Lesser known benefits in no till farming

Carlos Crovetto

No Tillage Development Centre, Concepcion, Chile

crovetto@entelchile.net

“œThere is nothing new to learn ” only to better understand.”

No tillage is promoting a large change in the old paradigms, away from ancentral plowing, tilling the soil, burning straw and over grazing.  Today, the world has had many bad experiences with poor soil management in conventional agriculture.  However, innovative no till farmers around the world, learning from their own experiences and working better with Mother nature, have stopped degrading the soil system by imitating how Mother nature creates am organic, fertile and productive soil.

What is no till farming?  No till farming is a complex management system that integrates natural processes and implements three key management strategies:

  1. Minimum soil disturbance
  2. Continues crop residue cover
  3. Diverse crop rotations, and/or cover crops.

No till farming encourages any issue focused on maintaining soil productivity and quality and its biodiversity in the context of sustainable agriculture.

Thus, a combination of the economic benefits of enhanced soil management through reduced labor requirements, time savings, reduced machinery and fuel savings with direct seeding, combined with the numerous environmental benefits has universal appeal.  Indirect measures of social  benefits as society  enjoys a higher quality of life from environmental quality enhancement are difficult to quantify.  No till farming is a specific form of conservation agriculture (CA), working in harmony with nature using direct seeding techniques that increase soil carbon, can be of benefit to society and can be viewed as both “œfeeding and greening the world”Â  for global sustainability.

I believe that the first lesson that these innovative farmers learned, was to respect the soil, understanding that the soil is alive because it supports microorganisms and mesofauna vital to produce an organic soil with a good soil structure that improves all natural parameters for more crop production with less cost and most importantly, without soil erosion.

Many farmers today are beginning to understand many benefits provided by no tillage, however, there are a lot unknown benefits, that can improve the soil and make more happy farmers.

Some of these natural benefits of no till are described below.

  1. Increases the microbial and mesofauna population in the soil which stimulates the life of microorganisms like nitrogen fixing Rhizobium bacterium in leguminous plants by symbiosis, by greater amount of adenosin triphosphate (ATP energy and soluble phosphate), provided  by straw  after decomposition on soil surface.
  1. Stimulates microorganisms like azotobacter, azospirillium, green algae and others free living microorganism, capable of fixing nitrogen in the soil.
  1. Stimulates  fungal life and important microorganisms in soil organic matter decomposition converting sugars into alcohol, which is perfect food for microorganism that fix nitrogen for soil benefits.
  1. Increases proliferation of endotrophic mycorrhizae fungi hyphae.  This symbiotic network extends the plant root system, enabling the plant to obtain greater amounts of phosphorus, zinc and water.
  1. Minimizes phosphate fixation in the soil, thereby increasing the activity of vital enzymes like phosphatase.  On Chequen farm in Chile over 30 years without any kind of tillage, we have a six-fold increase in phosphate available for plant use (7ppm to 38 ppm) by returning an average  of with 5 t/acre/year of crops residues.
  1. Increases activity of earthworms, insects and arthropods, in addition to producing organic compounds that enhance soil aeration and increases plant available water.  These organic compounds should be considered irreplaceable because  they act like a soil amendment  and catalyser of vital physiological principles for plant life on the planet.
  1. Increases in organic matter (soil carbon) improves the soil cation exchange capacity (CEC) especially those soils with inherently low  CEC, e.g. soil with kaolinite clay minerals like Chequen farm.
  1. Enhances soil carbon sequestration from the atmosphere through plant photosynthesis, carbon dioxide (CO2) is captured to form plant biomass and grain.  After grain harvest the straw is left on the soil surface with the roots in the soil as part of the natural carbon cycle.
  1. Improves current global soil management because intensive tillage has been partially responsible for the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. The rapid oxidation of the carbon in straw by tillage and residue burning, are important contributing factors to the greenhouse  effect affecting the planet”™s climate.

Summary

In order to receive these benefits, farmers should avoid any type of tillage or soil inversion on his property, and leave crop residues uniformly distributed over the soil surface.  Diverse crop rotation (at least three years) in the third key to a successful no tillage system.

The present-day curriculums of University Agronomy departments teaching agricultural tillage systems are obsolete. To the majority of students, no tillage or soil improvement are not taught as a comprehensive system and in the best of cases, the students are taught minimum tillage, conservation tillage or conservation farming, which are of limited benefit because these tillage methods do not increase  the soil organic matter.

No one should doubt that the traditional farming and burning of crop residues, are still very common around the world, and have left degraded soils.  In many countries there is hunger because degraded soils no longer can produce enough food.

Today, productive soils must receive sufficient chemical fertilizers, however, this inorganic fertilizer does not guarantee the natural  physical, chemical and biological integrity of the soil.  “œThe grain in for the man; the straw is for the soil,” returning the straw is the cost to use the soil.  We must feed the soil as well as we feed ourselves, the cows or hens or any living systems.  Since the soil is a living  system, we must speak about soil nutrition.  The food for the soil is the straw (carbon and fertilizer nutrients).  Life on our planet depends on soil management. Our life and food security depend on improved soil management with no tillage through less intensive tillage, continuous soil residue cover and diverse crop rotations and/or cover crops.

It is essential that these lesser known benefits of no till are made available to private producers, agricultural technicians, young agronomists, agronomic research centres, universities faculties of agronomy, and global institutions (FAO, World Bank, private organizations, etc.) responsible for feeding the world.  We should radically change the way sol and agronomic sciences are taught to both farmers and policymakers.

Governments and politicians of all countries must unite to release new laws and policies to protect soil, water, air and all renewable resources for our food security.  These resources are vital for life on our planet.  To ensure that we have the proper knowledge to utilize and protect these resources effectively, we must continue  to educate at all levels (basic, high school, universities and political levels) the importance of resource management, especially soil, water and air in food production.  No tillage is a vital part of the paradigm shift to protect our natural resources and our quality of life.

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