The Effects of Tilling on Soil

Farmers have long employed various methods to disrupt soil, using sticks, hoes, ards, rakes, and plows to turn the ground and prepare farmland. This is process is known as tillage.  

Tillage serves a number of purposes including seed bed preparation, burying crop residue, leveling soil, spreading nutrients, mixing in fertilizer, and activating pesticides. It’s also very helpful with weed control. The stirring and overturning of soil uproots weeds, slowing their development and spread. 

In recent years, however, industry experts and conservationists have become increasingly aware of the downside of tillage: it’s very hard on soil. 

The Problem with Tillage 

Soil health is measured by a number of variables: bulk density, water-holding capacity, infiltration rates, organic matter levels, and more. Tillage has been found to negatively impact virtually all of those variables in one way or another. 

Tillage disrupts soil structure. While this might prepare it for planting, it also leaves it more vulnerable to wind, runoff, and general erosion. By burying and reducing the presence of crop residue, it further destabilizes and exposes soil, increasing its vulnerability to rain and water runoff. 

Beyond the damage done to soil, tillage also releases carbon that has been sequestered in the soil. This carbon is released into the air, contributing to global warming. 

Left Unchecked, Tillage Can Ruin Soil 

When aggressive tillage is performed over many seasons, it can result in a complete breakdown of soil structure. Microbial activity is halted, soil pores are closed, and water is unable to effectively penetrate the soil. High levels of erosion result in the loss of topsoil, leaving the land practically infertile.  

The increased erosion and water runoff also result in the pollution of local water supplies as nitrogen and phosphorus are carried into lakes, rivers, and streams.  

Reducing Tillage and Protecting Soil 

Today, farmers commonly practice reduced tillage to minimize the negative impacts of tilling while still enjoying some of its benefitsIn the case of severely damaged soil, however, reduced tillage may not be enough to reverse the harm that has been done. 

No-till farming has become increasingly common. However, it’s not as simple as stopping tillage and carrying on as usual. Switching to no-till farming requires different equipment, additional weed control efforts, and a fair amount of time.  

It takes years before the soil starts to experience the benefits of no-till farming. In the meantime, crop yields may suffer as farmers learn the nuances of different techniques required. That’s not to say you shouldn’t consider no-till farming. It’s just that many farmers aren’t in a position to make the switch. 

A more effective method of restoring damaged soil may be to enroll marginal land into the Conservation Reserve Program instead. Through CRP, farmers are given rental payments based on soil productivity in exchange for taking land out of active production and establishing native vegetation.  

This allows for soil to recover more dramatically, while protecting local water supplies and providing habitat for wildlife. Additionally, much of the cost for establishment is reimbursed through CRP. 

Though special equipment and different techniques are needed for successful establishment, there is a way for landowners to enjoy the benefits of CRP without the additional work.  

FDCE offers full-service CRP solutions including no-till planting that greatly simplifies the process of establishing CRP. 

We handle CRP seed purchasing, planting, equipment provisions, documentation, and reporting submissions. With FDCE, you achieve better results with little-to-no effort on your end. Because we are well-versed in the requirements of CRP, you’ll also receive your maximum cost-share reimbursement as soon as possible. 

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