An overview of deep ploughing in the WANA region

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Better cereal yields and lower cost production



This is a practical guide to the use of shallow cultivation for seed bed
preparation and seeding. Shallow cultivation is essential for cereals after
medic in order to ensure regeneration. It is a low cost means of seeding
for cereal, grain legumes and vetches.

This chapter provides the economic justification for shallow cultivation.

Deep plough and cultivation is entrenched in the WANA region. The
technology is wasteful and costly.


This is an overview of deep ploughing and shallow cultivation.

Once the decision has been made to use shallow cultivation it is absolutely
essential to have the proper implements. These are simple and cheap. Their basic design principles are described.

Cultivation, hay production and rotations are the main methods of
controlling weeds in the WANA region. Herbicides have a role. Practical
problems are discussed.

The response of cereals to nitrogen fertiliser in the WANA region is erratic. This is explained and strategies developed to overcome the problem. Phosphate placement can also increase yield responses.

Mechanical harvesting is the main method of harvesting cereals in the
WANA region. The machines imported from Europe and North America
perform badly as they are designed for high yielding, damp crops.
Australian adaptions will improve efficiency in low to medium yielding
crops with short, brittle straw.

Even a modified harvester will not work efficiently on small farms, around
olive trees and with many types of cereal crops. The stripper is a genuine small scale machine suited to these conditions.

Using shallow cultivation will often require more weight on tractors. Why
and how?

Small farmers often employ contractors to carry out cultivation, seeding and
harvesting. This is expensive and various forms of group ownership provide
a low-cost alternative.






(Traditional rotation)




Cereal crop sown

Cereal crop sown

Cereal crop sown

Cereal crop sown


Cereal crop grows

Cereal crop grows

Cereal crop grows

Cereal crop grows


Cereal crop matures

Cereal crop matures

Cereal crop matures

Cereal crop matures


Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock

Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock

Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock

Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock


Weeds germinate naturally

Medic regenerates from seed
produced 18 months earlier.
No cultivation of the land

Land cultivated and sown to
vetch or similar forage

Land cultivated and sown to
grain legume such as lentils or
chick peas.


Weeds grazed. Low stocking rate.

Medic pasture grazed. High stocking rate.

Grazed or more often left for

Grain legumes grow.


Land cultivated for fallow

Medic grazed. Pods produced
for future regeneration.

Cut for hay.

Grain legumes mature.


Bare soil vulnerable to

Pods and stubble grazed.

Stubble grazed.


Stubble grazed.


Cereal cycle begins again.

Cereal cycle begins again

Cereal cycle begins again

Cereal cycle begins again


Fifty wasted years of research and extension into cultivation techniques in West Asia and North Africa.


    Fifty years ago the majority of farmers in West Asia and North Africa practised shallow cultivation using a traditional plough that had changed little over the preceding millennia.

There were pockets of colonial farmers in North Africa that used cultivation equipment imported from Europe.

After 1950 a wave of agricultural development brought deep ploughing and tractors to many more farmers as part of a package of farming improvements imported from Europe and USA.

British colonists in South Australia, which has a Mediterranean climate and soils similar to Tunisia, had perfected implements and techniques for efficient shallow cultivation a century earlier. This technology remained unknown to farmers in the WANA region until Libyans studying in Australia during the 1970's discovered its relevance. In spite of the proven superiority of shallow cultivation on farms in Libya, Iraq and Jordan researchers have failed to grasp the fundamental principles involved and have conducted seriously flawed experiments to compare cultivation depths.

The majority of farmers in the WANA region now use a form of deep cultivation that is costly and time consuming. Eliminating the wasteful and destructive fallow/cereal rotation and replacing it with legumes is being blocked because farmers lack the resources to grow more crops and deep plough simultaneously. Shallow cultivation provides the starting point for many tillage systems and rotations that reduce erosion.


Agriculture, West Asia, North Africa, shallow cultivation, deep ploughing, rotations, soil erosion.

Brief history of cultivation techniques in the region

It is generally accepted by archaeologists that farming technology based on cereals spread from the eastern Mediterranean and west Asian regions westwards to North Africa and into Europe during the sixth millennium BC.

Hand implements such as digging sticks and hoes were used to cultivate the soil and prepare a seedbed.

A major technical advance during the fourth and third millennium BC was the development of the ard pulled usually by cattle. (Barker 1985)

The ard was a simple cultivating implement that scratched the soil. Over the millennia it was improved with the use of more advanced materials such as bronze and later iron but the working principle remained essentially unaltered. The ard was the most common implement for cultivation in Europe until the beginning of the last millennium. (Grigg 1980) In West Asia and North Africa (WANA) the ard remained in common use until the 20th century.

Heavier ploughs with mould boards were developed in northern Europe but did not become common until after the agricultural revolution that started in Holland in the sixteenth century and spread gradually to neighbouring countries. (Grigg 1980)

Deep ploughing in Europe

Deep ploughing with a mould board that inverted a layer of soil and buried weeds and seeds was one of the important innovations of the agricultural revolution that has transformed European agriculture over the last several centuries.

