Sunday, October 28, 2012
Now Telling Of No-Tilling
A third of the field crops were planted no-till in 2006.
No-till is getting more popular it saves time, reduces the cost of planting and reduces soil erosion. It is practiced on winter crops more than on spring crops.
Will the mythical plow eventually disappear from our countryside? Difficult scenario to imagine and yet... a third of annual crops were grown in 2006 without tilling the soil. A mini-revolution in tillage: no-tillage concerned only 21% of the acreage in 2001. This practice meets multiple motivations: time saving, energy saving and soil protection. It also suffers many exceptions. No-till works better on winter crops than spring crops, is poorly suited to monoculture, and has varying degrees of success depending on the region. Its adoption is rarely definitive, many farmers alternating years of no-till and tilling on the same plot. No-till however progresses on all crops except durum wheat which had already largely adopted it in 2001. The growth primarily affects soft wheat with almost 50% planted as no-till. It was 25% in 2001. Rapeseed is the other crop that massively converted to no-till in 2006.
Adopted on large farms
Without plowing, farmers lighten their workload. An important element when acreage continues to grow and so does the shortage of operational manpower. All crops combined, 58% of the acreage was not plowed in farms over 400 hectares (988 acres) in 2006. This proportion rises to 74% for soft wheat. The advantage of no-till increases with winter crops such as wheat or rapeseed, planted when harvesting work is not necessarily all over. Availability of farmers in spring is indeed greater, to plant corn, sunflower or sugar beet. They have an average of one and a half months between harvesting and sowing rapeseed, 8.5 months for sugar beet and 9 months for sunflower. No-till also means cost savings. Saving on equipment whose parts don’t wear away as much. And immediate energy savings: 20 to 40 liters of fuel per hectare (2 to 4 gallons of fuel per acre) when the land is not tilled. Another advantage of no-till: reducing erosion. Structural erosion is limited in slopes, and rain erosion is also limited thanks to the crop residues left on the surface. For even more efficiency, proponents of no-till were more likely than others to use temporary cover crops. These cover crops, planted between two field crops, are most useful on spring crops that leave the soil bare for a long time. Located in a region with a high risk of erosion, farmers of Midi-Pyrénées (South West region of France) were the pioneers of no-till in France. They were already no-tilling in 2001, and today (2008) no-till is present on 85% of the acreage for durum wheat and 76% for soft wheat. This choice is far from being uniform throughout. For soft wheat, the reluctance persists in Alsace, Brittany, Normandy and Rhône-Alpes (South East.) Regional disparities also exist for durum wheat, with no-till expanding in the Centre region, leveling in Languedoc-Roussillon (South Center) and Midi-Pyrénées (South West), and declining in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (South East.)
Not recommended for monoculture
No-till does not work so well when growing the same crop on the same plot. With no-till, crop residues remain on the surface and facilitate the transmission of fungal diseases on wheat. Less than 30% of the acreage of durum wheat are planted no-till when they follow another wheat. The proportion is 58% for all durum wheat and 88% in a sunflower-durum wheat rotation. Similar results can be found on soft wheat. No-till is also less commonly used on corn often planted without crop rotation. Crushing and plowing crop residues are indeed one of the best solutions to fight against the European corn borer. Only 8% of corn acreage are planted no-till in Alsace (East), a high spot for corn monoculture. This rate has been declining since 2001. In Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrénées (South West), two regions of monoculture, 21% of corn is planted no-till. But the corn borer pest pressure is low. No-till represents only 25% of the corn acreage in Brittany (West), a region where corn is rarely planted without a rotation. This is on the rise from 2001.
Using more herbicides
A corollary of no-till: an increase in weeds that germinate more readily in the absence of deep burial of weed seeds. The elimination of plowing can help perennials in wet areas. To fight these weeds, farmers use more herbicides. There are, on average and on all crops, 0.3 additional passes with a herbicide compared to farmers tilling the soil. This gap is 0.3 passes for wheat and 0.7 for rapeseed. The use of chemicals increases as the duration of no-till increases. Never tilling between 2001 and 2006 means an average of one extra pass spreading herbicide on a crop of rapeseed. Alternative to herbicides: mechanical weeding remains the exception. It represents only 7% of annual crops in 2006, and slightly more in no-till because it is expensive to implement. Another solution to fight against weeds: rotation management. Alternating winter and spring crops, grasses and broadleaf plants, cuts the cycle of some weeds. This is one of the difficulties for barley growers who do not till their land: 90% of all barley is preceded by another grass crop.
Reluctance to adoption
One of the limitations of no-till is that it is not suitable for all crops. It makes rooting of sunflower, a summer cycle crop, more difficult. Which may affect its quality and yield. As such in Midi-Pyrénées (South West), a region known for no-tilling its durum and soft wheat, farmers no-till only 28% of the sunflower acreage. No-till sugar beets can also threaten the proper rooting of the plant. Consequently, the plow stays in the barn for a quarter of the crop in Champagne-Ardenne (Center North East,) twice less than for soft wheat. No-till is certainly not an exclusive technique. When farmers adopt it on a plot, they come back to tilling the soil some years. If 34% of surfaces were not tilled in 2006, only 11% were never tilled since 2001. Plots that haven’t been tilled over the past five years yield a little less than those that were tilled every year. The difference is only 4% for soft wheat. It reaches 9% for barley. But no-till does not affect the yield of the sugar beet.
The 2006 survey on agricultural practices follows the one from 2001. It was conducted in partnership with the SCEES and with financial support from the Direction of the Water Department of the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development and Land Planning. The survey identifies the evolution of techniques used on each plot, namely the previous crop, soil preparation, planting, fertilizing, pest-fighting methods, irrigation, yield and the recording of these practices. It focuses on a sample of just over 18,000 land plots, including 4,000 planted with soft wheat and 3,500 with corn. Crops surveyed are soft wheat, durum wheat, barley, corn grain and fodder. But also sunflower, rapeseed, pea, sugar beet, potato, temporary and permanent intensive grasslands. The survey covers all metropolitan French departments where these cultures are sufficiently large. Areas were not extrapolated to other departments. In total, the survey covers 96% areas of the national wheat crop, 92% of corn, 82% of barley and 78% of rapeseed.
Interculture: period between planting a crop and harvesting the previous one
Annual crop: crop planted and harvested during the same agricultural season
Till: plowing over 6 inches deep (15 cm) with soil churn up
Original article (in French):
AGRESTE Bureau of Agricultural Surveys and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing, France
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In PDF format (more detailed, in French):
This translation was first published on:
Picture from NewAgTalk
Translated by: Chimel, edited by Ed Winkle.