| Research fields and projects
The Department of Agronomy focuses on traditional field crop production, pasture science and the production of crops in greenhouses. Food supply to an ever-growing world population is dependent on the ability to increase the production of cereal, protein and oilseed crops. In developed countries, these crops are also important sources of energy and protein in animal nutrition. The use of traditional food crops such as maize, sugarcane, sunflower and canola for the production of ethanol and bio-diesel also receive increasing attention. For this reason, the study field focuses on the optimal use of production inputs, such as geographic information systems (GIS) in precision farming. Due to the worldwide concern about environmental pollution, attention is also being given to sustainable production systems that use crop rotation with new crops and conservation farming techniques. One of the biggest challenges for the planted pasture industry is the selection of crops that will be able to flourish under the hot, dry conditions caused by the greenhouse effect in certain areas of South Africa. Other problems include the development of resistance by weeds to herbicides, as well as the acidification and salinisation of soils. Attention is focused on the management of herbicide resistance, as well as the role that legume pastures can play in improving soil fertility in rotational systems in the winter rainfall area. The management of natural rangeland involves the optimum utilisation of natural fodder species with minimal damage to the environment. The reclamation of poor rangeland from the grip of erosion, bush encroachment and other ecological problems will also require judicious management principles to be implemented. The Department also focuses on the cultivation of crops under soil-less conditions. Although this has been possible for more than 50 years, not all the production problems have been solved yet. The South African greenhouse tomato growers produce 30 kg/m2 and more per year under semi-intensive conditions, although we cannot compete with the yields of 70 kg/m2 and even higher that are produced in the Netherlands and Belgium under poor environmental conditions. Through close collaboration with ASNAPP (Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Products), a registered NGO, the Department of Agronomy strives to help create and develop successful African businesses in the natural products sector in several African countries, including Senegal, Ghana, Rwanda and Zambia. The trademark “Mpuntu” (“progress through development”) has been registered and products include herb tea, spices, medicinal plants and essential oils from Africa. Funding for this was obtained from the National Development Agency, the Western Cape Department of Economic Affairs and USAID (United States Agency for International Development). New projects including intensive plant production, indigenous tea and spices, essential oils, medicinal plants and herbs, as well as germ plasma conservation and distribution.
Conservation Ecology and Entomology
Research in the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology encompasses a broad array of pure and applied conservation and entomological research topics. Conservation research foci include the spatial dimensions of diversity; population and community ecology of semi-arid vegetation; drivers of change (climate change, over-exploitation, habitat fragmentation and alien invasion) and their influence on population and community structure and processes in Fynbos and Karoo vegetation; methods of testing potential bio-indicators and their application in environmental monitoring and biodiversity assessment; crocodilian and sea turtle ecology and conservation; and managing animal reintroductions (e.g. white rhinoceros in the Kruger National Park). Understanding large herbivore control of vegetation and soil processes in riparian and upland areas is also research currently being conducted by members of the Department in the Kruger National Park. The Department is a leader in research on the restoration of natural vegetation in the arid areas of South Africa, including mines in Namaqualand, pasturage in the Little and Greater Karoo, as well as conservation areas in the Western Cape. Research on conservation policy development involves the determination of the conservation attributes of natural resource management policies in southern Africa with the aim of optimising their biodiversity and socio economic outputs. The Entomological research component of the Department has three main focus areas: insect ecology and conservation, systematics and integrated pest management (IPM). Invertebrate conservation biology focuses on agricultural and freshwater systems, as well as tropical and sub-Antarctic islands and animal parasite ecology. Systematics research focuses on the Hepialoidea, Zygaenoidea and Tortricicoidea (Lepidoptera), especially the systematics of economically important pest taxa. IPM deals with research on insect and mite pests and research on entomopathogenic nematodes. Alternatives to chemical control against codling moth are needed and the use of entomopathogenic nematodes as an environmentally friendly biological control agent is being investigated. IPM projects on insects include the use of the sterile insect technique on codling moth. Sampling systems for monitoring insect pest populations are being developed and fruit fly behaviour is being investigated. The control of vine mealy bug involves mating disruption, integrated and biological control, as well as modelling and the verification of these models. Further work entails the phenology and biological control of Pseudococcus viburni on apples and pears, as well as work on olive fruit fly. Market access-related research includes phytosanitary pests of deciduous fruits and developing mitigation treatments to deal with phytosanitary restrictions within the fruit export market.
