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Want to boost yields? Feed your soils

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Ugandans have been advised to embrace quality fertilisers as a solution to the declining soil fertility in the country.

According to National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), many people face chronic food insecurity partly due to the inherent poor soil fertility.

Poor use of fertilisers

Uganda has one of the lowest global rates of the use of inorganic fertilisers application ranging between 1kg to 3kg per hectare per year, according to Soil Health Program Country Report, 2008. It is estimated that only 2% of smallholder farmers use inorganic fertiliser and only about 24% apply organic inputs — mostly to perennial crops.

Benjamin Seurei, an agronomist with Grainpulse, Uganda’s first fertiliser blending factory in Lwanyonyi, Mukono district, explains that the use of fertiliser is one of the best known methods to increase farm productivity.

“With continuous growing of crops, soil nutrients are continuously harvested and need replenishment,” Seurei says.

He adds that fertiliser use also increases production per unit area which in turn brings high income to the farmer.

“Through fertiliser use, the food produced contains balanced nutrients. The nutrients that are applied in the soil are carried by the crops,” Seurei says.

However, he advises that to get the best out of fertiliser use, the farmer has to practise other good agronomy practices like choosing the right seed variety, good land preparation, weed management, pest and disease control as well as best post-harvest handling. Then this will compliment the 4R Nutrient Stewardship, which stands for applying the right source of nutrients, at the right rate, at the right time, and with the right method.

“Weeds compete with crops. After applying fertilisers, most farmers do not weed on time causing the nutrients to be consumed by the weeds,” says Seurei.

Hannington Karuhanga, the director of Grainpulse Ltd, says plants need fertilisers to provide the nutrients required for optimum growth and these are often lacking in most soils.

“In Uganda, many farmers plant crops and leave them in the garden to grow assume the soils are fertile. However, soil fertility is declining hence the need for fertilisers,” Karuhanga says.

Repeated cultivation and harvesting without replacing the nutrients in the soil lowers yields.

Currently, Grainpulse is working with global fertiliser producer K+S Kali GmbH from Germany to manufacture quality fertilisers that are blended to meet the specific crop needs in Uganda.

“Fertiliser adoption is still low in Uganda. However, with declining soil fertility, climate change, food insecurity and population increase there is need to step up our food production. The only way to improve productivity is using the right inputs which include seeds and fertilisers, among others,” Karuhanga says.

Why low use of fertilisers

According to farmers, low usage of fertilisers can be blamed on several factors.

“I never saw my parents use fertilisers. They used to plant at the beginning of the season, then harvest without those additives,” says Andrew Busulwa, a mixed farmer in Lutuntu, Wakiso district.

Busulwa’s attitude can be blamed on the practice of farming the way our grandparents used to”. And yet, according to experts, the quality of the soils 50 years ago is not the same today.

Other farmers blame poor usage on the high cost of fertilisers.

“Farmers must know that these soils have been overused and exhausted over the years,” Professor Kitungulu Zaake, a soil scientist says.

He says whereas farmers claim that fertilisers are expensive, this is a wrong perception.

“Using fertilisers increases a farmer’s yields by over 30% in most cases. The cost of the fertilisers is easily covered by these high yields. It is a matter of feeding the soils to give you more yields,” Zaake says.

He says for farmers to practise commercial agriculture, fertilisers are a must. “If you want the soils to give you food, you must feed them,” he says.

Julius Bigabwa, the first runner-up in the 2017 Best Farmers’ Competition, says to get the best fertilisers, you need to get genuine suppliers.

“There are many fake fertilisers, but you can avoid them by buying from main suppliers. Even when the fertiliser does not work, one can go back to them and they change for you. Better still they give advice on how to apply it,” he says.

Bigabwa is a mixed farmer and his enterprises include bananas, mangoes, dairy cows, guinea rats, quails, fish ponds, goats, passion fruits and trees.

“Fertilisers can be used twice or once a year. You have to target the last rains after harvest. This is because you have to replace the nutrients that have been consumed by the harvested crops,” Bigabwa says.

He advises farmers not to apply too many fertilisers which in the end spoil the crops. When too much fertiliser is applied, it can be even found in the fruits.

How to tell that your soils need fertiliser

The best option according to Bigabwa is doing a soil fertility test. However, farmers can also tell from the physical appearance of the crops.

“You can look at a banana and see that the stems are weak, the bunches produced are small and the suckers look weak. So you can tell that the soil lacks nutrients,” Bigabwa says.

Fertilisers can increase yields, but a farmer is required to put into consideration other farming practices.

Bigabwa mainly uses organic manure which he buys from Fort Portal Compost site. He says inorganic is purposely used to boost the crop growth for a short period.

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