Zero tillage or no-till farming is a technique for planting and growing crops or other commercial plants and even raising livestock in a pasture without disturbing the soil through tillage. It helps in the conservation of soil quality and can also help protect the overall integrity of a land. However, despite its purported advantages or benefits, no-till farming has some drawbacks and issues that limit its wider applications.
A Look Into the Upsides and Downsides of No-Till Farming
Pros of Zero Tillage: Advantages of No-Till Farming
Tillage is a dominant practice in agriculture. It involves preparing the land for farming or livestock raising through mechanical agitation. Examples of tilling include shoveling, picking, mattock work, hoeing, raking, and plowing. The process helps the land become more suitable for growing plants or pastures. However, based on several studies, tillage can result in faster soil erosion, loss of soil nutrients, reduction of biota, desertification, and eutrophication. Proponents of sustainable agriculture and regenerative agriculture promote no-till farming as an alternative. The following are its specific advantages:
1. Decreases the Amount of Soil Erosion
Disturbing the land through tillage often results in soil erosion because it disrupts soil structure, reduces plant residue on the surface, and lessens the water retention capacity of an entire land area. The disturbed soil then becomes more prone to breakage and runoff due to rain and flooding, changing weather patterns, and wind.
No-till farming does not disturb the soil. It preserves soil structure, its water retention capacity, and the overall land integrity. Research from 19 years of no-tillage studies involving farmlands in the Great Plains from the Department of Agriculture of the United States revealed that zero tillage makes soil less erodible than plowed soil.
2. Retains Soil Nutrients and Organic Matter
Another advantage of no-till farming is that it helps in retaining nutrients and organic matter in the soil. Preserving soil structure makes it less susceptible to nutrient runoff. Retaining plant residue also helps in preserving further the structure of the soil while also providing nutrients for beneficial soil organisms such as earthworms and microbes.
Researcher K. Y Chan explained that declines in earthworm populations in farmlands have been associated with undesirable changes in the soil environmental conditions resulting from excessive tillage. Researchers S. Schmidt et al. concluded that long-term no-till farming and growing cover crops boost microbial functional diversity in soils.
3. Long-Term Land Yields and Profits
Unsustainable agricultural practices such as excessive tilling and monoculture farming can degrade the quality of farmlands in the long term due to disrupted soil structure, nutrient runoff, and soil erosion. This can leave land areas either unconducive for growing plants or might force farmers to use fertilizers to keep lands arable.
Nevertheless, in certain cases, no-till farming can improve agricultural output. C. M. Pittelkow et al. conducted a global meta-analysis of 678 studies and found that zero tillage performed best under rainfed conditions in dry climates in terms of yields compared to conventional tilling. It can also reduce costs from machinery, fuel, irrigation, and labor.
Cons of Zero Tillage: Disadvantages of No-Till Farming
The aforementioned advantages of no-till farming make it appear that it is the most ideal technique for growing commercial plants and raising livestock in a pasture. It is considered a component of sustainable agriculture after all. However, despite its benefits, it is not applicable in certain scenarios or situations. Tillage is a proven technique for preparing land for the mass production of food. Novel and unconventional land preparation techniques pose a threat to food security and can even affect the income of farmers and other food producers. The following are the specific disadvantages of no-till farming:
1. Effect on Short-Term Yields and Profits
Remember that no-till farming can improve long-term yields and profits in certain situations. However, it also has a negative effect on short-term output and income. S. Cusser et al. noted that the positive economic and ecological impacts of this land preparation technique can require 16 to 19 years and the first 10 years represent a period of decline.
The amount of time it takes for the positive effects of no-till farming to manifest depends on several factors. These include the type of soil, weather and climate, and the management practices used. Farmlands that underwent long-term tillage would take time to recover their structure and build up soil nutrients and organic matter.
2. Unsuitable in Certain Conditions or Situations
Another disadvantage of no-till farming is that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution to address the problems of modern agriculture. It is not suitable in land areas with rampant weed problems and poor soil drainage. D. B. Warburton and W. D. Klimstra also concluded that this technique increases the population of wildlife that can feed on crops.
The plant residue on the soil surface not only attracts wildlife animals that can become pests but also increases the risk of plant diseases. This is true in wet and humid conditions wherein the buildup of organic matter on the soil surface provide a moist environment for harmful microorganism and other parasites to grow and thrive.
3. Needs Special Methods and Equipment
It is also important to underscore the fact that no-till farming has special resource requirements that are different from conventional tilling. An example is the need for specialized seeding equipment that can drill through the thicker soil surface. This technique is also dependent on herbicides and cover crops to control the weed population.
Zero tillage practices also require precise fertilizer placement. Tillage involves the incorporation of fertilizer during the tilling process. Landowners and farmers also need to learn how to utilize these unconventional methods. Nevertheless, based on these special requirements, the upfront costs could be higher than conventional tilling.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Asenso, E., Li, J., Hu, L., Issaka, F., Tian, K., Zhang, L., Zhang, L., and Chen, H. 2018. “Tillage Effects on Soil Biochemical Properties and Maize Grown in Latosolic Red Soil of Southern China.” Applied and Environmental Soil Science. 2018: 1-10. DOI: 1155/2018/8426736
- Blanco-Canqui, H., Mikha, M. M., Benjamin, J. G., Stone, L. R., Schlegel, A. J., Lyon, D. J., Vigil, M. F., and Stahlman, P. W. 2009. “Regional Study of No-Till Impacts on Near-Surface Aggregate Properties that Influence Soil Erodibility.” Soil Science Society of America Journal. 73(4): 1361-1368. DOI: 2136/sssaj2008.0401
- Cusser, S., Bahlai, C., Swinton, S. M., Robertson, G. P., and Haddad, N. M. 2020. “Long‐Term Research Avoids Spurious and Misleading Trends in Sustainability Attributes of No‐Till.” Global Change Biology. 26(6): 3715-3725. DOI: 1111/gcb.15080
- B. Warburton and W. D. Klimstra 1984. “Wildlife Use of No-Till and Conventionally Tilled Corn Fields.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 39(5): 327-330.
- El Mekkaoui, A., Moussadek, R., Mrabet, R., Douaik, A., El Haddadi, R., Bouhlal, O., Elomari, M., Ganoudi, M., Zouahri, A., and Chakiri, S. 2023. “Effects of Tillage Systems on the Physical Properties of Soils in a Semi-Arid Region of Morocco.” Agriculture. 13(3): 683. DOI: 3390/agriculture13030683
- Pittelkow, C. M., Linquist, B. A., Lundy, M. E., Liang, X., Van Groenigen, K. J., Lee, J., van Gestel, N., Six, J., Venterea, R. T., and Van Kessel, C. 2015. “When Does No-Till Yield More? A Global Meta-Analysis.” Field Crops Research. 183: 156-168. DOI: 1016/j.fcr.2015.07.020
- Schmidt, R., Gravuer, K., Bossange, A. V., Mitchell, J., and Scow, K. 2018. “Long-Term Use of Cover Crops and No-Till Shift Soil Microbial Community Life Strategies in Agricultural Soil.” PLOS ONE. 13(2): e0192953. DOI: 1371/journal.pone.0192953