Forest and Wood Science
The research foci of the Department of Forest and Wood Science address the broad spectrum of silviculture, forest management, remote sensing and earth observation, agro-forestry, forest engineering, logistics as well as primary and secondary wood processing to pulp and paper. In silviculture the focus is on the response mechanism of pine stands to changes in the availability of growth resources (water, nutrients and light); and the long-term effect of intensive management on the sustainable utilisation of industrial plantations and drought-resistant hybrids of Eucalyptus grandis x camaldulensis. In forest management the emphasis is on the modelling of growth and the prediction of yields. Current projects include the estimation of biomass in stands of mopane; a tree volume equation for Sclerocarya; the influence of irrigation with pulp mill effluent on mensurational parameters; and forest inventories by non-professional contractors. In remote sensing the emphasis is on an automated forest inventory aimed at developing full- and semi-automated forest inventory systems based on digital image processing techniques; low-cost photogrammetry using ultra-light planes and unmanned airborne vehicles; inventory concepts for open woodlands and closed forests as part of a national inventory for Namibia; assessing the value of information; capacity audit and transfer of knowledge to people from national agriculture and forestry departments; and a dry salinity project in the Berg River. The agro-forestry focus is on arid land agro-forestry; resource use (water, nutrients and light) in agro-forestry systems; commercialisation of indigenous forestry products for use in the alleviation of rural poverty; livelihoods and income generation of wood-carving traders; management of indigenous fruit trees for improved yield; domestication of Englerophytum natalense; vegetation change analysis and ecological recovery of the Copperbelt Miombo woodland of Zambia; and a tool for forest certification in Gabon The emphasis in forest engineering includes logistics and road network management; the application of information and communication technology in operations optimisation; precision forestry; and information and knowledge management. Wood Science research includes modelling certain wood quality parameters of South African pine species to assist decision-making on round-wood processing; the drying properties and moisture movement in Eucalyptus poles; the modification of technical lignins (a by-product of the wood pulping process) into a slow-release nitrogen fertiliser; chemical surface structure of single wood or pulp fibres; the properties of solid wood, wood-fibre products and biomaterials, including by-products and the processing technologies thereof; pulpwood evaluation; the determination of the quality of pulp and paper produced from wood from trees attacked and damaged by biological agents; production of security paper; evaluation of the raw materials and the manufacture of board products; natural weathering tests on wood coatings for windows; and the use of alternative wood products in the wine-making process.
Genetics and Institute for Plantbiotechonology (IPB)
The research focus areas of the Department follow the matrix structure according to which the department operates. Focus areas within plant, animal and human genetics include studies in quantitative (breeding), population and molecular (biotechnology) genetic fields. Research on plant genetics includes the molecular characterization of viral diseases with the goal of genetic modification of grapevines for enhanced virus resistance; the isolation and molecular characterisation of plant natiuretic peptides in grapevine and their possible application in enhanced drought and disease resistance and wheat and triticale breeding. Animal genetics includes aquaculture research focused on studying the population structure and genetic diversity of various marine and freshwater fin- and shellfish species through the use of molecular analysis, and the genetic improvement of various species (trout, catfish, tilapia and abalone) for commercial production. Human genetics research entails the analysis of genes implicated in iron regulation, the haem biosynthetic pathway and drug metabolism as well as pharmacogenetic application in disease in South African populations (candidate gene screens and tailoring treatment).
