Farming has been practiced since ancient times and its techniques have been evolving ever since. One of the most common methods of land preparation has been the tilling of land using conventional techniques such as plowing.
The method has been effective over the years as it has aided farmers to achieve numerous benefits in improving the soil structure. Some of the notable advantages of plowing include aiding decomposition of organic matter in the soil.
This process is possible through the burying of the inorganic matter into the soil, which accelerates decomposition and this consequently enriches the soil. Tillage is also used in the removal of weeds from the farmlands with great success.
Additionally, tilling of the land facilitates earlier planting as the soils become warm at a fast rate, and this is key in improving soil aeration.
These benefits are incredible and worthy, but unfortunately, tillage predisposes the soil to some other disadvantages that outweigh the merits of the process in the end.
Some of the cons that are as a result of tilling the land include the following:
- It leaves the soil exposed to erosion. Tilling causes the topsoil layer to be light, and this means that it is prone to erosion through water and wind. Sloppy areas and under constant tillage have visible signs of soil erosion irrespective of the numerous means of stopping the process that can be applied. Erosion strips the soil of the minerals rich top layer rendering it infertile, among many other disadvantages.
- It disrupts the weeds lie cycle. Weeds control is one of the cardinal processes in crop farming to achieve high yields. When tilling procedures such as plowing are applied, they disrupt the weeds cycle, making it easy for the reemergence of the unwanted plants shortly after control.
- It leads to the destruction and disruption of soil microorganisms’ life cycle. Microorganisms are vital in facilitating the various process in the soil, such as decomposition of organic matter. Tillage exposes the microorganisms to unnatural conditions leading to their ultimate destruction and also inhibition of their activity.
- Tillage is believed to play a huge role in aiding global warming. The process of tilling frees up the carbon dioxide that is contained in the soil, releasing it to the atmosphere and thus leading to its accumulation.
In that regard, agriculture innovators saw it fit to develop an alternative form of tillage that was effective in preparing the land for the next crop. The process is called no-till farming, and it has been successfully applied over the years in ensuring the improvement of the yields in addition to the development of fertile soils.
No-till Farming Explained
Conservation of natural resources has been one of the key priorities for many farmers in the world. This has led to the development of effective techniques such as the no-till technology that has gained massive popularity in many world parts due to its effectiveness in keeping weeds at bay while at the same time improving the productivity of the soils.
The technique was initially applied in the USA but has rapidly spread to many parts of the world, such as Europe and South America.
The highlight of the method is that it doesn’t involve tillage of the soil. In some instances, slight plowing might be applied using the disc-harrowing technique to improve the soil aeration by mixing the top layer with the sub-layer.
In no-till farming, the use of herbicides in the control of weeds is imperative. Spraying ensures that the unwanted plants are eliminated without disturbing the soil structure. However, it has its loads of disadvantages, and this has led to the development of weed control practices in no-till farming that do not involve herbicides application.
How has the no-till technology developed?
The technique of no-till farming has been applied for a long time. Edward H. Faulkner developed it in the 1940s when it was not highly used as it is today. Its spread to many parts of the USA took time as was applied after the end of the second world war.
During this period, agronomists had developed effective herbicides that were found useful in the elimination of weeds without the use of massive manpower such as in the tillage farming technique. Some of the herbicides that were developed at the time include atrazine and paraquat.
They were warmly welcomed by farmers as they facilitated weeding with minimum disturbance of the soil. The use of the technology swiftly spread to other parts of the country as it was seen as a worthy alternative to tillage, which as times consuming in addition to being highly ineffective in the end.
Farmers also saw the need to have fertile soils that had high rainfall water retention, as this improved their yields immensely soon after its introduction.
Edward H. Faulkner was so vocal in castigating the use of plowing as a land preparation technique. This prompted him to write a book in 1943 that was called “plowman’s folly.”
It drew the attention of many agriculturalists who were concerned with the negative impact of plowing, but many didn’t think of an alternative technique of solving the problem.