The ard based on simple scratching cultivation of the soil worked reasonably effectively in the parts of WANA and southern Europe with a Mediterranean climate but not in the temperate northern regions of Europe.

A Mediterranean climate is characterised by mild, wet winters and hot dry summer. The cereals are sown in autumn and harvested in early summer. The land was cultivated in the autumn (or in the spring if a long cultivated fallow was used) with the ard.

The ard dug the weeds from the ground and left them to die on the surface. Even though the winters are wet there are periods of sun and drying wind between the bouts of rain, which allow the weed seedlings to be killed by dehydration.

As cereal farming moved further north from the Mediterranean the climate changed to cold, wet winters and mild, wet summers. The cereals were usually sown in the spring and cultivation using the ard was a poor means of weed control.

In a climate of frequent rain and high humidity weeds dug from the soil and left on the surface were merely transplanted not killed.

The mould board introduced a new and effective means of weed control. These ploughs scraped off a layer of soil, which was then turned completely over. The weeds were killed by denying them light.

To work effectively the burying method of weed control required a covering layer of at least 20 cm. of soil. Deep ploughing was born. This agricultural revolution started in Holland in the 16th century and spread to surrounding countries including Britain. It became the pattern for "modern advanced agriculture."

Northern European cereal technology goes south

In 1836 Britain established a farming colony in South Australia. There were earlier penal colonies in other parts of Australia but this one consisted of free settlers and was based on farming cereals and sheep.

The settlers brought with them English mould board ploughs of the period that worked the soil to a depth of at least 20 to 30 cm. and turned a complete furrow. They were pulled by horses or cattle.

The settlers were bewildered by the unfamiliar Mediterranean climate of South Australia. The aboriginal population were hunters and gatherers not farmers so were unable to provide them with advice.

The British settlers found the soil was shallow with many stones and stumps. Traction animals and farm labour were in short supply. The farmers responded to this challenge by adopting shallow cultivation as this avoided most of the physical obstacles and meant more land could be cultivated with limited animal and human power resources.

The settlers were incredibly lucky as the Australian flora did not include aggressive weeds to compete with the cereal crop in the early years. If there had been serious Australian weeds, the use of deep ploughs set at a shallow depth would have been an ineffective means of weed control.

Weed seeds were however quickly imported by accident from Britain with the cereal seed and gradually became a serious farming problem.

South Australian farmers were innovative and developed a range of implements designed specifically for efficient shallow cultivation that controlled the weeds.

In the early days mould board ploughs were common but they were quite different from the original European models. The mould boards were smaller, shorter and did not attempt to turn a furrow. They scraped a layer of soil off the surface, broke it and pushed it to one side. They could work effectively at a depth of 10 cm or even less.

Over time the scarifier - a form of heavy tined cultivator - became common as the main implement on South Australian farms. It was also designed to work the soil and kill weeds effectively at a depth of less than 10 cm. (see Buyers Guide to scarifiers)

In addition to the techniques of shallow cultivation a South Australian farmer invented a "stump jump" mechanism that allowed each individual mould board or tine to ride over a stump or stone and then return to its working position.

By the 1880's one could say that South Australian farmers had returned to the principle of the ard. Not the primitive ard based on a digging stick pulled through the soil by cattle but a sophisticated implement of iron and steel pulled by large teams of horses.

Weeds were controlled by digging them out of the ground and leaving them on the surface to die just as they had been in the third millennium BC.

Science comes to South Australian farming

In spite of a number of farming innovations, cereal production in South Australia suffered from low yields.

Weeds and low soil fertility were two of the major problems.

Farmers believed science could help them find solutions to these problems and lobbied the Government to establish an agricultural college at Roseworthy. The first director was appointed in 1881.

He arrived in 1882 and was appalled at the apparent slovenliness of the shallow cultivation universally used to prepare the seed bed for cereal crops. He immediately stomped the countryside calling on South Australian farmers to abandon the scarifier and take up deep ploughing on the English pattern.

The farmers reacted angrily to this attack on their skills and the battle raged in the farming press over many years. (Chatterton & Chatterton 1996)

To the considerable shame of the scientific community the argument was not resolved by experiment for another thirty years.

Table 1.

Yield of wheat with different depth of cultivation.   Average of 14 years to 1926 (Spafford 1927)

Depth of cultivation in cm 

Yield of wheat kg/ha.













These experiments settled the debate in South Australia at least as far as the scientists and administrators were concerned.

The farmers had never been influence by the deep ploughing push from Roseworthy. The experimental results were reported in the South Australian Journal of Agriculture and went completely unnoticed in the WANA region which is hardly surprising as it was reported in English while most of the region was controlled by French and Italian colonial administrations.

The British controlled Iraq and Jordan but did not see the relevance of technology from Australia.

The  South Australian farmers of the 19th century were lucky that they were so remote from the technological centres of Europe and had been able to develop their own technology to a stage where it worked effectively.

They had the confidence to defend it against technology developed for the wet summers of northern Europe and were prepared to do so in a robust fashion. Later farmers in the WANA region had a much harder battle.

