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What are the advantages and disadvantages of conservation tillage?

advantages and disadvantages of conservation tillage
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Conservation tillage farming is a process where the soil is not tilled or plowed before the planting season. Instead, farmers use crop residue or cover crops to hold the soil in place so that it does not erode during the planting season. Farmers still use herbicides and pesticides during this process, but they do not use as much because there is less runoff from these chemicals into nearby streams and rivers.

Conservation tillage also refers to a set of practices that leave at least 30 percent of the land covered by crop residues after planting. These practices are intended to decrease soil erosion, runoff, and related water pollution problems. Tillage is the mechanical disturbance of soil, usually done with a plow or a disk. Farmers often use tillage to prepare fields for planting, but it can also decrease crop yields and increase pesticide runoff.

What are conservation tillage methods?

Conservation tillage methods include no-tillage, strip-tillage, ridge-tillage, and mulch-tillage.

No-till

No-till involves planting seeds directly into the ground without disturbing them beforehand. This means that farmers must plant in fields with existing crop residue leftover from the previous harvest.
No-till farming doesn’t require any tilling at all. The farmer uses special equipment to plant seed directly into the ground without disturbing it beforehand. This system helps farmers save time and money because they don’t have to use fuel or other resources to prepare their fields for planting each year.

Strip-till

Strip-till involves tilling only part of the field for planting, leaving the rest undisturbed. This leaves plenty of crop residue on the field to prevent runoff, while still allowing farmers access to prepare their soil for planting with less equipment than no-till methods require. Strip-till is more effective than no-till on heavier soils, such as those with clay or silt loam texture. The strip-till bar loosens and warms the soil before planting, which promotes earlier growth and better yields for many crops. Strip-tilling also helps to control weeds by burying weed seeds at least 2 inches deep during the tillage operation. While this can be an advantage, it also can be a disadvantage because of the need to add fertilizer in a band aligned with the planting row.

Ridge-till

Ridge-till uses a special implement that cuts the soil in narrow rows, creating ridges down the length of the field where seeds are planted. Row crop is planted in ridges formed by the previous year’s crop; the soil is tilled between rows only.

Mulch-till

This is another conservation tillage technique where about one-third or half of the soil surface is covered with crop residue. Mulch-till is also known as residue management. NRCS claims that the mulch-till technique manages the amount, orientation, and distribution of crop and other plant residues on the soil surface year-round while limiting the soil-disturbing activities used to grow and harvest crops in systems where the field surface is tilled before planting.

There are so many benefits of the mulch-till technique. It minimizes soil erosion, reduces fossil fuel emissions, increases the amount of organic matter in the soil, and conserves water by minimizing evaporation at the soil surface.

How do conservation tillage practices in agriculture benefit the soil?

Here are some of the ways conservation tillage practices benefit the soil:

Reduced erosion

The number one benefit of conservation tillage is that it protects the soil from erosion by keeping it covered with plant residue year-round. This in turn reduces runoff and prevents chemicals and sediment from entering our waterways.

Improved soil health

Another way conservation tillage practices benefit the soil is by improved soil health. This is because conservation tillage systems enable reduced compaction, which allows more water infiltration, more microbial activity, better nutrient cycling, and more earthworm activity. Also, soil organic matter may be increased because of crop residue left on the soil surface after harvest. Residue cover cools the soil surface and reduces evaporation from the top few inches of soil. This can significantly reduce water use in a field during periods of drought.

Improved water conservation

Conservation tillage also helps maintain or improve soil organic matter levels. Maintaining high levels of organic matter promotes good soil structure and improves the ability of soil to store water and nutrients. Soil organic matter also provides a food source for the billions of microorganisms that live in each handful of soil. When moisture is retained in the topsoil, the residue left behind after harvest helps to retain moisture in the topsoil throughout the growing season. This can help with dry conditions, especially during a drought year, and also help with weed control in future crops

Improved air quality

Conservation tillage also reduces air pollution by decreasing dust from tilled fields. Dust contains pesticides, fertilizer nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that can get into waterways, lead from car exhausts, and other harmful particles that people breathe in. When farmers switch to conservation tillage practices, they help keep these pollutants out of the air we breathe.

