The system of rice intensification (SRI) developed in Madagascar in the 1980s has been promoted as an integrated crop and resource management approach to rice-cultivation, especially for resource-limited smallholder farms. While advocates have claimed that SRI could boost rice yields with less external input, many criticisms have challenged its effectiveness regarding yields and applicability to larger-scale rice farming systems. In this study, we conducted a field survey and on-farm experiments to assess rice yield performance and key management practices on a few of the early SRI-practicing smallholder farms in the central highland of Madagascar. Rice grain yields at the survey fields were 9.9 t ha-1 maximum without using mineral fertilizer. Deep plowing to the depth of 25-30 cm as well as SRI practices have been conducted continuously since the early 1990s. In addition, an effective drainage system facilitated intensive water management at these high-yielding fields. On-farm experiments demonstrated some yield increases with no interaction for the examined SRI practices, though the effects were not great enough to explain the high yields at these fields. The soils of these high-yielding fields contained relatively large amounts of soil organic carbon (SOC) from the surface to the deep soil layers, and the soil mineralizable nitrogen was closely correlated with rice grain yields. The results indicated that the high yields at the fields of those who were early to adopt SRI were mainly due to the soil fertility associated with great nitrogen-supplying ability, rather than 'synergetic effects' of the SRI components. This high N-supplying ability of the soil and accumulated SOC from surface to deep soil layers were attributable to the long-term combined practices of extensive organic applications and deep plowing. Soil hydrology could be another key factor stimulating high rates of soil N-mineralization. These management practices were, however, only applied to the limited numbers of fields within less than 1.0 ha of total landholdings of these farmers due to the great demand in labor and organic resources and the difficulty in controlling irrigation water. Intensive weeding and widely spaced transplanting of young seedlings were also performed in the fields with irrigation and drainage systems sufficient to avoid yield losses from flooding and drought. Although extensive and long-term systematic research is further required to fully assess the benefits of this sort of intensive management as opposed to conventional methods, the preferential allocation of intensive management by the successful SRI-adopters might be the implication of its location-specificity and difficulty in scaling up even within the resource-limited smallholder farms.
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