In the ’50s farmers adopted the use of farming tools such as the disc plow that was less harsh on disturbing the soil structure.
The use of the equipment, however, decreased as time progressed as a result of the increasing cost of acquisition together with other factors. This encouraged farmers to seek alternative tilling methods, and it is in that regard that no-till farming gained popularity and spread to many parts of the country.
As years progressed, further sophisticated techniques of no-till farming, such as the use of seeding equipment, were developed. This equipment allowed farmers to plant without digging the soil. The United States government also encouraged the use of the technology as it provided incentives to farmers who practiced farming techniques that conserved the soil and reduced erosion.
One such incentive is the 1985 farm bill that saw the number of farmers who practiced no-till farming proliferate. The bill offered to reward farmers who would practice farming techniques that encouraged high yields while at the same time minimizing soil erosion.
Rise in oil prices
Another factor that led to further adoption of the technique by farmers in the US and many world parts was the rise in oil prices. This spelled an increase in the cost of production for farmers who used heavy machinery such as tractors in soil tillage. As a result, many of them saw no-till farming as a viable alternative that would aid operating at a low cost and increase the crop yields.
The no-till technology is now a common practice in many parts of the world, with an estimated 100million hectares of land employing the method in crop production. It is widely used in the United States, South America, and Australia, although the practice has also spread to other regions such as Europe and Asia.
South America accounts for the greatest chunk of farmland under no-till farming, with approximately 49 hectares of land tilled using the technique.
Components of no-till farming
It is hard to imagine that it could be possible to practice farming without the application of tillage techniques such as tillage on the farm. However, as many farmers can attest, the technique of no-till farming is applicable and also highly productive in increasing the yields. Some of the important components of this farming technique include the following:
- Use of residue cover
After harvesting, the residue should be spread on the ground to ensure that the farm is well covered. This eliminates the need for tillage as it discourages the growth of weeds on the farm. However, some weeds man thrive under the newly formed mulch. Their control is, however, easier than when the land is left exposed through tillage.
The application of residue cover also ensures that the soil is protected from the agents of erosion, such as water and wind. Soil erosion leads to the degeneration of soil through the sweeping of crucial nutrients downstream, leaving the ground infertile for crop farming.
Application of the mulch cover also aids in the development of one of the most essential processes in soil quality improvement. It encourages the action of soil microorganisms and macro organisms that are imperative in soil development. These organisms aid in the breakdown of soil together with organic matter to release the vital nutrients that are requisite to the growth of healthy plants.
- Cover crops
The primary aim of no-till farming is to discourage the practice of disturbing the soil structure in the process of land preparation. This is because tillage encourages the development of a hardpan that requires tillage almost every time to facilitate water infiltration before planting of crops.
Instead of digging up the soil, no-till farming employs the practice of planting cover crops. Cover crops also help in the accumulation of organic matter that is a crucial component in encouraging the deposit of essential nutrients into the soil.
With the right choice of a cover crop, the yields of the main crop improve, and this means that the farmer reaps more returns. When dealing with a land that is highly compacted and requires breakdown, it is advisable to use specific cover crops that will rectify the situation of the soil and facilitate water and plant roots penetration.
One of the crops that is used to a great effect in that regard is the Daikon radish that aids in the breakdown of compacted soils with altering the structure.
- Special planting equipment.
Unlike in tillage farming where the choice of planting equipment least matters, this is a different case as the choice of the wrong machinery could undo all the impressive work that has been done before. The selection of the equipment is largely dependent on the planting technique that is employed.
What’s assured is that unlike in tillage farming, seed application in no-till farming requires the use of less sophisticated equipment. Some of the techniques used include seed broadcasting that doesn’t require much investment in machinery. A no-till drill is a useful additive to a farmer employing this farming practice.
- Use of herbicides
As noted earlier, one of the key drivers towards the actualizing of the no-till farming technique was the development of herbicides such as atrazine.
Herbicides are still in use today though, in minimal cases due to health concerns attached to their continued application. Herbicides are also believed to play a role in the destruction of the soil microorganisms that are crucial in improving the soil structure through aiding in organic matter breakdown.