Deep ploughing comes to WANA

In 1927 when the South Australian battle over deep ploughing was finally settled (at least in the minds of the scientific community) the great majority of farmers in the WANA region used shallow cultivation based on the ard and animal traction.

Only small pockets of French and Italian colonists in North Africa were using deep ploughs.

They had not been confronted with the challenges (particularly a lack of traction animals and farm labour) faced by the British colonists in South Australia. They had expropriated the best arable land with deep soils, few stones and no stumps. There was no shortage of animals for traction or of farm labour. They had taken the deep ploughs of their homelands from France and Italy and used them in North Africa.

Change on a large scale came in 1950. The world movement for development gathered momentum and agriculture had a high priority.

A package of improved varieties, fertilisers and better cultivation and sowing was promoted as the means of achieving agricultural development in the WANA region. The package was promoted by the new United Nations development agencies such as FAO and by bilateral aid agencies.

The package came from Europe, USA and Canada and it came with a series of implements (mouldboard and disc ploughs and chisels) for deep ploughing or deep cultivation. (See Training kits for photos of these implements and Dangers of deep ploughing in particular.  

Table 2


The area of arable land for each tractor. (FAO 1991)


70 ha.


147 ha.

By the 1990s countries such as Algeria had a level of mechanisation greater than Australia. The figures shown in Table 2 must however be treated with some caution as tractors are used for many tasks besides cultivating the land for cereals. No account is taken of the tractor power or of their state of repair.

A dissenting voice

While deep ploughing was rapidly replacing traditional shallow cultivation during the great development wave that began in the 1950s an FAO Mission to Libya reported quite different results.

Table 3.

Yields of wheat and barley as a percentage of the mean with different means of cultivation in Jebel el Akdhar region of eastern Libya (Oram 1956)

Means of cultivation.



Wooden local plough 



Mouldboard plough 30 cm 



Mouldboard plough 15 cm



Disc tiller



Disc harrow with no inversion of the soil.



  This simple set of trials demonstrated the whole cultivation debate in a nutshell.

* Good results from deep ploughing.

The deep plough treatment was greatly superior to the local wooden plough - about 30% better. There was not a significant difference between 30 cm  depth and 15 cm. depth.

* Better results from shallow cultivation.

    Shallow cultivation with a disc tiller or disc harrow was significantly better than deep ploughing and of course superior to shallow cultivation using the ard.

* Need for different implements

The experiments also demonstrated that shallow cultivation should be carried out with implements design for that purpose.

There were many better implements than the disc tillers and disc harrows used by Oram available in Australia at that time but at least he did not attempt to use the mould board ploughs at a depth of 10 cm.

    These results were published by FAO in a booklet that was part of the widely circulated "FAO Agricultural Development Papers" in 1956 but had no perceivable impact on FAO or national policies in the region that continued to favour deep ploughing.

As countries in the WANA region gained their independence from Europe the trend towards deep ploughing gathered momentum.

More funds were spent on agricultural development including a great deal on mechanisation.

The former colonial agricultural officers moved to FAO and other development agencies in large numbers where they continued to advocate deep ploughing.

Graduates from within the WANA region, often with postgraduate training in Europe and USA, staffed the national ministries of agriculture and reinforced the "scientific" support for deep ploughing.

Shallow cultivation returns to WANA in 1970s

    By 1970 the triumph of deep ploughing was complete. Shallow cultivation had retreated to small farms in remote areas where animal traction was still used.

It was hardly surprising as deep ploughing showed a 30% yield advantage over the traditional methods of shallow cultivation. (Oram 1956) The even greater yield increase from shallow cultivation had been ignored.

One reason was the lack of understanding of shallow cultivation techniques. Experiments used deep ploughs for all treatments (unlike Oram) and found that shallow cultivation produced lower yields. They attributed this to shallow cultivation. The truth was that it was inefficient cultivation carried out with the wrong implements.

The international development agencies continued to send graduates for further training in the developed northern temperate regions of Europe and USA where they absorbed a culture of deep ploughing.

Innovation in Libya

In the early 1970's a few Libyan agricultural students were sent to Australia by FAO for postgraduate training.

The FAO hierarchy had not understood that Australia with more than 100 years of farming experience in a Mediterranean climate would be a more relevant place for them to study than the humid temperate regions of the north. They sent the students on courses in wool technology as that was seen as Australia's area of excellence.

One of the students, Bashir Joudeh, quickly realised that the Australian wool industry based on the production of fine Merino wool for machine woven fabrics had no relevance to Libya with its production of coarse wool for hand woven carpets. However he was intrigued by the legume pastures that allowed enormous numbers of sheep to be kept on Australian farms and the system of growing cereals in rotation with legume pastures.

Back in Libya he was appointed Director of the Jebel el Akhdar Development Authority (the region where Peter Oram had conducted his depth of cultivation experiments 15 or 20 years earlier although I doubt whether Bashir Joudeh had seen Oram's results) and quickly imported some Australian scarifiers and a team of Australian farmers to demonstrate shallow cultivation techniques.

