"No-till" farming conserves soil nutrients, water, and biodiversity


"The modern plough, or mouldboard, is a root cause of land degradation - one of the major problems facing agriculture today. Left vulnerable to the elements by mechanical ploughing, the very soil in which farmers plant their crops is being literally washed and blown away.

"One of the most effective remedies for land degradation is "conservation tillage" - a revolutionary cultivation technique in which the fields are not ploughed. "This concept sprang directly from the recognition that mechanical ploughing is contributing to land degradation on a massive scale, particularly in tropical and sub-tropical countries," said FAO Senior Agricultural Engineer Theodor Friedrich.

"In the early 1970s, farmers in North and South America started experimenting with conservation tillage and even "no-tillage". Using conservation tillage, farmers leave crop residues on their fields after harvest, instead of ploughing them in or burning them off. They plant new crops with specially designed planters. These guide the seeds down into a slot in the soil underneath the protective layer of mulch formed by rotting residues.

"Often farmers using conservation tillage also plant "cover" crops - underneath the main crop or between two different crops - to cover and protect the soil. Cover crops have additional benefits according to the species planted. For instance, legumes enrich the soil with nutrients, while plants with strong, deep roots break up compacted soil.

"Twenty-five years after the first experiments by farmers with no-tillage, this new method of crop cultivation is known as conservation agriculture - because it conserves the nutrients in the soil, conserves water by improving absorption and infiltration and conserves biodiversity by protecting the natural balance in the fields."

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Conservation tillage: The end of the plough?” News and Highlights, May 3, 2000, accessed October 29, 2014, http://www.fao.org/News/2000/000501-e.htm.

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