Soil Management: General

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The last 10 years saw a rapid expansion of land for plantation tree crops in south-east Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia. By 1993, Malaysia had 2.3 million hectares of oil palms, 1.8 million hectares of rubber and 0.4 million hectares of cocoa (Tay et al., 1995), which are growing by the days. Plantation tree crops are now cultivated on a diversified range of soils and landforms with increasing proportion of marginal soils. Our understanding of the physical, chemical and biological factors that control the fertility and productivity of soils has advanced greatly to allow us to exploit them effectively. In fact, an appreciation of this dynamic mechanism has led to an extensive use of soil information during this rapid expansion of oil palms in south-east Asia. The success story of our plantation industry owes partly to proper soil management practices, which evolved from both research and experience.

While good soil management has enable the continuous cultivation of plantation trees on the same land for over 3/4 of a century or after 3 generations of crops, poor soil management has dire consequences. For example, Goh and Chew (1994) showed that without manuring, the mean fresh fruit bunch (FFB) yield of oil palms was 32 t ha-1 yr-1 on Selangor series soil compared to 15 t ha-1 yr-1 on Rengam series soil. However, with manuring similar oil palm yields were obtained from both soil types. The increasing use of marginal land also dictates good soil management to ensure competitiveness and economic viability. This demands a correct identification of the types of soil limitations present and assessment of the degree of severity of each limitation in order to determine the most appropriate soil management practices required to fully exploit the yield potentials of the crops.

No agricultural system will be sustainable if it is not economically viable both for the farmer and the society of which he is a part (Johnston, 1995). Therefore, the importance of high early yields and sustainable yields from the economic stand point is obvious. Plantation tree crops being perennials, are subjected to large fluctuations in yields and prices of inputs and outputs. Coupled with the large investments and fixed costs involved in the industry, the maximum economic yield is usually at or near the site yield potential (Goh et al., 1994). There is now evidence to show that the inputs required to obtain the site yield potential do not necessarily endanger the environment, cause soil degradation nor reduce quality of the products (Chew et al.,1994a).

This paper, written in two parts, reviews the relevant soil management practices used in plantation tree crops for the humid tropics. Part one covers the general soil management practices while part two presents specific soil management practices to improve problem or marginal soils. This paper is restricted to oil palm, cocoa and rubber but the principles and practices should be applicable to most perennial tree crops.

Goh, K.J. and Chew, P.S. (1995). Managing soils for plantation tree crops. I. General soil management. In: Course on Soil Survey and Managing Tropical Soils (ed. Paramanathan, S.). MSSS and PASS, Kuala Lumpur: 228-245.

Note: The full list of references quoted in this article is available from the above paper.