To till or not to till – this is a highly contentious question that has been at the forefront of many agricultural debates.
One of the biggest contributors to soil erosion is the simple (and widely utilised) practice of tilling the land. The approach has been around for thousands of years and is a cornerstone of modern farming systems.
But there is another way to farm. No-till farming is an approach that gained traction in the 70s and has slowly picked up steam. Despite its many benefits, it’s not as black and white as it seems.
For farmers looking to restore their land, choosing between tillage, no-till, herbicides and no-herbicides is a tight rope to walk.
In this blog, we’ll explore the pros and cons of these practices and whether there’s a viable alternative.
UNDERSTANDING CURRENT PRACTICES
Tillage is the practice of preparing the soil for planting by digging it up, stirring it or turning it over.
It’s often conducted using mechanical tools such as a disc or plough that digs 25-30 cm into the soil. The practice breaks up soil compaction, eliminates weeds, and aerates the ground. The approach delivers short-term gains, but there are often long-term consequences.
The most prominent consequence is the practices’ impact on soil erosion. Tillage negatively affects soil structure and aggregates, leaving it loose, exposed and vulnerable to erosion. This has huge knock-on effects on the soil’s water-holding capacity and ability to withstand extreme weather conditions.
Furthermore, tillage also releases sequestered soil carbon back into the atmosphere, damages essential microorganisms, and is highly resource-intensive.
No-till farming is the act of not tilling the land. The practice utilises tools that limit soil disturbance, such as a direct seeder. There are many benefits, but the most notable is its ability to reduce input costs.
Conventional tillage requires farmers to make several passes over the field, first tilling the soil and then returning to plant seeds. By practising no-till, farmers can save significantly on labour, fuel and time. One study found that fuel expenses through no-till were reduced by 50-80%.
As things stand, many conventional no-till systems rely on herbicides to kill crop residue and weeds. This opens another can of worms in the context of negative ecological impacts.
Herbicides and glyphosate
There are countless herbicides on the market. But by far, the most commonly used is glyphosate. The reason is that it’s both cost-efficient and hugely effective in what it promises to do.
But unfortunately, its ‘effectiveness’ is also its biggest downfall. When glyphosate is sprayed, it enters the plant sap and spreads through the root system. It’s a non-selective herbicide, meaning it kills any living plants it comes into contact with.
The result? Increased reliance on synthetic inputs and genetically modified crops, a rise in herbicide-resistant weeds, depleted biodiversity, detrimental effects on human health and polluted waterways.
Glyphosate is typically neutralised and degraded by soil microbes after some time. However, evidence is mounting that it’s now lingering in the soil.
Different classes of herbicides are available as an alternative to glyphosate – ones that don’t have such detrimental effects on the wider ecosystem.
For example, selective herbicides target specific weeds rather than every plant they touch, while non-residual alternatives degrade faster rather than lingering in the ground.
If herbicides need to be used, making an informed decision and applying the best one (and only the amount necessary) for your context is crucial.
WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE?
It may seem like farmers are at a dead end no matter the path they go down. But there are alternatives.
A key objective of regenerative agriculture is to improve the resources you use rather than deplete them. It places a heavy premium on soil health, while sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere, increasing farm biodiversity and improving water management in the process.
Minimising soil disturbance and chemical input application are fundamental techniques associated with the management style. But how does this look in practice?
Organic no-till farming is a no-till approach that also uses no synthetic inputs. Farmers can tap into the huge benefits associated with no-till agriculture while avoiding the detrimental effects of synthetic herbicide use.
The approach utilises specialised equipment such as a roller crimper and direct seeder, as well as forward-thinking practices like multi-species cover cropping.
A roller crimper is a water-filled drum with blades attached to the front. As you drive over the cover crop, it mows the plants. The crop then remains on the ground to form a thick layer of mulch that suffocates weeds. After the seeds are planted with a direct driller, the cash crop grows through the cover crop mulch.
From reducing erosion, cutting input costs, saving time, and increasing ecosystem health, there’s a long list of benefits associated with the approach. However, it does not come without its challenges.
Farmers implementing organic no-till depend on the weather and things going as planned. If the rain comes too soon or too late, crimping at the right moment will be challenging. And when it comes to cover crops, timing is everything.
Rick Clark, a farmer based in the U.S., has achieved incredible results with organic no-till. He emphasises that it is difficult and advises farmers to transition sustainably.
Rick Clark’s annual savings on his 3,000-hectare farm
Source: Farmers Weekly: ‘Organic no-till system saves US grower £1.6m in costs annually’
Minimum/ strip tillage
The use of fuel-thirsty machinery can be reduced significantly through minimum and strip tillage.
Minimum tillage is the act of tilling the soil 15cm or less before sowing. By limiting the number of cultivation passes, it reduces soil disturbance while controlling weeds.
When it comes to strip-tilling, instead of ploughing the entire field, farmers strategically till smaller parcels where seeds are sowed.
Both approaches offer a happy medium for farmers who want to avoid the damage caused by deep tillage and synthetic herbicide application or start transitioning to a system free from soil disturbance.
Understanding your context
There’s no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all way to farm. At the end of the day, farmers need to apply the best approach for their context.
The benefits of transitioning to a system that prioritises soil health and ecological abundance are unparalleled. But these things don’t happen overnight. It’s unrealistic to assume farmers can stop ploughing or applying herbicides and the process is complete.
A thought-through transition plan is imperative to minimise risks. Through our Carbon+ Program, you can access the necessary support to make this possible.
The bottom line
We aren’t here to be prescriptive. We know that avoiding tillage and herbicides can be challenging. But truly understanding why you’re using these tools, the consequences of implementing them, and if there’s a better alternative will make all the difference for the health of your farm.
We’ve seen the consequences of suddenly banning synthetic inputs. Ill-conceived, poorly executed strategies that don’t support farmers’ transition are not the way to go.
Our Carbon+ Program de-risks your transition. It provides the necessary financial, social and educational support as you embark on the journey of restoring your land.
Do you want support for implementing regenerative agriculture?