The Australians moved rapidly to sow a few hundred hectares of cereals and were watched by the local farmers with increasing disgust.

In an ironical reversal of roles (the local farmers took the part of the English professor sent to South Australia in 1882) they went in a deputation to Joudeh to complain about these "slovenly" farmers who only "scratched" the soil. "These Australians are only playing at farming," the delegation pronounced, "and it is a waste of Libyan Government's money to employ them. They should be tossed out of the country immediately."

Joudeh turned away their anger with pleas of patience. Summer came early that year in Libya as the spring rains failed completely.

There was not a grain to be harvested on Libyan farms but the Australian prepared fields had been sown two weeks earlier and yielded a low but significant 500 kg/ha. At the field day that followed the harvest on the Australian farm it was Joudeh's turn to demand of the local farmers "Who is playing at farming now?"

In those few months the Libyan farmers and agricultural administration had learnt the three most important lessons in the shallow cultivation story.

Three lessons that still elude the international and national research institutions in the WANA region.

    * They learnt that shallow cultivation requires implements designed for that task. In this case, Australian scarifiers, but as the design principles date from the 1850's there is nothing to prevent them being manufactured elsewhere.

    * Secondly, experienced operators are required to obtain the best results from these machines.

    * Finally they learnt that the yield increases from shallow cultivation come from an ability to sow early not from the depth of cultivation in itself.

In the 1980's there was a similar story in Jordan.

An Australian aid project imported scarifiers and farmers that impressed the Jordan Cooperative Organisation sufficiently to purchase more scarifiers and offer shallow cultivation contract services to farmers. Iraq took up shallow cultivation at projects in Erbil and Mosul.

Research into shallow cultivation

The Libyans were pleased with their results and invested heavily in shallow cultivation equipment and teams of Australian farmers to demonstrate the technique.

These were development projects and they were not reported in academic journals nor were any experiments carried out to justify the program.

There was no impact on FAO policy that continued to advocate deep ploughing in most of its extension publications (Anon 1988). To be fair FAO did accept that shallow cultivation for cereals was an essential part of the medic/cereal rotation (Chatterton and Chatterton 1988a & 1989) but this was a "problem" related to the medic rotation rather than a desirable change in it own right.

By the 1970s all countries in the WANA region had established good agricultural research institutions and they began to look at shallow cultivation following verbal reports of the Libyan success.

Many experiments were carried out. (FAO 1980) The majority can be dismissed as fundamentally flawed as the researchers failed to recognise the need for scarifiers.

They took the disc and mould board ploughs and chisels designed to work at a depth of 25 to 30 cm and set them at 15 to 20 for the medium depth plots and 8 to 12 cm for the shallow depth plots.

If they had taken a spade and cleaned away the loose soil after it had been cultivated by these implements they would have found that there is not a level plain of uncultivated soil below but a series of ridges and furrows.

When a plough or chisel is set at 30 cm it cultivates to that depth below the shear, the disc or point but between one and the next the depth may be 25 cm or less depending on the type and moisture content of the soil. This is of no significance at 30 cm. or even at 20 cm. because the ridges are still cultivated to an adequate depth but at 10 cm. it becomes crucial. (see  Buyers guide to scarifiers )

The ridges are cultivated to a depth of 5 cm. or less.

If we return to Spafford's experimental work reported in Table 1 above we see that shallow cultivation at a depth of 5 cm. produced almost the lowest yield.

South Australian farmers has spotted this problem with deep ploughs when used at a shallow depth in the 1850's and had dropped another mouldboard or tine into the gap to reduce the height of the ridge left by the deep ploughs.

The apparent blindness of so many researchers to this simple design defect points to a lack of farming expertise or a deep cultural bias that believed the very nature of shallow cultivation was "slovenly."

The few Australian agronomists who attempted to point out the failings of research based on deep ploughing implements being used for all treatments were traduced as "mere machinery salesmen" working to promote Australian equipment sales. At that time all the equipment designed for shallow cultivation came from Australia so the link was inevitable but the designs were so simple they could be manufactured anywhere.

As far as the majority of experiments were concerned they compared bad cultivation with good not shallow with deep as the researchers thought.

Using another analogy if one were to conduct an experiment to determine whether it is better to drive on the right or the left one would use cars that were designed for each treatment - that is driving on the right or the left.

In fact the deep ploughing experiments have been conducted with implements designed for deep ploughing. Translated to the driving experiment it is as if experiments on driving on the right and the left were all conducted with cars designed to drive on the right. It would hardly be surprising if such an experiment proved that driving on the right was superior.

One of the most comprehensive programs of research was carried out by ACSAD (Arab Centre for Studies of Arid Zones and Drylands based in Damascus, Syria) during the period 1986 to 1991 on many sites in different rainfall zones in Syria, Jordan, North Yemen, Algeria, Libya and Morocco.

To ACSAD's credit they did recommend that "there is no justification for carrying out deep tillages under rainfed agriculture as such tillages are costly and play no role in increasing the yield." (ACSAD no date)

It was a brave recommendation as the results of numerous experiments mostly showed no statistically significant difference in yield for cultivation depths of 8, 14, 20 cm. but where there was a significant yield difference it usually favoured medium or deep ploughing.