The research interests of the Department of Soil Science include the contribution of agriculture to the salinisation of the Berg River, the water balance of fruit crops under irrigation, the modelling of water movement, amelioration of acid soils with industrial waste products, soil fertility in small-scale farming, ecosystems and biodiversity, and forestry and the protection of natural resources against pollution. Projects funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC) included discovering the contribution of changes in land use to the salinisation of water resources, the classification of soils with respect to their contribution to the vulnerability of ground water to pollution, and the fate of nitrogen after clearing of alien vegetation. African initiatives have included researching soil constraints to small-scale agriculture in Zambia and to plantations of teak in the Sudan. Ecological soil investigations have included the factors influencing soil infiltrability, unravelling the mystery of geophagy, determinants of savannah-grassland boundaries, restoration of degraded subtropical thicket, dieback of trees in Ngorongoro Crater and black rhino conservation. Work has continued on the pedological mysteries of heuweltjies in the Cape landscape. Acid highveld soils in Mpumalanga are being treated with ash from power stations to find out whether the ash can be used as a substitute for normal lime. The Department contributes actively to national and international projects in soil classification.
The Department of Horticulture conducts dynamic research for the deciduous fruit, citrus and fynbos industries, providing value-adding technology for industry partners aimed at increasing their global competitiveness and profitability. This includes research on reproductive development in deciduous fruit trees, with special emphasis on factors involved in reproductive bud induction and initiation, dry mass allocation to fruit, and therefore fruit size and quality, fruit tree management and allocation physiology, including training systems, tree manipulation, rootstocks, light management, crop-oriented nutrient management strategies, and carbohydrate accumulation and utilisation. Interaction between the environment and deciduous fruit tree physiology and productivity, and in particular the effects of climatic stress on carbohydrate availability, water relations and fruit quality and on climate-ameliorating technologies in the orchard, are researched. Emphasis is also placed on fruit colour development and factors involved in colour degradation in apples and pears. Another aspect of research focuses on deciduous fruit tree architecture, pruning systems, correlative phenomena, rootstocks and dormancy. The regulation of vegetative and reproductive growth and the development of Citrus species, with emphasis on fruit quality enhancement, including sugar accumulation, acid metabolism, rind colour manipulation, and fruit size enhancement, are further areas of research. Post-harvest physiology is also researched (including cell wall physiology and ripening-related disorders), as well as technology of fynbos, citrus, pome fruit, stone fruit and table grapes, including handling protocols from the point of harvest, through packing, cooling and distribution, climatic influences on quality, and non-destructive technology for determining fruit quality. Apart from the post-harvest research on fynbos we investigate flower induction in protea and Leucadendron.
The primary research focus of this Department is situated in Agrifutura (agricultural futures project), which provides support to decision makers in agriculture, and in BFAP (the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy), a joint venture between the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development of the University of Pretoria, the Department of Agricultural Economics of Stellenbosch University, and the Department of Agricultural Economics of the Provincial Department of Agriculture, Western Cape. The purpose of BFAP is to facilitate decision making in the South African agricultural sector, as well as the training of individuals in order to increase the amount of analytical and research skills available to the sector. Other research includes decision support for long-term water resource management in semi-arid areas: insights from South Africa; strategic decision making for water resource management in semi-arid areas; a review of the original recommendations and decisions taken about phasing out plantation forestry and state forest land in the Southern and Western Cape; a literature review on the input-output relationships in aquaculture; an appraisal of the impact of membership composition on the effectiveness of cooperative governance; measuring the efficiency of the South African deciduous fruit supply chain: South Africa versus Chile; an assessment of causes of food insecurity in Southern Africa; black economic empowerment in the wine industry; the profitability and competitiveness of barley production in South Africa; an institutional approach to appropriation and provision in the commons: a case study in the Highlands of Eritrea and contracts as an instrument to give black farmers access to mainstream agricultural supply chains.
