Ukulinga Research Farm

In 1950, the 500 acre farm ‘Roblyn’ which constituted part of ‘Shortt’s Retreat’ just outside Pietermaritzburg was purchased by the State for R64 000. It was aptly named Ukulinga (meaning ‘to test’ or ‘to endeavour’ in isiZulu) by Effie Scott, the wife of James D Scott. Adjoining land was later purchased increasing the farm to 356 ha. In 1973, it was transferred to the University with the proviso that it continued to be used for educational purposes. In March 1998, an agreement between the Pietermaritzburg Msunduzi Transitional Local Council and the University was signed, formalising the joining of 100 hectares of Ukulinga to the Bisley Nature Conservancy. This brought to fruition a vision of Frits Rijkenberg, then Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture: the creation of a conservancy area that would provide the Faculty’s Wildlife Science students with innovative and interactive training and learning opportunities.

Since its inception, Ukulinga has been the site of unique and ground-breaking research in several agricultural disciplines. Two of the world’s longest running ecological trials, the Veld Fertilisation Trial (VFT) and the Burning and Mowing Trial (BMT), were started by Scott in 1951 and have continued uninterrupted since then. The original objectives of the trials were primarily agricultural. Treatments in the BMT were designed to examine the influence of mowing moist tall grassveld at different times in summer, and removing the aftermath in winter by burning or mowing, on the yield and quality of hay. The VFT was designed to examine possible ways of increasing the yield of veld by fertilising with various elements. These trials are currently the focus of several internationally funded research projects aimed at examining ecosystem processes across continents. This approach epitomises the change from an agricultural focus many decades ago to an ecological focus, which in turn feeds back into agricultural management.

Horticultural research on many kinds of fruits and nuts, including the release of the scab tolerant ‘Ukulinga’ pecan nut cultivar and ‘Honey Gold’ female pawpaw – the oldest pawpaw clone in the world, has also borne much fruit.

In the 1960s, George Hunter conducted revolutionary research that involved the use of rabbits as intermediate living incubators to transport fertilised ova from ewes in England to South Africa, where they were successfully transferred into local surrogate ewes resulting in the birth of twin lambs, Romulus and Remus – now immortalised in an ornate clock created by John De Villiers as part of his Masters in Fine Arts dissertation, which hangs in the foyer of the Rabie Saunders building. In 1995 another turning point in animal breeding was achieved when Africa’s first test-tube calf was produced involving the Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

Over the years pioneering research in the area of Poultry Science has been undertaken and Ukulinga currently boasts internationally recognised facilities for poultry production. Rob Gous has been a pioneer in poultry research and an advocate for quality instruction and preparation of graduates. Work conducted at the state-of-the-art poultry facilities result in many publications on nutrition, reproductive physiology and modelling for broilers, layers and broiler breeders.

Last but not least, Agricultural Engineering is another discipline that has always been prolific at the farm. Its research on hydrology and the development of simulation techniques and systems to reduce the cost of transporting agricultural products is known far and wide

Controlled Environment Facility (CEF)

The world-class facility including greenhouse tunnels, shade houses, glasshouses, fields, propagation facilities and post-harvest storage facilities was established in the late 1960s. The late Professor Peter Allan of Horticultural Sciences had the first tunnel erected for his renowned research in vegetative propagation, floriculture, deciduous fruits and vegetable production.

Renowned maize breeder Professor Hans Gevers conducted much of his high-protein maize work in the facility.

While the Ukulinga Research Farm is also a vital facility for agricultural and ecological research at UKZN, CEF operates on a smaller scale in terms of labour and equipment costs, and is on campus, making it easier for students to access the facility.

The facility is vital for undergraduate and postgraduate student practical training through demonstration and conduct of mini-projects. Staff and postgraduate students research are conducted in diverse disciplines of agricultural plant sciences at UKZN. The facility is vital where the academic year is ’upside-down’ when planning crops season, since the summer rainfall season falls towards the end of the academic year and over the summer vacation. In order to meet academic deadlines, crops often need to be grown outside of the summer rainfall season. This is where CEF comes in, allowing researchers to undertake controlled experiments and breed crops out of season using a controlled environment.

The facility boasts 16 greenhouses (or tunnels, four of which are multi-span), two multi-span shade houses and 10 glasshouses. There are five large walk-in growth rooms, two small growth rooms, two convirons, four drying ovens, five laboratories, one post-harvest laboratory, eight potting media holding bays, a potting storage cage, three cold rooms, one milling room, lecture rooms, a media steamer, two fertigation units that serve the greenhouses, the Horticultural garden and the Plant Pathology disease garden.

On the technical side, the facility makes use of fertigation systems, combining irrigation with fertilisation. Numerous pot trials are conducted in the facility, making it easier to screen for abiotic and biotic stress tolerance and for multiplication of small quantity of seeds acquired form national international research collaborators. Heat pumps are used to ensure efficient use of electricity, and a system of water tanks, heat pumps and water pipes that run beneath the greenhouses keep plant roots at the optimum temperature.

Behind the facility, an automatic weather station run by the discipline of Agrometeorology that records current and recent weather, as well as a number of other parameters. This real-time data can be viewed and downloaded from a website run by UKZN. It is also possible to install loggers in tunnels to measure agrometeorological conditions as and when needed, and it is anticipated that future tunnels will be equipped with loggers to record these conditions.

Many of the tunnels are known by fond nicknames, including the ‘Jolly Roger’, so named by Laing after the greenhouse was given to Plant Pathology by local farmer Mr Roger Evans, and the ‘Pat’ tunnel named for Dr Patricia Caldwell.

Three technicians manage the facility: Ms Susan van der Merwe for the ACCI and Plant Pathology, Mr Matt Erasmus for Horticultural Sciences and Agricultural Production Sciences (AGPS) and Mr Brian Karlsen in electronics.