The actual yield figures before statistical analysis did the same. (ACSAD 1990)

As they used a disc plough, a mouldboard plough and a chisel - all designed for deep ploughing - throughout the experimental program it hardly surprising that shallow cultivation performed poorly.

The experiments were carried out on national research centres that were in most cases not equipped with scarifiers but the ITGC Centre at Tiaret, Algeria, where some of the ACSAD trials were conducted had one of the best scarifiers on the market in its machinery shed.

An examination of the scarifier by the authors in 1990 revealed that the original manufacturer's green paint was still on all the soil working parts.

The researchers lacked curiosity - not just the researcher at Tiaret but those throughout the program.

The Algerians had carried out work on shallow cultivation at their El Kroub centre but as far as I can find out the ACSAD researchers never visited the centre of referred to its published reports.

The Libyans had fifteen years of experience and tens of thousand of hectares of shallow cultivation under their belt in the Jebel el Akhdar and the Jefara Plains in the west but no one bothered to look at these farms.

By 1986 the Jordanian Cooperative Organisation (JCO) was carrying out large-scale shallow cultivation on farms with scarifiers but the ACSAD experiment continued to use deep ploughing equipment on the Jordan sites. (ACSAD 1990)

There is a further irony in the fact that the ACSAD research program was largely funded by IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), as was the JCO program of shallow cultivation.

One of the current development fashions is "farmer participation in research." The story of shallow cultivation experiments in the WANA region shows there is an even greater need for "researcher participation in farming."

Policy response to research

The major policy priority in the WANA region during the 1970s and 1980s was the production of cereals.

Policy makers were not impressed by the erratic results from shallow cultivation in the experiments. They did not realise that these were due to the use of the wrong implements. In other words poorly designed experiments.

They were concerned with increased cereal production whatever the cost.

They did not calculate the economic returns based on the experimental results. If they had done so they would have found that even the small reductions in yield due to shallow cultivation in these poorly planned experiments were profitable given the lower cost of shallow cultivation.

The further capital cost reductions due to simpler machinery were not considered either.

Marketing of deep ploughing

The other major force maintaining the status quo has been the strong marketing force behind deep ploughing.

Unfortunately over the last fifty years the marketing of deep ploughing and shallow cultivation equipment has seen the world competing with Australia.

It is unfortunate because Australia is a long way from the WANA region (although not as far a Japan which has a strong presence  in the region).

Australia has a fragmented farm machinery industry and is weak in its international marketing effort.

The use of shallow cultivation equipment has always been associated with Australian imports.

There have been to my knowledge at least three attempts to imitate the Australian equipment.

In Libya, eastern European copies were tried.

In Tunisia they used some shallow cultivation implements built in Italy with FAO sponsorship.

In Algeria there was an attempt made it introduce imitation implements from Switzerland.

In each case the copies failed because they had tried to imitate the machines rather than the task.

The designers were unable to test their implements effectively because they really did not understand the basic principles of shallow cultivation. They also failed because they were unable to demonstrate the implements undertaking that task. A common problem was a lack of weight on the tractors,

It is very strange that the global machinery manufacturers based in USA, Canada and Europe did not introduce shallow cultivation.

They had the designs and expertise. They sold this type of equipment through their Australian branches but obviously found it more convenient to supply the WANA market from America or Europe which were producing deep ploughing equipment.

Of course there is also a growing local manufacturing industry within WANA. They could have copied the Australian designs (the principles are so fundamental that they are outside patent law).

They have not done so. They continue to base their models on European and US designs.

From the purchasing side large amounts of farm machinery were purchased directly by national governments in the region.

This has changed as governments have reduced their direct intervention in agriculture but the influence was strong over the last fifty years. Shallow cultivation equipment suffered from high costs on a number of accounts that were not understood by the bureaucrats in charge of purchasing.

    * A scarifier replaces a deep plough and a cultivator.

Its cost should be compared to that package but never was.

The scarifier is also wider than the deep plough it replaces and therefore does more work.

All things being equal (that is ignoring the new rotations of medic, vetch or grain legumes and their additional cultivation requirements) the use of a wide scarifier instead of a deep plough means a reduction in the number of tractors.

    * The true cost of a machine is the price divided by the life of the machine.

Countries in the WANA region (Algeria in particular) purchased on the basis of price alone.

Some manufacturers produced special machines for the Algerian market to compete on price.

They rarely lasted more than a couple of years and were extremely expensive when calculated on a true cost basis.

The large heaps of scrap machinery on Algerian farms seemed to make no impression on these bureaucrats.

The Australian machines were built to last. They were expensive on price but cheap on true cost.

Open and closed standards.

    One common explanation for the triumph of the second-best relates to the open standard.

VHS was an inferior system for video recorders compared to Betamax or Windows computer operating system compared to Apple.

The second-best triumphed in both cases because they were accessible to all.

