Changing tillage methods can help the environment

Stubble from corn stalks

by Patricia Grotenhuis

Farming practices have changed a lot over the years. Lately, some of the changes being brought into place are helping improve the environment. Some changes have been made as a response to shifts in the climate, while others have been made following the development of new equipment or the publication of new research.

Because farmers depend on a healthy environment to help them raise healthy crops and animals, they are concerned about the environment and climate change. A year of drought in town can be partially offset by watering the lawn, but for farmers it is not practical to water all of the fields. Changing temperatures can also affect the crops.

This excerpt from “The Real Dirt on Farming II” outlines the difference a change in tillage practices can make for the environment.

On the frontline of weather conditions, farmers are the first to experience and adapt to changing conditions. Persistent dry conditions in the Prairies, for example, have inspired significant shifts in preferred tillage methods.

Tillage is an age-old practice and refers to plowing or working up the soil, something that’s done mostly to control weeds. Many farmers in Canada have adopted “conservation tillage” or “no-till” practices. This means crops are grown with minimal or no cultivation of the soil. Any plant materials remaining from the previous year’s crop, like corn stubble, is left on the soil, building up its organic matter. In addition, populations of beneficial insects are maintained, soil and nutrients are less likely to be lost from the field and less time, labour and fuel are spent preparing the field for planting, thus reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

Between 1991 and 2001, use of these environmental practices jumped from 27 per cent to 63 per cent. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions generated by these practices is equal to taking 125,000 cars off the road.

My parents have been no-till farming for 20 years, since 1992. As a result, the organic matter has improved in their fields and so has the soil tilth. Tilth is the physical condition of the soil, including moisture content, aeration, water infiltration and drainage, among other things.

Other ways the move to no-till has helped on the farm is by giving savings in fuel costs and labour hours. The tractors do not have to do nearly as many passes on the field as they used to do when my parents were tilling the land. No-till farming does have its own set of challenges, but new technologies have been helping with that, according to my dad.

“When you don’t work the soil, you become more in-tune to the soil as a living medium, so once you understand that, you do things a little different like not driving on the soil when it’s wet,” he says.

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