Conserving soil health for future generations

August 26, 2023
Terry Wolhuter receiving his prize – a brand new chainsaw – from Hayden Hutton of Stihl.


Terry and Belinda Wolhuter of 92 Farming (Pty) Ltd are NCT’s Commercial Tree Farmers of the Year for 2023.

Terry is the sixth generation of the Wolhuter family farming on Eiland Spruit Farm in New Hanover in the KZN midlands. The farm was established in 1851 by Mathys Wolhuter, and was historically utilised for raising cattle while crops were cultivated in the flatter areas.

It was Terry’s father, Peter Wolhuter, who started growing wattle on the steeper areas of the farm with sugar planted on the flatter areas.

The farm is 500ha in size and is currently planted with 250ha of sugar cane, 110ha of Acacia and 40ha of Eucalyptus. The remaining hectares are managed as open areas, valleys and waterways which are well maintained with seasonal work being done to ensure alien invasives are eradicated.

All timber compartments are being re-established along the contours to prevent soil erosion.

Terry is very aware of his responsibility as the custodian of the land and the importance of ensuring the viability of the farming operation for the next generation, so conservation of the natural resources - especially the soil - is of fundamental importance to his operational planning. Hence the move to ‘regenerative agriculture’. All timber compartments that are harvested are being re-established along the contours; cool burns are practiced to reduce the harvesting residues. This is only done when the weather conditions are conducive to a cool burn, and after the local community has removed firewood from the harvest sites.

Pesticide usage is kept to a minimum and weed control is done by means of line hoeing followed by a modified slasher that uses chains instead of blades. This creates a mulch in the inter-row that conserves moisture, reduces weed germination and protects the soil from sun, wind and heavy rain storm events.
Terry uses his Nguni cattle to graze under the canopy thus reducing the fuel load for fire protection, and promoting weed control.

The farm’s neighbours are corporate timber growers and NCT commercial timber growers.

Regenerative agriculture in the sugar cane blocks is done by planting the fields due for re-establishment with a cover crop seed mix that includes Japanese Radish, Stooling Rye, Fescue grass and Oats. The resultant crop is used for grazing by the Ngunis – the manure they leave behind is a bonus for the soil. After this operation, maize is planted that is either sold or used for feed.

Terry is discovering the benefits of leaving a two-year fallow period between sugar cane crops which he says increases the microbial activity in the soil and results in improved growth when the sugar cane is replanted. Due to the current situation with more sugar cane being carried over than usual, Terry is feeding this to the Ngunis so these blocks are receiving an addition bonus of manure before the sugar cane ratoons or is planted with the cover crop.

Green wattle (Acacia decurrens) stand sown with the specially designed seeder.

Terry’s passion for his farm doesn’t stop at his adoption of regenerative agricultural operations. Innovation is what has assisted Terry in the timber operation, with the creation of a unique wattle seeder as well as a modified ripper with a duck’s foot that has improved stand survival and uniformity.

The wattle seeder, built by Terry’s mechanic Tewis, has reduced the quantity of seed used per hectare and created a uniform dense hedge of young wattle seedlings that are thinned 12 to 18 months after sowing to 2 500 SPHA and then down to 1 800 SPHA at 24 months. Where site conditions allow, conventional Acacia mearnsii (Black Wattle) seedlings are planted. This is where Terry’s ripper and duck’s foot combination comes to the fore. This piece of equipment creates a rip line, and the seedlings are planted into it after is has been marked to the correct espacement. The addition of the duck’s foot behind the ripper’s tine shatters the soil underneath the surface, while the suspended weight automatically closes up the rip line ensuring that soil moisture is not lost due to drying out. This replaces the conventional pit planting system.

Being a sugar cane grower and owning an earth moving business specialising in cane contouring and water way construction, Terry knows the importance of a well-maintained road infrastructure. All the main access roads throughout the farm are gravelled. Contour roads and water ways are all grassed to prevent erosion. Stream crossings are constructed with pipes and concrete so vehicles can cross easily and silting up of the streams is prevented.

A composting operation on the farm reduces the need to purchase synthetic fertilizers to boost growth of the sugar cane crops. Compost is made from a mixture of cane tops, Mila sourced from the local cane mill and chicken litter. The ingredients are mixed and left to break down into a healthy compost that enriches the soil and boosts growth.

The composting operation reduces the need to use synthetic fertiliser, and is central to the regenerative agriculture approach.

Social responsibilities are as important as any other operation on the farm, and apart from assisting with firewood, Terry has loaned TLBs to the community and sponsored a local soccer team.

Terry he attributes the success of the farm to everyone working together, and he says it wouldn’t be the success that it is without the assistance of his wife, Belinda, especially when it comes to all the admin work.

Responsible pesticide use is essential … all pesticides are locked safely away when not in use.
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