The easier access built larger market share for imitation machines and eventually they triumphed because it became more convenient to be part of the majority.

This argument may have some relevance to shallow cultivation.

Obviously scarifiers are an "open standard." They are so simple and have been used for so long that anyone can imitate them. They are not protected by patents.

However the fact that all imitations have so far failed indicates that copies are not as simple to make as first thought.

The reason for the failures has been the lack of understanding of the task the implements carry out.

Too much emphasis has been placed on the machine and too little on understanding on how to use it. This is consistent with a general dismissal of farmers' knowledge as being of little importance.

If this is the case it provides a glimmer of hope for the local manufacture of scarifiers in the WANA region.

Provided a few Australian models are purchased to use for training purposes I see no reason why local implements could not be built to do the same job. The key is understand what that jobs is rather than slavishly copying the details of the Australian implements.

Saving time

The majority of the experiments carried out on shallow cultivation in the WANA region failed, like the ACSAD program, to understand the significance of the first lesson learnt during the 1970s in Libya.

The first lesson is that scarifiers are essential for efficient and cost-effective shallow cultivation. Adapted or modified deep ploughs will not work effectively.

The second lesson about the use of trained operators naturally fell by the wayside.

The final lesson showing the importance of time saved was almost universally ignored.

The ACSAD researchers took a hesitant step forward and realised that time saved was an important issue but because of their failure at stage one and two the experiments were not a success.

Unfortunately the twin problems of lack of farming skills and cultural bias towards deep ploughing produced a flawed experimental design.

Table 4

Relationship between tillage depth and costs. (ACSAD no date)

Tillage depth cm. 

Rate of tillage ha/hour

Tillage cost Dinar/ha











    The experiment was carried out using a 65 HP tractor fitted with a three-disc plough designed for deep ploughing.

It was a good match for the deep ploughing treatment but for the shallow cultivation plots the tractor was unable to effectively use the power saved.

Leaving aside the question of the unsuitability of the disc plough for shallow cultivation there should have been a six-disc or nine-disc plough fitted not a three. The "default" was set to suit the deep ploughing.

Farmers know that it is not possible to increase the speed of working of disc or mould board ploughs to any great extent because of the excessive displacement of the soil.

This meant that the power saved by shallow cultivation could not be exploited in a substantial increase in tractor speed.

The alternative is to use a wider implement. If this had been done in the above experiment shallow cultivation would have been at least twice as fast and half the cost of deep ploughing.

There are other technical failings in the experiment. It was conducted on plots of 1.37 ha. The time wasted in turning (the same for all treatments) was a disproportionately high percentage of the total time.

Larger plots and a larger plough for shallow cultivation would have shown shallow cultivation to greater advantage.

Using the time saved

 Saving time and money through shallow cultivation is good.

Saving time, money and increasing yields is even better.

This was demonstrated in the first season when scarifiers were used in Libya during the 1970's. Thirty years on researchers have not yet identified it as a problem for experimental investigation and they are unlikely to do so as it too complex for the scientific methods currently employed.

Valid experiments can be conducted if deep ploughing is carried out with chisels and ploughs and shallow cultivation with scarifiers.

This will require a better understanding of farming techniques by researchers.

The time saved can be measure if the scarifiers are wider than the deep ploughs. This requires the researchers to overcome their cultural bias that treats deep ploughing as the default position.

Already such an experiment would have an alarmingly large number of variables for the statisticians to worry about.

If the time saved by using shallow cultivation is used to sow cereal crops earlier the statistical analysis of the experiment becomes a nightmare yet this is the real world of farming that researchers must enter if their research is to be relevant.

No researcher has had the imagination or courage to design an experiment with two teams - deep and shallow - who are given a set 70 hours of tractor time a week and told to get on with it.

In effect this was the method of demonstrating shallow cultivation in Libya, Iraq and Jordan. It certainly convinced farmers and administrators but researchers are often more interested in convincing each other.

Utilising the time saved - changing the rotation

Early sowing, providing weed control is not sacrificed, is a proven method of increasing cereal yields in the WANA region.

The time saved through the use of shallow cultivation will allow farmers to prepare a seed bed more rapidly and sow earlier.

This is a worthwhile advantage but the time saved can also be used to change the rotation.

The most common rotation in the region is a year of fallow followed by a cereal crop. The land is ploughed in the spring. The bare soil is left exposed to wind and water erosion during the dry summer and then cultivated again and sown in the autumn. After the harvest in early summer sheep graze the stubble. In the autumn a few weeds germinate. The weeds are grazed during winter and the land is again ploughed for the cultivated fallow in the spring. The rotation is complete.

It is wasteful rotation as the land is used for two years to produce little more than a single cereal crop.

The land is also left vulnerable to erosion for long periods.

For 50 years the research and development organisations in the WANA region have been trying to replace the fallow phase with legumes.

In fact Peter Oram's work on shallow cultivation in Libya in the early 1950's was part of a program to introduce pastures and fodder crops into the cereal rotation.

For those not familiar with agricultural terms "fallow" means rest. That is the land is rested and is not growing a crop.

