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Ways to Better Manage Your Farm: Conservation Tillage/ No-till

Both in Brazil and in the U.S., no-till production is becoming more and more popular.

In 1992, Brazil’s cerrado saw 180,000 hectares utilizing no-till production whereas in 2002, the number had jumped to 6,000,000 hectares. This is because farmers have discovered that no-till techniques combined with particular planting sequences and longer crop rotations actually increased production by 10 percent. In addition, no-till techniques let farmers reduce the uses of pesticides, lime and fungicides by more than 50 percent (and other chemicals by 10 percent).

Lower cost, higher return.

With all that, the net return increases by at least 50 percent per hectare more than farmers who are tilling. This is due to fewer machine requirements, and less money for chemicals. However, for farmers who have already invested in tilling machinery, no-till techniques could be difficult.

Even thought no-till-cultivation doesn’t necessitate as much machinery, it does call for a few special pieces of equipment that need purchasing. That being said, the new machinery could be bought piece by piece, or planting could be outsourced to others who have the technology. Therefore, there isn’t really a financial roadblock to farmers adopting no-till techniques.

Resistance to Adoption

The main roadblock is a cultural one. Farmers simply don’t like the new way of planting because it isn’t how they are comfortable farming. Yet these traditional farmers should know that there are not only financial gains for utilizing no-till techniques, there are also a number of conservation returns. In Brazil, for example, traditional farming causes 23.6 metric tons of soil loss per hectare every year. But utilizing no-till techniques, there can be as little as 5.6 metric tons of soil loss per hectare. Rainfall runoff on traditional fields is about 137.6 mm per month. Yet with no-till fields, runoff might be around 42.4 mm. This is because crop residue on top of the soil slows the rainwater. This way, the soil absorbs more of the water, storing it for later use for the crops.

A Case Study in Brazil

No-till techniques also brings benefits for the farm landscape. No-till techniques are most common in the cerrado of Brazil, so that is where this study takes place. No-till adopters brought in $1,386.3 million on 35 percent and $3080.7 million on 80 percent of the area that was cultivate – 15.4 million hectares.

These numbers continue to increase, showing how beneficial no-till-cultivation can be – especially on a large scale. The benefits of no-till-cultivation compound on each other. An abundance of organic matter means more efficient use of water, fertilizers, pesticides, energy, irrigation and machinery. Efficiency means less expense.

Less Expense for the Farmer and the Government

This study also demonstrated that if the government stepped in and encouraged no-till techniques, the benefits would more than outweigh the costs. Just to show a few examples, runoff would destroy fewer roads, drinking water and bodies of water would be less affected by siltation.

All in all, this would mean less government spending to fix the negative impacts that tillage has on a country. The U.S. erosion rate of 15.75 metric tons per hectare annually could be cut in half if farmers employed no-till techniques and a few other basic conservation practices (Schnittker 1997).

Use Many Different Conservation Measures

Reducing row crops was not the way that the above study reduced erosion. In the U.S., row crops have increased. There are other conservation measure like terracing, contour tillage, strip cropping and rotations. These measures led to the reduced soil erosion.

Even by 1994, 40 percent of crop land in the U.S. utilized conservation tillage as compared to just 3 percent in 1984. No-till-cultivation was utilized by12 percent of row crops in the U.S. Other kinds of reduced tillage was utilized on 26 percent of crops. The most erodible fields became part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) which paid farmers not to grow on those fields (Schnittker 1997).

Hopefully, the future will bring monetary motivation for farmers to utilize conservation practices and reduce a farmer’s carbon footprint. With conservation tillage, a farmer has the possibility of not only preventing a decrease of carbon in his or her fields, but also increasing the carbon because of the organic matter left on the field. This helps both the soil’s productivity and reduces greenhouse gases. Take, for example, Reicofsky (Tengnas and Nilsson 2002), who showed that the carbon loss after conventional tilling was 13.8 times greater than un-tilled soil. Even the carbon loss from four conservation tillage methods were averaged at 4.3 times more than un-tilled soil. Perhaps a good government subsidy program would reward farmers for the amount of carbon found in their farm’s soil.

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