The Department of Plant Pathology’s research programmes include disease management and plant improvement of mainly fruit and cereal crops. Programmes on diseases of grapes and deciduous fruit are solidly established in the Department, while research projects on diseases of citrus, vegetables and cereal crops were introduced more recently. The Department has a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to research, and makes use of the latest technology to reduce the impact of pathogens on plants and to increase resistance in plants. Basic and applied research is done on the detection, diagnosis, characterisation and epidemiology of plant pathogens; pre- and post-harvest pathology; integrated disease management strategies; and unconventional plant improvement. Molecular techniques are used for the identification and characterisation of microbes; the quantitative detection of plant pathogens in plant material, seeds and soil; the study of host-pathogen interactions; biological control; and the identification and application of plant resistance and resistance genes. Applied research includes: management of fungicide usage and fungicide resistance; control of pre- and post-harvest diseases; and the identification and management of new diseases. Hereby plant pathogens that pose a threat to local crops and export markets are controlled in a sustainable and economic manner.
The research undertaken by the Department of Animal Sciences focuses on the nutrition, breeding and physiology of animals, as well as on animal products, such as meat. With regard to ruminant nutrition, the research is aimed primarily at the optimal utilisation of available raw materials to increase the production efficiency of cattle, sheep and goats. There is a strong focus on rumen metabolism and roughage fermentation rates. The use of exogenous fibrolytic enzymes to increase the digestibility of roughage has been a focus of research over the past five years. Research on monogastric animals during the year under review focused on different aspects of poultry nutrition and management. From a nutritional point of view, new raw materials are evaluated and attempts are made to increase the efficiency of the use of conventional raw materials with a view to improving both profit margins and animal welfare. With regard to management aspects, the focus is on the manipulation of the environment to improve the health and production of poultry. Research on meat quality focuses, amongst others, on the effect of nutrition on the quality of meat of farm animals. A further strong focus area of meat research is factors that influence the quality of indigenous meats, with the emphasis on ostrich and venison. Research in animal physiology currently focuses on industry-related physiological and reproductive problems.
The Department conducts research in two main areas, using state-of-the-art technology. Food microbiology covers the detection, isolation and prevention of spoilage and pathogenic microbes in food products. The microbial populations of food products are investigated before and after heat processing, with microbes surviving the heat treatment being of special interest. Environmental management in the food industry covers anaerobe treatment, applications of ozonation and general food processing. Near infrared spectroscopy (NIR) is increasingly being used in the food industry. An NIR spectrophotometer is an analytical instrument that can rapidly and simultaneously quantify and qualify multiple components without the use of chemicals. Once the instrument has been calibrated for a specific application, results can be obtained within a minute. We are currently investigating applications for indigenous herbal and medicinal plants, as well as for the presence of mycotoxins in maize. The latter is also being investigated using hyperspectral NIR image analysis.
Department of Viticulture and Oenology (DVO) & Institute for Wine Biotechnology (IWBT)
This University and Department are the only in the country to offer opportunities for undergraduate and postgraduate study in Viticulture and Oenology.
The generation of new, innovative and applicable knowledge on the grapevine and its cultivation is the focus of the viticultural research undertaken by the Department. This includes the investigation and mapping of environmental effects on grapevine performance and wine style at the level of inter- and intra-vineyard variation, including a focus on grape secondary metabolism. A further focus is on the integration of grapevine stress physiology, biochemical pathways and management practices to optimise grape and wine quality for both the table grape and wine industries. The creation of improved grapevine material obtained by means of somatic embryogenesis as starting point for the transformation and genetic manipulation of both scion and rootstock cultivars is another point of focus.
The oenological research focuses on the influence of the vinification process (such as micro- and macro-oxygenation, etc.), micro organisms (yeasts and bacteria), additives (such as tannins and enzymes) and maturation on wine composition, style and quality.