In itself this might be considered a good thing but in fact the land is cultivated and left bare which does nothing to restore fertility and provides the potential for erosion.

A pasture of legumes rather than a cultivated fallow will restore the fertility of the soil, protect it from erosion and improve the soil structure.

There are many reasons for the failure of this fifty year old program to eliminate the fallow but one key constraint is the lack of resources for cultivation.

    Let us take a 20 ha. arable farm as an example.

    * With the fallow/cereal rotation the deep ploughing of the half of the land (10 ha.) in fallow is carried out in the spring.

There are few serious time constraints - although it is preferable that the soil is not too dry.

The rough seed bed on this half (10 ha.) is then worked in the autumn with secondary cultivating implements to try to break down the clods which have been baked hard by the summer sun into a reasonable tilth.

This must be done as rapidly as possible as delayed seeding will reduce cereal yields.

    * If a legume grain crop (usually lentils or chickpeas) or a legume forage (vetch) is introduced into the rotation the cultivation load is increased by at least four times.

All the land is occupied with crops of either cereals, grain legumes or fodder in the spring.

It is not possible to prepare any land in the spring.

In the autumn the farmer must plough all the land with a deep plough (10 ha. in cereals and 10 ha. in legumes) and then work it all down to a tilth.

Twice the area (20 ha.) must be ploughed and cultivated in the same autumn period as 10 ha. were cultivated with the cereal/fallow rotation.

Twice the area (20 ha.) and twice the work (ploughing + cultivation) need to be squeezed into the same time.

Delayed sowing will reduce yields.

For most farmers with limited resources this is an impossible task.

Weed control or early sowing will be sacrificed.

Yields on farms are less than those expected from results on research centres and there is a low level of adoption for the new rotation.

    * If shallow cultivation is used instead of deep ploughing the same power resources of tractors or animals can cultivate at least twice as fast.

The farmer still has double the area to cultivate unless medic pastures are used instead of grain legumes or fodder crops.

Medic pasture regenerates in the autumn without reseeding. The farmer can concentrate all his resources on the cereal crop and should be able to prepare the seed bed and sow the crop within the optimum period without additional power resources.

There is no evidence that the research institutions in the WANA region have noticed this power constraint or added it to their list of reasons for the adoption of shallow cultivation (ACSAD 1990)

Deep ploughing on the north shore of the Mediterranean.

    Deep ploughing is used in the countries on the north shore of the Mediterranean with apparent success.

These countries also have a similar Mediterranean climate and similar soils. There are a number of reasons why deep ploughing is apparently successful.

There is no evidence that shallow cultivation would not work as well and be cheaper.

    * The rainfall on the north shore is higher.

Almost all the cereal zone of the WANA region is below 500 mm.

Almost all the cereal zone of the north shore is above 500 mm.

The difference is that there is not such great pressure on farmers to utilise the limited growing season by early sowing.

    * The higher rainfall gives a higher yield potential.

This higher yield (and a price subsidised by the European taxpayer) means that total returns are much higher.

Farmers can afford the numerous cultivations needed to break down clods and produce a reasonable seed bed.

    * The higher rainfall and some frosts means that the clods are easier to break.

In the WANA region they tend to bake hard.


    Soil erosion is the major sustainability issue facing agriculture in the WANA region.

The case against deep ploughing is so strong that there is a danger that this chapter is seen as a polemic rather than an argument based on 50 years of field experience.

There are two major causes of soil erosion on arable land.

One is excessive and unsuitable cultivation.

The other is exploitative rotations that leave the land exposed for long periods.

Both are closely linked to the use of deep ploughing.

Deep ploughing cultivates a greater volume of soil so damages the structure in more soil.

The effect is worse than a simple volume relationship as the most common implements used for deep ploughing are the disc and mouldboard ploughs. These implements create more clods (ACSAD 1990) than the tined implements used for shallow cultivation.

Unlike Europe or other humid temperate regions the clods are not soften by rain and shattered by frost but hardened by sun and dry winds.

Many more cultivations are required to break them down to an acceptable tilth into which the cereal seed can be sown (Chatterton and Chatterton 1988b).

This secondary damage to the soil structure is carried out with a range of shallow cultivators, tandem discs and harrows but is directly attributable to the first deep ploughing operation.
It is interesting in this context that the average yield efficiency for wheat grown in South-eastern Australia is about 10 kg/ha per mm of rainfall falling during the growing season.

By comparison the figure for the Mediterranean basin in only 7.5 kg. or 25% less.

Research conducted in Australia shows that soil evaporation is the dominant reason for low water-use efficiency.

Experiments have shown that 30 to 80% of the rainfall evaporates from the soil surface and never enters the plants at all.

There are a number of strategies that can reduce the waste of water from evaporation from the soil surface but they are not possible with the numerous cultivations required by deep ploughing.

While more research is need to prove the case in the Mediterranean it is possible that the lower efficiency is due to deep ploughing and the higher evaporation of moisture from frequent disturbing of the soil.

 The use of pre-emergent herbicides for weed control can reduce erosion provided they are used as a substitute for cultivation. Soil structure is better.