Improved wildlife habitat

Conservation tillage practices also improve wildlife habitats by providing cover for small animals.

Disadvantages of conservation tillage methods

Here are some of the disadvantages of different conservation tillage methods:

No-till

  • It comes with unique equipment costs.
  • It exposes your farm to fungal disease.
  • It requires a large number of herbicides.
  • You will need a lot of patience before you can reap the benefits of no-till farming.
  • No-till farming is not suitable for certain kinds of soils. For example, soils with heavy clay.
  • You can use the fields for other purposes if you are practicing this method of farming it already.

Strip-till

  • Strip tillage equipment is sometimes more expensive than traditional tillage equipment. Strip tillage requires an investment in a strip-tillage rig and possibly other equipment as well. The equipment is usually purchased new, and the purchase price may exceed the cost of traditional tillage equipment.
    Because strip tillage is a relatively new technology, operators must receive training on how to properly use their new equipment. Operators must learn how to adjust their equipment to match field conditions. This may require numerous trips across a field to adjust the setting as conditions change.
  • Strip tillage may cause blowing soil to be deposited on crop residue in the strips during windy periods. This can cause some crop residue in the strips to be removed during seedbed preparation for seeding, reducing the effectiveness of strip tillage for residue management and weed management.
  • Strip-till machines are not very accurate when performing in hilly areas and heavily wooded locations. The machine may not have the accuracy needed in these areas while it is planting seeds or fertilizing the soil.
  • Strip-tilling requires extra care when it comes to fertilizer storage and application. This is because strip-till uses liquid fertilizers and the chemical makeup can only be stored for about six months before it begins to deteriorate. Fertilizers need to be applied properly or they can cause pollution in water sources such as lakes, rivers, or streams if too much fertilizer is spread out into the fields or soil concentrations are too high.
  • Strip-till is not recommended on highly erodible soils unless cover crops are used between cash crops planted in strips.
  • Strip-tilling also doesn’t work well in no-till fields where residue cover is sparse, or where anhydrous is injected below the soil surface. This means that once you start strip-tilling, you won’t be able to go back to no-till without fracturing the soil surface by tilling it.Ridge-till
  • It is not good for growing crops that need to be planted in rows such as sugar beet.
  • The biggest disadvantage of ridge-till is that the cultivation equipment can be difficult and expensive to find. The machinery used for Ridge-till tends to be older and may not be available from local dealers.
  • Another disadvantage is that the ridges can sometimes interfere with drainage and cause erosion problems on slopes.
  • Ridge-tillage leads to waterlogging of the soil. This is because rainwater cannot be drained away from the ridges into the furrows.
  • Ridge-tillage is not suitable for all soils, and it does not work well on heavy clay or stone-covered soils.

Mulch-till


  • Increased risk of erosion.
  • A significant amount of time spent preparing the fields
  • Difficulty in tilling the soil.
  • Mulch-till farmers also have to know how to properly use a mulch-till tractor.
  • Another disadvantage of mulch-till is that it limits the amount of land you can use for crops each season. This is because you cannot plant in an area where there are plant residues from the previous year’s crop. Also, some crops are more suitable for mulch-tilling than others. For example, soybeans grow better in mulch-tilled fields than corn and cotton crops. Therefore, this technique may not be suited for all farmers.

Conservation tillage is a farming method that leaves crop residue on the fields to reduce soil erosion and improve soil health, water retention, and fertility. In this article, we looked at what conservation tillage farming is, its advantages and disadvantages, as well as the definition of conservation tillage methods, and how conservation tillage practices in agriculture benefit the soil.

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