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Fertilizer in small doses yields returns

Crop yields in the semi-arid areas of Zimbabwe have been declining over time because of poor soil fertility due to mono-cropping, lack of fertilizer, and other factors. In collaboration with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), University of Illinois researchers evaluated the use of a precision farming technique called “microdosing,” its effect on food security, and its ability to improve yields at a low cost to farmers.

Alex Winter-Nelson, University of Illinois agricultural economist, says microdosing uses fertilizer more efficiently, because the fertilizer isn’t spread across the entire field.

“Microdosing involves applying a small, affordable amount of fertilizer with the seed at planting time or as top-dressing three to four weeks after emergence,” says Winter-Nelson.
However, training is key to the adoption of microdosing. “About 75 percent of households receiving microdosing training used fertilizer in 2011,” said Winter-Nelson. “This compares to less than 25 percent of households that had not received training. Another way of looking at it is that training in microdosing raised the probability of adoption by 30 to 35 percentage points.”

Microdosing is changing people’s attitudes towards using fertilizer. Once they have proper training. “Those who had training generally disagreed with the common notion that fertilizer is not worth its price or that it burns crops,” says Winter-Nelson.
There are still obstacles to overcome, including:
-    Adequate supply
-    The ability to expand training into the under-served areas
-    The ability to reach female-headed households – which are significantly less likely to adopt the practices
Research data was collected by household surveys in eight districts in semi-arid areas along with focus groups. The survey included questions regarding assets, cropping patterns, agricultural production, training in microdosing, extension techniques, and fertilizer use and adoption.
“What was particularly encouraging from the data is that, when comparing the costs of research, development, and promotion of microdosing in Zimbabwe to the gains achieved through a 30 percent adoption rate and an estimated productivity effect, the data suggest an internal rate of return on the investment in microdosing of over 40 percent,” Winter-Nelson said. “And that’s a good motivation to continue to try to get more farmers in Zimbabwe to try microdosing.”

Source: University of Illinois

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