The cultivated land is not exposed for such a long period to wind and water erosion.

The question of herbicides versus cultivation as a means of controlling weeds is only relevant to shallow cultivation.

With deep ploughing the cultivation has to be carried out many times anyway to break the clods. Using herbicides does not save cultivation costs nor does it have any beneficial effects on reducing erosion.

The most common rotation in the WANA region is the one based on a year of fallow followed by a year of cereals.

The fallow leaves the land exposed to erosion by wind and water for six to eight months and it provides nothing to replenish the organic matter and restore the soil structure. The runoff and erosion from the land during the cereal phase is high due to poor absorption of the rainfall.

The time constraint imposed by deep ploughing has already been described and the negative effect it has on the adoption of any legume/cereal rotations.

The most effective means of replacing organic matter and improving soil structure is medic pasture. Deep ploughing during the cereal phase buries the medic pods to an excessive depth. They cannot germinate in future years and the medic pasture will not regenerate.

There is also a high level of erosion on non-arable land in the WANA region that is commonly attributed to over grazing.

In fact a better description is "under-pastured."

Livestock numbers are not particularly high in the WANA region compared to similar climatic zones in Australia (Carter 1974). The distribution is different with more livestock in the rangeland and fewer in the cereal and high rainfall zones.

If the pasture potential of the fallow land were to be realised "over-grazing" would cease to be a cause of erosion.


The replacement of the traditional plough with modern implements designed for deep ploughing has improved cereal yields in the WANA region over the last fifty years.

If modern shallow cultivation equipment had been used instead of deep ploughing yield increases would have been greater and farmers would have saved time and money as well.

Modern shallow cultivation was developed in Australia in the 1850's and seemed to have been unknown to international experts and agencies until Libyans studying in Australia in the 1970's discovered its relevance to the WANA region.

Demonstrations of shallow cultivation by experienced Australian farmers using scarifiers in Libya. Iraq and Jordan proved its worth for farmers and local development agencies.

The research establishment has yet to understand the principles of efficient and cost-effective shallow cultivation.

It is also unable to incorporate "time saved" into its experimental designs or to see the potential benefits that "time saved" could have in the program to eliminate the fallow from the rotation.

Shallow cultivation reduces erosion and is an essential ingredient for the changes to the exploitative cereal/fallow rotation.

As development policies in the WANA region become more concerned with sustainable farming systems greater effort will be needed to understand and introduce shallow cultivation on WANA farms.

In spite of the need for shallow cultivation its future expansion does not appear bright. Bashir Joudeh, after a period as Director of the Jebel el Akhdar Development Authority became Libyan Minister of Agriculture but has since died.

Australia has lost interest in transferring its agricultural technology to the WANA region so there are no projects to demonstrate Australian shallow cultivation on farms in the region.

The research programs of institutions such as ACSAD and ICARDA have made little progress since the experiments of Oram published in 1956.

There are few signs that agricultural leaders recognise the problem of inappropriate tillage and its adverse effects.


1. ACSAD (1990) Report on the work of the regional rainfed farming systems research program. ACSAD/RFS/R5 January 1990 ACSAD, Damascus.

2. ACSAD (no date) Project of rainfed agriculture development and transfer of technology to farmers in the arid and semiarid areas of the Arab countries. ACSAD Damascus.

3. Anon (1988) Animal traction FAO filmstrip and extension booklet S/9712/E/12.88/1000 Also available in other languages. FAO, Rome 1988.

4. Barker, Graeme (1985) Prehistoric farming in Europe. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne and Sydney, 1985

5. Carter, E. D. (1974) The potential for increased cereal and livestock production in Algeria, Report for CIMMYT, Mexico and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, Algeria.  1974

6. Chatterton, Brian & Chatterton, Lynne (1988a) Why grow medic? Film strip and booklet. S/8675/E/11.88/1000 Also in French and Arabic. FAO, Rome 1988.

7. Chatterton, B. & Chatterton, L. (1988b) A national plan for medic training, extension and research, prepared for the Director-General of ITGC, Algeria, ACSAD, Damascus and IFAD Rome 1988.

8. Chatterton, Brian & Chatterton, Lynne (1989) Fodders for the Near East: annual medic pastures. 97/2 Plant production and protection paper. FAO, Rome 1989.

9. Chatterton, Lynne & Chatterton, Brian (1996) Sustainable Dryland Farming, Cambridge University Press, 1996

10. FAO (1980) Rainfed agriculture in the Near East and North Africa. Proceedings of the FAO regional seminar. Amman Jordan 5-10 May 1979. FAO, Rome 1980.

11. FAO 1991 Production Vol. 45 FAO Rome 1991.

12. Grigg, D.B. (1980) Population growth and agrarian change. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne and Sydney, 1980

13. Oram, P.A. (1956) Pastures and fodder crops in rotations in Mediterranean agriculture. FAO Rome 1956.

14. Spafford, W. J. (1927) How to improve cereal yields in South Australia. Journal of the Department of Agriculture of South Australia 31 p 426