How tillage influences soil (corn, soya, wheat, other row crops)
From its early origins using sticks or metal jabs, through to animal-drawn ploughs and now powerful equipment, tillage has been instrumental in agricultural development through the ages. At its most basic, tillage is the turning of soil as a way to control weeds and pests, in preparation for seeding in crop farming, but its effectiveness has been long debated. The debate is not limited merely ‘to till or not to till’ but to what degree tilling should occur.
Different tillage types
- Conservation tillage involves maintaining at least 30% of the soil surface covered by residues after crop planting.
- No-till (part of conservation tillage) involves leaving the soil undisturbed from harvest to planting with tillage only happening during planting by coulters or disc openers on the seed drill.
- Direct drilling systems (also part of conservation tillage) are similar to no-till systems except that some tillage options remain in direct drilling.
- Reduced tillage is a less intensive tillage system with fewer trips across a field than conventional tillage. They maintain 15% to 30% coverage of surface residues after planting.
- Minimum tillage essentially reduces tillage passes over the field to conserve fuel.
Advantages of tillage
Tillage has a number of influences on soil and, subsequently, on crop production overall. The general feeling seems to be that tillage has many associated benefits which can outweigh negatives, as long as it is not too intensive in one particular area. Here are a few of the advantages associated with tillage.
- Tillage modifies the soil structure in favour of agronomic processes such as soil seed contact, root proliferation and water filtration.
- Tillage can be extremely effective in the disruption of weed or pest life cycles and, through suppression of these, crops can flourish.
- The movement, orientation and sizing of residue through tillage equipment minimises the negative effects of crop cover and residues, thereby promoting all beneficial effects.
- Tillage increases the aeration of soil, which increases the rate of organic matter decomposition, promoting healthy crops.
- The consolidation of rocks and root crops is prevented with tillage which encourages segregation of these items.
Disadvantages of tillage
- Intensive soil tillage can actually increase the likelihood of soil erosion through water and wind erosion.
- The increased soil erosion leads to nutrient runoff into nearby waterways and the release of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
- Tillage is known to accelerate the decomposition of soil organic matter which might be beneficial in the short term, but is harmful to the soil structure in the long term. Effectively the more soil is tilled, the more carbon is released to the air and the less carbon is available to build organic matter for future crops.
- Tillage of agricultural land is extremely high energy with ever-acceleration labour costs.
- There are also costs related tillage equipment, both for purchase of new items, as well as those associated with maintenance over time. This is compounded when farmers invest in incorrect or faulty machinery.
- Crop residues, which aren’t given a chance to build up during tillage, provide shelter and food for wildlife, such as game birds and small animals. These tend to disappear with ongoing tillage.
Tillage has many benefits linked to improved crops, provided the land is tilled using effective tillage equipment and not tilled intensively over too long a period. It is worth assessing the benefits of tillage for various crop types as well as the frequency and degree of tillage needed for any particular piece of land.
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