All in all, when applied effectively, herbicides are essential components for the removal weeds even after planting. In a case where one intends to destroy weeds that grow together with the crops, a selective herbicide is applied. It kills the weeds while leaving the main crop to thrive under good conditions.
- Requires time
No-till farming is effective in the long run in aiding the farmer to achieve the numerous benefits that are associated with its use. However, it is not a quick-fix solution to many other issues that are experienced in farming. It should, therefore, be used with the motive of realizing long term results both on the soil as well as the yields.
The process of no-till farming leads to the realization of quick results to some farmers, while for others, it takes time. It, however, all depends on the kind of soil, the degree of compactness, and the amount of organic matter that is present during the process implementation.
For improved results, farmers practicing no-till farming should have their soils evaluated after some time to evaluate the impact of the process. This enables the application of corrective measures that aid in the quickening of the process of converting the soil to optimal productivity.
Advantages and Disadvantages of no-till farming.
This farming technique has numerous advantages that make it a more effective method over plowing. Some of the benefits associated with the technique include the following:
1. It is economical.
Farming, especially on a large scale, is carried out as an economic activity, and its primary aim is to generate profits for the farmer. On that note, any technique that would enable the farmer to lower the cost of production would be highly welcome.
No-till farming is such a technique as it allows saving on numerous costs that are inevitable in tillage techniques such as plowing. For instance, no-till farming involves minimal tillage of the land and hence requires little manpower in comparison with the tillage technique.
The process also involves minimum use of machinery such as tractors, and thus the farmer saves immensely on purchasing fuel. This cost-saving is imperative and leads to increased profits in the long run.
2. Saves on water usage.
Irrigating crops is both time-consuming as well as highly capital intensive, especially where the farmland is vast. No-till farming enables the farmer to save on the use of large amounts of water. This is facilitated by the presence of an organic cover that limits the evaporation of water to the atmosphere.
The mulch cover also assists in soil water retention, and this results in improved yields as the crops barely lack water, which is a crucial component in numerous plant processes. Additionally, the presence of the organic cover slows the speed of surface runoff and encourages infiltration into the soil. This is cardinal in preventing erosion of soil and nutrients, which leads to low productivity.
3. Minimizes herbicides runoff
One of the serious concerns with the use of herbicides is the danger that the chemicals pose when they come into contact with water sources. With no-till farming, this occurrence is largely minimized as almost all the applied herbicide is contained at the point of application.
This process is enhanced by the organic cover that ensures that the applied chemicals are not easily carried away by surface runoff. The advantage of this is that the environment around the farm remains uncontaminated and thus reducing the hazardous risks of herbicides use to humans and other animals.
4. Improvement in yields
The primary benefit of applying the no-till farming technique is the improvement of the returns in comparison to plowing. It is possible to realize an increase in yields of about more than 50% when applying this technique in farming.
The reason is that the fertilizers and manure that are applied in the technique are used exhaustively by the crops. In plowing, the nutrients are lost through evaporation due to exposure to the atmosphere as well as leaching into the soil to layers where they are of little importance to the crops. Additionally, tillage destroys microorganisms that encourage the breakdown of organic matter to release nutrients into the soil.
5. Little use of equipment
What makes farming highly capital intensive is the use of equipment that is expensive to acquire and maintain. Plowing requires numerous equipment whose maintenance leads to the increase of the production cost, and this limits the output.
For no-till farming, there is little use of equipment as the only machine that is used is the seed drill. This is also easy to maintain, and a single drill can be used to plant an extensive piece of land.
6. Aids in the improvement of microbial activity.
Crops require nutrients to produce optimally, and tillage strips the crops of the essential components. However, for no-till farming, nutrients are available in immense amounts. This is enhanced by the high rate of decomposition of organic matter.
Planting cover crops and the use of a mulch cover provides microorganisms with the requisite environment that is crucial for the breakdown of organic matter. This process also improves soil aeration, and this is crucial in improving its quality and, by extension, crop yields. The organic cover also encourages the thriving of such vital insects that aid in aerating the soil.
