Soil Health & Conservation

Soil Health & Conservation

Sugarcane monoculture has been linked to soil health degradation, which contributes directly to declining production and lowered resilience of the soil system against unfavourable conditions. It is therefore important to understand the management options available to sustain the production potential of soils. All our advice and information can be found in the publications and other resources listed below.


Programme Manager: Systems Design & Optimisation


Programme Manager: Systems Design & Optimisation

Tel: 031 508 7400 (Switchboard)
Tel: 031 508 7400 (Direct)

Role & Overall Purpose
  • To conduct research into soil physical aspects restricting sugarcane yields.
  • To develop procedures and guidelines to improve the soil environment for sustained sugarcane production.
  • To transfer technology to extension officers, growers and other role-players in the SA sugar industry.
  • To manage a portfolio of research projects within the SDO programme.
  • Water storage capacity of soils, soil salinity/ sodicity, soil compaction, tillage practices, root distribution, sugarcane residue management, organic ameliorants, soil health.
Research Interests
  • Impact of clay type and quantity and organic matter on soil water relationships, root distribution, buffer capacity of the soil against degradation and soil health indicators.
  • Modelling root growth and distribution and crop water use.
  • The purpose and outcomes of long-term trials.
  • Measurements to quantify the condition of soils.
  • Promoting crop rotation, organic matter use and by-product re-cycling within the sugar industry.
Key Outcomes
  • Carbon distribution between shoots and roots.
  • Water balance model for stressed sugarcane.
  • Tillage techniques to improve yields on marginal soils.
  • Nutritional and yield benefits of sugarcane residue and other organic products.
  • Soil health indicators for the SA sugar industry.
Key Publications

Dominy, CS, Haynes, RJ and Van Antwerpen, R (2002). Loss of soil organic matter and related soil properties under long-term sugarcane production on two contrasting soils. Biol Fertil Soils 36: 350-356.

Donaldson, RA, Redshaw, KA, Rhodes, R and van Antwerpen, R (2008). Season effects on productivity of some commercial South African sugarcane cultivars: II. Trash production. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 81: 528-538.

Galdos MV, Cerri CC, Cerri CEP, Paustian K & Van Antwerpen R (2009). Simulation of Soil Carbon Dynamics under Sugarcane with the CENTURY Model. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 73: 802-811.

Galdos MV, Cerri CC, Cerri CEP, Paustian K & Van Antwerpen R (2010). Simulation of sugarcane residue decomposition and aboveground growth. Plant and Soil 326 (1): 243-259 (DOI 10.1007/s11104-009-0004-3).

Graham, MH, Haynes, RJ and Van Antwerpen, R (2002). Size and activity of the soil microbial biomass in the row and inter-row of a sugarcane field under burning and green cane harvesting. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 76: 186-195.

Kingston, G, Donzelli, J.L., Meyer, J.H., Richard, E.P, Seeruttun, S., Torres J., and Van Antwerpen, R. (2005). Impact of the green cane harvest and production system on the agronomy of sugarcane. Proc Int Soc Sugar Cane Technol 25:521-531.

Marx, BJ, Bezuidenhout, CN, Lyne, PWL, Van Antwerpen, R (2006). Soil compaction decision support. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 80: 140-107.

Meyer, JH and Van Antwerpen, R (2010). Advances in sugarcane soil fertility research in South Africa. SA J Plant Soil 27(1): 19-31.

Meyer, JH, Van Vuuren JA and Van Antwerpen, R (2005). The potential role of near infra red reflectance (NIR) monitoring in precision agriculture (PAG). Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 79: 202-309.

Miles, N, Meyer, JH and Van Antwerpen, R (2008). Soil organic matter data: What do they mean? Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 81: 324-332.

Purchase BS, Wynne AT, Meyer E and Van Antwerpen R (2008). Is there profit in cane trash ? – Another dimension to the assessment of trashing versus burning. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 81: 86-99.

Singels, A, Van den Berg, M and Van Antwerpen, R (2005). Climate change and yield decline: An analysis of actual and simulated yield data from the BT1 field experiment. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 79: 491-494.

Singels A, van den Berg M, Smit MA, Jones MR, van Antwerpen R (2010). Modelling water uptake, growth and sucrose accumulation of sugarcane subjected to water stress. Field Crops Research 117: 59–69.

Van Antwerpen, R (2005). Indicators of soil health and their importance – a review. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 79: 179-191.

Van Antwerpen, R, Berry, SD, Van Antwerpen, T, Sewpersad, C and Cadet, P (2009). Indicators of soil health for use in the South African sugar industry: A work in progress. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 82: 551-563.