The IWBT is the only research institute in the country that is focused primarily on vineyard and wine biotechnology and it cooperates very closely with the wine and table grape industries of South Africa. The research portfolio is divided into three programmes. The first is the molecular characterisation of metabolic and signal pathways in yeasts and the genetic improvement of wine yeast strains. Secondly, the Institute focuses on the genetic improvement of Saccharomyces cerevisiae for bioethanol production. The third programme entails the genetic improvement of grape cultivars. The IWBT has secured funding from CapeBiotech, a regional biotechnology innovation centre, to establish a company aimed at commercialising the research outputs of the Institute. SunBio officially began operations in April 2005. SunBio has to report to CapeBiotech regularly about the progress with the project and early reports indicate that the venture is proceeding well. Through its Chemical Analytical Facility, the IWBT has reorganised the in-house analytical facility to become the nucleus of a network of wine chemistry-related activities on the campus.
The University owns two experimental farms (Welgevallen and Mariendahl) that are used mainly for the training of undergraduate students and for research projects of postgraduate students and academic staff of the Faculty of AgriSciences. The farms serve in the first place as field laboratories where research projects and training of students are conducted under highly controlled conditions. However, the farms are managed in a way that simulates the practical conditions on commercial farms in the agricultural industry. Where feasible, the spare capacity of the experimental farms is utilised for commercial production in order to manage these farms as self-sufficiently as possible.
Welgevallen was purchased in 1917 at the founding of the Faculty, specifically because it was a condition that an experimental farm had to be within walking distance of the campus. Its original size was 278 ha, of which only 120 ha remain available. Welgevallen is used mainly by the departments of the Faculty of AgriSciences. The entire Department of Agronomy is situated at Welgevallen, where it has several laboratories, controlled-climate growth chambers and plastic tunnels, as well as small experimental plots. The Department of Horticulture has well-established deciduous fruit and soft citrus orchards at its disposal, while the Department of Viticulture and Oenology has well-established vineyards producing grapes of the highest quality. An experimental wine cellar equipped with the latest technology and where wine is made on a semi-commercial scale has been erected on the banks of the Eerste River. The Department of Animal Sciences also has excellent research facilities at its disposal. This department maintains a highly productive Friesian herd that is used for training, as well as for research. There are also well-equipped facilities for the execution of intensive nutritional research on large and small ruminants. Other departments that are active on the experimental farm are Genetics, Soil Science and Forest Science. The Department of Genetics annually plants 8 000 to 13 000 segregating populations and pure lines from the wheat and triticale breeding programmes under dryland conditions at Welgevallen and Mariendahl for disease evaluation and selection. The Department utilises several greenhouses and growth chambers for making crosses, doing seedling disease typing and carrying out an extensive crossbreeding programme. The latter programme focuses on producing species hybrids and secondary hybrid derivatives in an attempt to transfer disease and salt tolerance genes from the wild species to the cultivated cereals. Even departments from other faculties, such as the Departments of Botany (testing of sugar cane) and Zoology (research on bee colonies), make use of the facilities on the farm.
Mariendahl (375 ha) adjoins the Elsenburg experimental farm about 14 km outside Stellenbosch. It is used mainly by the Department of Animal Sciences. The Faculty’s excellent facilities for poultry and pig research are located at Mariendahl. The Department of Animal Sciences also has a Simmentaler herd, as well as a Döhne Merino and South African Mutton Merino flock, at its disposal. These breeds are of the highest quality and well known in the industry. The facilities are used for the training of students as well as for research for the industry.
Research on the experimental farms
The Faculty’s experimental farms are utilised by many departments as field laboratories. More than 20 trials have been executed on the two farms during the 2006 report year. The research focus areas of the different departments are discussed later in the report under the heading “Research”.
Enquiries re experimental farms can be directed to:
Mr Ivan Stevens
Manager: Experimental Farms
Faculty of AgriSciences
Tel: +27 21 808 4870