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While most people associate plowing with the initial stage of field activities, no-till agriculture proves that farmers can perfectly do without that. In fact, the concept of no-till farming is even older than the conventional one. Yet, the no-till motives to apply it were different millennia ago and nowadays.
In the old times, no-till farming practices were conditioned by the primitive nature of cultivation tools or their absence. At present, the effects of no-till agriculture and its benefits to nature are the major drivers in the approach implementation, due to environmental care concerns.
No-till farming methods suggest zero or the least soil disturbance. With conventional plowing, the top layer is turned over before seeding. Tillage helps to aerate the soil, incorporate manure and fertilizers, loose the earth for future fragile seedling roots, to destroy pests, eradicate weeds. However, this agriculture technique strongly promotes soil erosion, removing the cover matter, causes an imbalance in micro-communities, and releases soil carbon into the air, contributing to the greenhouse effect.
What is no-till farming then and what techniques does it employ to plant seeds, if the soil must not be disturbed? The following farming practices make up the fundamental approaches of the concept.
No-till method of farming requires special equipment (disc seeders or agriculture drills) to make furrows, immediately plant seeds, firm them, and cover (unlike double-passing the field after plowing). This way, the soil suffers from minimum disturbance, as it is dug exactly where the seed is supposed to drop. Furthermore, planters allow the least fertilizer spends, applying them right into the furrow via designated tubes.
Sometimes, no-till agriculture does involve minor or narrow tilling between the seasons if high yields generate a lot of manure and it composts poorly, inducing diseases or interferes with planter operations. Another case is lime incorporation to balance the acidity.
Weed control is a major concern in no-till farming since weeds cannot be destroyed mechanically. To solve the problem, agriculturalists cover inter-rows with straw, dry hay, or mulches. It not only helps to suppress weeds due to lack of light but accumulates moisture and protects plant roots from the burning sun.
Crop rotation is an efficient agricultural technique with multiple benefits. As a no-till method of farming, it assists in the following issues:
Crop Monitoring is an online tool for agriculture that greatly facilitates crop rotation decisions and no-till farming implementations in particular. It allows comprehensive monitoring and analysis of vegetation states in real time as well as the recent five years. Retrieving weather conditions in the light of several years along with data on vegetation indices, farmers can choose the most suitable crop with respect to the specific climatic needs of each plant. Simply put, they can opt for the most appropriate crop for a particular field.
The world “to-till” originates from Proto-Germanic with the basic meaning “to cultivate”, “to plow”. The primary goals of no-till agriculture are to avoid cultivation with soil improvement in mind.
No-till agriculture reduces soil erosion. Tillage breaks the earth’s surface and turns it over, moving the cover layer inside. As a result, the bare soil is subject to erosion because of the loosened structure. Deprived of cover matter, it is subject to quick erosion due to water flows, especially in slope and steep areas, and winds. The rainsplash erosion is another issue to consider as flexible particles are easily removed when hit with heavy rains. Correspondingly, the absence of soil disturbance in no-till farming eliminates the issues.
No-till agriculture is essential for soil carbon sequestration. Tillage transfers soil carbon to the soil surface. Released carbon gives nutrients to plants, which is a good thing. However, it reacts with the atmosphere oxygen binding to carbon dioxide, which is a bad thing due to the greenhouse effect, so no-till farming carbon sequestration is a great advantage to consider. In the latter case, carbon remains in the ground. This is why no-till farming and the reduction of carbon dioxide closely relate.
No-till farming helps to conserve soil and preserve its fertility. Tilling interferes with the earth’s flora and fauna balance impacting micro-communities. It does help to mechanically control mature pests and their larvae; yet, it destroys beneficial species at the same time. With no-till, certain soil microorganisms in their natural habitats are capable of improving soil fertility with their activities. Another contribution of no-till agriculture to soil fertility is nitrogen enrichment by legumes, which is useful to subsequent crops in crop rotation.
Maintaining soil health is just one of the advantages of no-till farming. It competes with alternative practices flaunting other merits as well.
The major benefits of no-till farming include, among others:
Weighing no-till farming pros and cons, more and more farmers convert to the new method year by year, encouraged with the USDA conservation programs and economic standpoints. The agriculture approach implementations vary across crops and regions. An ERS research gives the adoption data for 2002-2017 regarding separate crops.
One of the major no-till farming disadvantages is the necessity of increased weed control that involves industrial herbicide applications and its consequences for mankind and nature.
Organic no-till farming utilizes integrated weed management to resolve the issue, using non-chemical herbicides, cattle or poultry grazing, cover crops with mowing before seed settlement, and crop rotation. Suppressing weeds by sparing methods, farmers contribute to environment protection, nature regeneration, and human health.
Also, there is a common confusion that no-till agriculture uses genetically modified organisms with higher resistance to weeds and pests, which does not comply with organic farming. It does not accord to no-till farming either. The idea is to select stronger, and thus more resilient species, not genetically modify them.
Crop Monitoring is a user-friendly online tool designed for remote field control and assistance in farming activities. It operates satellite retrieved data enabling agriculturalists to make weighted decisions.
In the light of no-till farming practices, the software for agriculture helps to estimate the overall health of crops, providing the following agriculture information:
Chemical applications are core concerns of present-day agriculture, striving for organic solutions. No-till farmers are forced to increase herbicide usage due to rapid weed growth on uncultivated lands.
Crop Monitoring aids in tackling the issue with its zoning feature that comprises productivity and vegetation maps. Productivity maps help in no-till crop rotation. Vegetation maps check vegetation density and determine plant health outlining critical areas of low productivity that can be a result of weed infestations or nutrient deficiency. The feature for agriculture enables farmers to differentiate herbicide/fertilizer use, limited solely to problem zones (instead of entire fields).
Herbicide/fertilizer options also vary depending on weather conditions and growth stages – the data available in Crop Monitoring as well.
After-harvest crop residues or cover crops bring multiple benefits: protect the earth from erosion, warm it up and dry out in spring, add nutrients for the next season plants, suppress weeds, and serve as mulch, to mention a few. However, at the beginning of the sowing season, they are often undesired. If the residues are low, they may not require any treatment in no-till farming. Alternatively, if the area is bare or covered with scarce vegetation, it requires additional covering.
High residues interfere with planter operations, preventing the ground from proper drying and warming in spring. For these reasons, they have to be removed.
Conventional farming combats undesired vegetation with plowing. No-till agriculture excludes this method, using other residue management options: herbicide applications, cutting for forage, or grazing.
A typical example of double cropping in no-till systems is planting winter grains, crimson clover, or hairy vetch in fall and cutting them before flowering to grow summer vegetables or mid-season brassicas no-till in the cover crop mulch. Other sequences may be corn after hay or soybeans after wheat.
These no-till farming activities are prolific, but they require proper timing. If the terrains are dry enough, residues should be removed one-two weeks before. If the terrains are wet, it should be done right before planting.
Crop Monitoring can detect the areas with high bare ground cover granting a farmer with precious information what field areas require extra residue cover, preventing soil erosion.
No-till farming systems are not likely to bring results as early as the next season in the majority of cases. Nevertheless, the concept adopters claim that the endeavor is still worth trying as they managed to reap higher yields in the course time. In perspective, no-till farming seems to be a promising concept in terms of money spent versus money gained.
This is not the sole merit, however. No-till agriculture is beneficial to the environment, eliminating the negative impact of farming activities on the environment, climate, and earth’s overall health.
These key no-till farming advantages are supposed to encourage even more further method adoptions in the future.