in most studies. Under high levels of residue retention (6 Mg ha!1), CA systems exhibited greater macro fauna abundance and diversity than conventional agriculture, particularly termites. Weed pressure tended to increase labour requirement for hand-hoe weeding under CA compared to conventional agriculture. However, the use of herbicides reduced weeding labour demand during the early season. The benefits of CA are tied to the farmers’ management intensity including: time of planting, weeding, fertiliser and herbicide application, and adequate training on equipment use. Economic analysis results showed that on average, a farmer incurs losses for switching from conventional agriculture to CA in the main maize growing regions of Zimbabwe. Based on the six seasons’ data, the losses were least with the ripper in drier areas and worst with the direct seeder in wetter areas. Incorporation of chemical herbicides worsens the economic returns of CA tillage options in all the agro-ecological zones. Overall, the study showed that the rip-line seeding is more attractive in the drier areas than direct seeding. Although not costed in this study, critical is the cumulative reversal of soil degradation associated with consistent CA practice which can sustain agriculture. Results from this review suggest that the benefits of CA depend largely on the type and context of CA being practised. It is thus imperative to profile the technology, the farmer socio-economic circumstances and the bio-physical environment in which the farmer operates for proper geographical and beneficiary targeting to achieve greater impact. More longer-term studies are required to fully elucidate the benefits and context of CA options and practice.