This paper reports on early soil related outcomes from conservation agriculture (CA) benchmark sites located within the marginal rainfed environment of agro-ecological zone 4 (annual rainfall: 200–250 mm) in pre-conflict central Syria. The outcomes reported are specifically those that relate to beneficial soil quality and water retention attributes relative to conventional tillage-based soil management practices applied to the fodder barley–livestock system, the dominant system in the zone. On-farm operational research was established to examine the impact of a barley (Hordeum vulgare)
and vetch (Vicia sativa
) rotation intercropped with atriplex (Atriplex halimus
) and salsola (Salsola collina
), under CA and conventional tillage agriculture, on the soil quality parameters and crop productivity. Preliminary results showed that CA had a positive effect on the soil quality parameters and crop performance. The soil moisture and hydraulic conductivity were higher under CA (p
< 0.05), combined with improved productivity (grain and above-ground biomass) under specific crop mixes. The results suggest that despite the marginal nature of the zone, the use of CA is a viable option for the future of farmers’ livelihoods within similar localities and agro-climates, given the benefits for soil moisture and grain and straw productivity. In addition, it is likely to positively impact those in marginal environments where both pastoralism and agro-pastoralism production systems co-exist and compete for crop biomass as a main source of livestock feed. The increase in grain and straw yields vis-à-vis improvements in biophysical parameters in the CA system relative to tillage agriculture does suggest, however, that the competition with livestock for biomass is likely to reduce over time, and farmers would be able to return increased levels of straw (as stubble and residue) as mulch, given improved biomass yields.
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