It is, therefore, a very effective means of improving the soil and encouraging its productivity over a long period.
7. Discourages soil compaction.
Compacted soils are very poor as they do no facilitate proper drainage leading to waterlogging. Root penetration in compacted soils is also inhibited, and this leads to unhealthy crops. Every time heavy machinery moves over the soil during plowing, there’s increased compaction.
When this occurs over an extended period, the soil becomes unsuitable for farming. No-till farming discourages compaction as there’s reduced use of machinery in tillage. Instead, cover crops and herbicides are used in weed control.
While the technique consists of numerous advantages, it also has its measure of cons that you need to be wary of as you consider applying it in crop farming. Some of the associated disadvantages include the following:
1. The high cost of equipment acquisition.
This technique is popular for its reduced use of sophisticated farming equipment. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s no equipment use wholly. For example, during planting, special equipment called drills is required, and the cost of acquisition is relatively high. There exists a thick cover made of organic matter, and seeds must be placed below this cover.
This is only possible when there’s the presence of the seed drill. Therefore, any farmer intending to practice no-till farming must be set with enough capital to purchase the planting drill as its use in planting seeds is almost inevitable.
2. May encourage fungal disease development.
It is undoubtedly that no-till farming encourages the soil to hold more water than in plowing, and this helps in plant growth. However, the presence of water, especially in poorly drained soils, can be fatal. Fungal disease thrives best in a damp environment, and such fields that are ever wet can lead to their development.
This could to massive losses and also increase the cost of production in controlling fungal infections.
3. Increased use of herbicides.
Herbicides are highly effective in controlling weeds in this technique. However, they use predisposes water sources to pollution. Additionally, the practice of no-till farming technique leads to increased dependence on herbicides used. In plowing and other tillage techniques, the weed cycle is disrupted, and this is advantageous as weeds have reduced chances of sprouting after control.
However, in no-till farming, the weed cycle is hardly disrupted, and thus, they grow all year round. This is further encouraged by the ever fertile soils due to the massive organic matter breakdown.
This means that the application of herbicides is conducted all year round. Herbicides are also expensive, and if used in massive amounts, there could be a notable impact on the cost of production.
This is especially possible when the weeds develop resistance to herbicide use, necessitating the application of a superior form of the chemical that is undoubtedly expensive.
4. Results are not experienced immediately
If you are a farmer who wishes to witness the fruits of using no-till farming some short period after beginning the practice, you should lower your expectations. This is because, in many cases, the results take an extended period to become visible.
This mainly depends on soil quality. It is, therefore, a long term project that you should expect little, especially a few years after you begin its practice. This is, however, highly disadvantageous for farmers who incur high costs of purchasing equipment such as drills only for the results to take ages for fruition.
However, when allowed the appropriate time depending on the soil structure, the results are incredible as many farmers in the USA and South America can attest.
5. Field use is limited.
One of the advantages of the use of land tilling techniques in crop farming is that the fields can be used for other purposes such as grazing, especially during seasons when land is left untilled.
This is, however, not applicable in no-till farming. In this technique, the land is used exclusively for crop farming, and this is highly detrimental to farmers who depend on the same land for raising livestock. Instead, crop residues are left to rot as organic matter.
6. Encourages the spread of diseases.
One of the primary disadvantages of using crop residues as an organic cover is the probability of spreading diseases and pests to the other crops.
This especially possible if proper pest and disease control were not practiced during the growth of the previous crop. This will lead to a decrease in the yields and also makes it highly challenging to control the pests and diseases as they become highly resistant over time.
No-till farming is one of the most popular techniques that is applied for crop production. Its primary principle is that there’s minimal to no use of farming tools and equipment in all the crop care practices. Instead, organic farming methods are applied.
There’s the use of herbicide application in the control of weeds. The technique is highly productive as it involves a low cost of production due to the minimal use of machines and manpower.
It also leads to the improvement of soil quality through the breakdown of organic matter that adds to soil fertility.