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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: IMPROVING WATER PRODUCTIVITY AND NEW WATER MANAGEMENT TECHNOLOGIES TO SUSTAIN RURAL ECONOMIES

Location: Soil and Water Management Research

Title: Conservation tillage

Authors
item Unger, Paul -
item Blanco-Canqui, Humberto -

Submitted to: Handbook of Soil Science
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: June 19, 2011
Publication Date: November 17, 2011
Citation: Unger, P.W., Blanco-Canqui, H. 2011. Conservation tillage. In: Huang, P.M., Li, Y., Sumner, M.E., editors. Handbook of Soil Sciences: Resource Management and Environmental Impacts, 2nd Edition. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida. p. 25-1--25-31.

Interpretive Summary: Conservation tillage, especially the no-tillage type of it involves major changes in the way that fields are prepared for crop production. Previously, farmers would plow their entire field before planting a crop, even though seeds in most cases were placed only in small areas of the field. Now, it no longer necessary to plow the entire field because only a small area needs to be loosened for placing seeds in the soil. This change decreases labor and power requirements for the farmer and fields are kept in a more "natural condition," which maintains or improves the soil physical, chemical, and biological conditions. As a result, water conservation is improved, the possibility for soil erosion is reduced, plant nutrients are kept in the soil, and soil biological processes (earthworm activity, etc.) proceed with fewer interruptions. The greatest benefits of using conservation tillage, especially no-tillage, will be achieved when farmers, technology-transfer persons, and scientists learn how to fully make use of this tillage method for obtaining improved crop production. There are some disadvantages of using conservation tillage under some conditions, but the large benefits of it for conserving water, reducing soil erosion, reducing labor and tillage costs, improving soil quality, and many others factors outweigh those disadvantages. Overall, using conservation tillage along with using crop residues as mulch, cover crops, crop rotations, and other best management practices is a win-win strategy for conserving soil and water and obtaining favorable crop production.

Technical Abstract: Conservation tillage, especially the no-tillage type of it, represents the most dramatic change in soil management for crop production in the history of agriculture. Historically, farmers prepared their entire field as a seedbed, but seeds in most cases were placed only in small areas in the field. Now, disturbing the entire field is no longer necessary because only a small area needs to be disturbed for placing seeds. These changes decrease labor and power requirements for the farmer and fields are kept in a more "natural setting." By minimizing soil disturbance, soil aggregate integrity is maintained and soil physical, chemical, and biological components respond positively. As a result, water conservation is improved, erosion is minimized, plant nutrients are retained, and soil biological processes proceed with fewer interruptions. The greatest benefits of using conservation tillage, especially no-tillage, will be achieved when farmers, technology-transfer persons, and scientists learn how to fully exploit this ecologically beneficial system. The no-tillage type of conservation tillage is a pioneering method of agriculture. The large benefits of using it for conserving water, minimizing soil erosion, reducing tillage costs, improving soil quality, and many others factors outweigh the disadvantages associated with using this tillage method. Conservation tillage combined with residue mulching, cover crops, crop rotations, and other best management practices is a win-win strategy for soil and water conservation and sustained agronomic production.

Last Modified: 7/24/2014
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