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Is Conservation Tillage the Future of Agriculture?


Like any business, farmers must manage their farms with one foot in the present and the other in the future. It’s not enough to focus just on yields. We must also consider the impact those yields have on our fields. To ensure sustainable crop production, the implementation of a method like conservation tillage is vital. 

Conservation tillage is a tilling process that leaves at least 30% of the soil surface covered by residue after planting. This method results in improved soil health, added soil protection, and reduced water runoff. 

Why It Matters

The benefits of conservation tillage will vary depending on the crop being grown, topography, soil characteristics, surface cover, pest control, chemical use, and weather. Because of that variability, using smart technologies like Variable Rate Application (VRA) and precision ag technology to make better decisions regarding what tilling methods to use for your farm is so important.

Using VRA, you could reduce the level of chemicals you’re putting out per acre, therefore reducing soil damage and increasing the lifespan of your fields in the long run. It’s all about matching the right fertilizer type to crop needs. This includes taking a close look at the available sources of nutrients and making informed product availability decisions. For example, using nitrogen inhibitors can ensure your nitrogen doesn’t convert to an unusable form and leech into the groundwater, thus protecting your investment for the crop and positively impacting the environment.

Soil Health 

Last year’s crop residue acts as a blanket, warming and protecting the soil beneath. This ‘blanket’ allows for earlier planting in the spring and more time for plants to grow. We’d all like to avoid harvesting crops from the frozen ground when we can. Increasing organic matter, maintaining nutrients, and conserving moisture are essential for farm sustainability.

Organic matter acts as a reservoir of nutrients that microbes can feast on, providing nitrogen to growing plants and oxidizing matter in the top 2 inches of soil. Think of it like a giant compost pile the size of several football fields. Having more earthworms, fungi, and bacteria reduces crop disease. This reduction is due to greater competition between disease microorganisms and beneficial ones—plants grown in a nutrient-rich environment experience less stress and are likely to be healthier.

Soil Erosion 

Soil erosion has been a known issue in the US since the 18th century, and it is largely due to the weather. Anyone that has ever worked on a farm knows that weather is often unpredictable. One minute a farmer can be begging for a breeze and the next scrambling to protect his crops from hurricane winds. Where there’s volatile weather, there’s soil erosion. Soil erosion removes the productive layer of topsoil, reducing your crop yields and land value. Preventing soil erosion and keeping your topsoil in place is essential to nutrient retention, water filtration, and carbon absorption.

When raindrops hit bare soil, the energy is transferred to the point of impact. This transfer can dislodge the soil, compact the soil surface layer, and increase soil erosion and transport. However, when rain hits growing plants or crop residue, the energy is dispersed, reducing erosion and compaction. Here, cover crops and reduced tilling work very well together.

Water Conservation

As any farmer will tell you, one of the biggest challenges to growing crops is water availability. Reducing the amount of tilling you do on your farm increases crop residue, which acts like a mulch that helps the soil hold moisture.

Soil removed from fields eventually ends up as sediment in local watersheds. Crop nutrients and pesticides attach to soil particles and are then carried and deposited in waterways with the soil. By tilling less, you protect the soil surface and therefore allow water to infiltrate instead of runoff. Surface residue slows runoff, which increases infiltration because the water stays on the surface longer.

Common Assumptions

Change is never easy, and according to NDSU Associate Professor of Soil Physics Aaron Daigh, “adopting a new tillage system can be incredibly intimidating due to many real and perceived concerns. For example, some farmers presume this form of reduced tilling will lead to lower yields and increased risk for seedling diseases.” With these assumptions as a basis for their research, Daigh and his team conducted a study. This study compared on-farm conservation tillage systems during the initial four years after implementation to the standard chisel plow system. And, what they found was that those concerns about lower yields and diseases didn’t necessarily translate. Additionally, the data found that the ‘good’ microbes mentioned earlier were more prevalent in the fields where less tilling had been done.

In addition to healthier soil and more sustainable fields, by converting to a conservation tillage process, there is potential to lower production costs and improve farm profitability. Cost savings primarily stem from reductions in the use of labor and machinery. The fewer passes you take in your field, the less fuel, labor, and equipment costs you’ll have. 

All in All 

But, it’s not just about the tilling. Managing this type of tilling system is an important part of the overall farm management strategy. It includes crop rotation planning, soil condition analysis, nutrient and weed management, and equipment purchases. At the end of the day, if you properly manage each of these factors, conservation tillage will improve your bottom line. Overall, the ag community recognizes a wide range of benefits associated with conservation tillage, including environmental, economic, and quality of life benefits.

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