For thousands of years human beings have developed the conventional agricultural practice that contemplates ploughing soils, which involves burying the residues of cultivation, manure, and weeds, while the soil is aerating and heating. According to experts, this method has been destroying soils progressively and has increased over time, becoming more intensive mainly due to lack of knowledge regarding other alternatives.
However, no-tillage agriculture, no-till agriculture or zero tillage agriculture, has become more popular over the last few decades as an alternative to prevent further degradation of the soil. With this method, good quality land is achieved and, more importantly, arable lands, which guarantee our long-term survival.
In this sense, unlike traditional agricultural practices, no-tillage agriculture is a less invasive method that allows crop production without this implying the necessary ploughing of soils to achieve healthier planting soils, with better structure, high levels of organic matter and greater biological activity. In the long run, these zero tillage lands will have more sustainable yields with excellent quality crops.
According to information published on the website Modern Farmer, almost 23 billion tons of good land are lost annually due to the practice of conventional agriculture. This situation can result in the total loss of arable land over a period of 150 years, even though it may happen sooner depending on short-term decisions, and in the worst-case scenario lead to an unprecedented global food crisis.
That’s why no-tillage agriculture could help transform this reality. However, as it happens with all techniques, it is necessary to analyse many details and consider several factors to know what to face and be able to implement this methodology in more regions of the planet.
Pros and cons of no-tillage agriculture:
- Savings in terms of labour. This is certainly one of the aspects that stands out the most for agricultural producers, since conventional agriculture requires the investment of a large amount of money for the payment of fuel and labour alone. By choosing no-tillage agriculture this expenditure decreases greatly.
- Soils with greater water absorption. One of the advantages of no-tillage agriculture is that there are remains of harvest on the surface that have the ability to absorb water that comes from irrigation and rains, so runoff decreases. This alternative can be highly beneficial, especially in drought-prone regions. In this sense, we recommend you to read our post about crops in drought conditions.
- Less contact with herbicides. Without water runoff, herbicides and other substances don’t come in contact with other nearby sources of water. In this case, we invite you to watch our webinar on the use of totally impermeable films for soil treatments.
- Increased crop yield. This is most frequently seen in regions where humidity levels are extremely low. There are farmers who stopped ploughing when they switched to no-tillage agriculture and claim to be getting larger crops compared to what they used to get with the conventional practice.
- Resource availability. Perhaps all this was unthinkable a few decades ago, but the truth is that today agricultural producers have managed to have more resources, thanks to the fact that no-tillage agriculture has gained ground.
- Expensive equipment. Although a lot of money can be saved in terms of labour and fuel, one of the disadvantages that can be seen as a temporary loss of profits in no-tillage agriculture is the cost to acquire special equipment required for example to drill without ploughing, which can imply an investment of almost 100 thousand dollars.
- The risk of crop diseases increases. With much more moisture in the soils without tillage, it is more likely for fungal diseases to appear since those were kept under control with the ploughing of the soil.
- The use of herbicides increases. Another disadvantage of practicing no-tillage agriculture is that weeds begin to thrive since ploughing is not taking place, which is why many farmers have had to resort to using more herbicides to keep them under control. However, this measure may cause crops to become more resistant to herbicides. Likewise, here it would be interesting to see the different types of mulch that exist and their benefits.
- It takes longer to recover your investment. Certainly, this is one of the aspects that should be considered the most, since when no-tillage agriculture is used the recovery of the investment can take a few years longer than with traditional agriculture. The key here is to remember that this is the most likely scenario, and to be patient to see the profits arrive.
- It’s all about trial and error. There are no magic formulas in no-tillage agriculture as it is all about testing techniques to know if they are working or if we have to reformulate the strategies to get the expected results.
While no-tillage agriculture is now reaching more regions of the planet, the truth is that there is still a little percentage of farmland where this technique is applied.
For example, in the United States, the state where zero tillage is practised most continuously is Pennsylvania, while in other states it has been adopted only in 21 percent of all acres of land available for cultivation. Probably there is the concern of whether producers will actually save more with no-tillage agriculture in comparison to the conventional ploughing practice, and also whether the profits will actually compensate for the change made and the capital invested in new machinery.
Regarding all of the above, and to learn a little more about the current situation in the United States, we recommend you also read about the economy of no-tilling agriculture to save money, time and land.
Cover crops in no-tillage agriculture
One of the main goals of farmers who use zero tillage around the world is to be able to do it continuously, so ploughing becomes totally unnecessary, thus allowing to achieve healthier soils. For this to happen, it is essential for this type of agriculture to be based on viable alternatives such as waste management and the use of cover crops, since they bring many benefits to farmland, such as offering protection from excessive rain and the effects of erosion.
According to Jeff Graybill, professor of agronomy at Pennsylvania State University, cover crops are the essential component of a sustainable agricultural system, in this case no-tillage agriculture. Today, more farmers are using cover crops to protect and regenerate soils.
Basically, cover crops are implemented when you want to safeguard the integrity of the land that is cultivated outside the regular planting season, but they are also very useful when farmers decide to switch to no-tillage agriculture in order to offer a better treatment to the soil and guarantee it can be used for many years.
It is important to understand that, despite being helpful, organic waste and cover crops can be a challenge, either because they are not well disposed of in the terrain or because the waste is uneven, leading to the irregular appearance of plants that are inferior to those desired or an increase in the pressure from insects and slugs, among other threats. However, the key is to pay close attention and have contingency plans to know how to deal with this possible scenario.
For more information regarding cover crops, as well as their uses and benefits, we recommend you read this article related to the importance of covering crops to keep soils healthy.
Another viable alternative that can be used when no-tillage agriculture is put in practice is the use of totally impermeable films (TIF) that help disinfect crops that were previously subject to continuous fumigation processes, in this way a more efficient treatment of the soil is achieved without affecting its structure.
This type of plastic films are manufactured using multilayer technology to incorporate a barrier property into one of its layers and, therefore, prevent that the toxic gases resulting from the disinfection process pose a risk for the health of workers and nearby communities. If we consider this from a financial perspective, the use of these totally impermeable films improves the concentration of the application of disinfectants and increases its effectiveness, aspects that allow to reduce the time required for the soil to fully recover and be ready to start growing.
Using this type of plastics in no-tillage agriculture improves the efficiency in the disinfection of agricultural soils, minimizes the amount of chemicals needed to promote planting and allows producers to be more environmentally friendly, an issue that today’s society is taking more seriously, since the ultimate purpose of all these alternatives is to rescue and preserve, not only the integrity of soils intended for cultivation, but also protect the quality of water and air from chemical residues.