Van Antwerpen, R, Conlong, D and Miles, N (2011). Nutrient management options for reducing Eldana Saccharina (lepidoptera: pyralidae) infestation of trashed sugarcane fields: Results from a preliminary study. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 84: 298 – 300. (Short Comm)

Van Antwerpen, R, Haynes, RJ, Meyer, JH, and Hlanze, D (2003). Assessing organic amendments used by sugarcane growers for improving soil chemical and biological properties. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 77: 293-304.

Van Antwerpen, R, Lyne, PWL, Meyer, E and Brouwers, M (2007). Changes in bulk density of a virgin soil due to compaction by commercial haulage vehicles. Proc Int Soc Sug Cane Technol 26: 470-475.

Van Antwerpen, R, Lyne, PWL, Meyer, E and Brouwers, M (2008). Effect of surface applied pressure by vehicles fitted with pneumatic tyres on properties of a virgin soil. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 81: 408-417.

Van Antwerpen, R, Meyer, JH and Thompson, GD (2006). The impact of trashing on yield response in the South African sugar industry: A summary of results from several BT trials. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 80: 130-133.

Van Antwerpen, R, Rhodes, R and Wynne, A (2008). Economics of trashing: Improvement and sensitivity analysis of this decision support program. Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass 81: 486-488.

Van Antwerpen, T, Van Antwerpen, R, Meyer, JH, Naidoo, P, Berry, S, Spaull, V, Govender, K, Cadet, P, Rutherford, S and Laing, M (2007). Biotic and abiotic factors associated with a healthy soil in sugarcane production in KwaZulu-Natal. Proc Int Soc Sug Cane Technol 26: 273-281.


BSc Agric; MSc Agric; PhD (Free State).




English | isiZulu


Understanding and managing soils in the SA sugar industry

Sugarcane production imposes unique stresses on the soil. Monocropping and the removal of large amounts of crop material from the land at harvest, often after burning away crop residues, impact on soil health in various ways. Fortunately, there are several practices that farmers can implement to optimise both soil health and productivity. 

This book has been written to serve as a reference guide for students and farmers. It starts by providing a basic understanding of the physical, chemical and biological properties of soils, and then goes on to describe some of the important practices which serve to conserve soil health and thereby promote sustainable agriculture.

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Identification and management of the soils of the SA sugar industry

Knowing the soils that occur on a sugarcane farm and understanding how and why they differ will assist growers in deciding how to manage the crop more effectively under different soil bioclimatic conditions and help to increase farm productivity and profitability in harmony with environmental issues. Cane grows well on good soils with relatively little management, but greater knowledge is required of the many poor soils in the sugar industry if they are to be conserved and managed in the best way possible. 

This book is designed to provide a practical guide on how to identify, name and manage the more common soils that occur in the industry. Several new soil forms have been identified and where appropriate soil families have been introduced into the system in line withthe publication, Soil Classification – A Taxonomic System for South Africa (published by the Institute for Soil, Climate and Water (formerly Soils and Irrigation Research Institute), 1991).

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Green manuring

Green manuring involves the use of selected crops to improve soil health. In the sugar industry, this practice is particularly important to break the sugarcane monoculture and improve overall soil health. There are also benefits from a decrease in diseases and pests that are hosted within the soil from one cane crop to the next.

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Controlled infield traffic in sugarcane production


Erosion (isiZulu)

Decision Support System


The nomograph provides a means of integrating all factors that need to be considered when designing conservation plans for sugarcane fields. The objective of this tool is to assist growers in the design of structures to minimise soil losses through erosion. This tool was published in 1987 and is commonly known as the Nomograph.

Contour Spacing Design Tool (CoSDT)

The Contour Spacing Design Tool (CoSDT) is used for the design of soil and water conservation structures in the South African sugar industry, and to determine soil losses associated with given agricultural production practices. The objective of this tool is to assist growers in the design of structures to minimise soil losses through erosion. This tool was published in 2020 and is commonly known as CoSDT.

EconoCane: Economics of Mulching Tool

This complex DSP must be used in conjunction with a specialist. It estimates returns comparing burning with no burning at harvest. It can also be used to determine the impact of harvesting options (burn vs no burn and manual vs mechanical) on agronomy, irrigation and transport costs. EconoCane can be used to investigate leaf residue densification and the associated impact on transport. This is particularly important when investigating alternative revenue streams that can make use of the leaf material, such as cogeneration.


Research in Soil Health focuses on the development of knowledge, technologies and resources to enable the maintenance of, and where necessary, the restoration of soil health. See CROP PERFORMANCE AND MANAGEMENT for details.

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