Similar names: no tillage agriculture, no-till farming, zero tillage, climate-smart agriculture
The conservation agriculture approach is a system of managing agricultural lands based on certain farming practices. It aims to achieve sustainable production through minimizing soil disruption, while preserving soil quality and improving its biodiversity. Indeed, the main goal of conservation agriculture is to tackle land degradation and increase efficiency in the use of water and nutrients. For this reason, this technique works well with degraded agro-ecosystems as it helps in the restoration of resources, and to increase profits and food security. Beside the conservation of soil structure and fertility, this practice plays an important role in preventing soil erosion caused by machineries, especially in hilly and mountainous areas.
- It requires some initial technical knowledge to plan the crop rotations, planting times, and to efficiently manage pests and control weeds.
- Conservation Agriculture works best on rice-wheat systems or rice-wheat-cotton systems because they are less exposed to weed seeds. These systems work best because they allow practitioners to save water, use less fertilizer, and reduce soil crusting.
For weed control:
- Mulching (to cover the soil preventing weeds from sprouting)
- Cover crops and mulching
For pest management:
- Intercrop plants with species that keep away pests
- Possible to use particular herbs in the mulching to obtain a desired effect (for example, use plants that keep way pests)
- Use biopesticides (such as neem biopesticide)
Material required (for the manual method)
- Hand-held dirt ripper tool
- Hand hoe
- Hand jab planter or animal drawn direct planter (for seed planting) or planting stick (stick with sharpened point used to create holes to plant the seeds)
- Wheelbarrow to transport mulch
- Shallow weeder, zamwipe, hand push weeder (for superficial weeding)
- Slasher, machete, billhook (to remove weed, and cover crop for pre-planting operation)
Steps of Implementation
Besides the constant cropland cover, conservation agriculture is based on three pillars:
- Minimum soil disturbance (i.e., minimum or no tillage), just enough to allow the seed to get into the ground.
- Permanent organic soil cover (by using either previous crop residues or a cover crop specifically planted to cover the soil)
- Crop rotation, with varied sequences and associations, also including legumes.
No tillage or minimum tillage is the most common conservation agricultural practice for annual crops. This approach entails managing the land without disturbing the soil, or with the least disturbance. Digging and turning soil with machinery overexposes it to air, causing a rapid oxidation of the organic substance, which in turn compromises the soil structure. However, to facilitate water infiltration into the soil, more gentle practices such as soil ripping can be used.
Conservation agriculture also imposes to sow the new crop over previous crop residues, in order to keep a permanent soil coverage. Permanent groundcover is a widely used practice for perennial crops, thanks to which, the soil surface between rows of crops is covered and thus protected from erosion. For the cover it is possible to use either sown cover crops, spontaneous vegetation or inert crops, i.e. pruning residues or tree leaves (see also Mulching and techniques used in the Kitchen gardens). For a detailed step-by-step on how to adopt conservation agriculture, please click here.
Estimation of Socioeconomic factors of the intervention in Kenya, 2012
|Establishment costs||Total cost, including labor, tools, seeds, fertilizer, and biocides: US $1.35/ha|
|Labor time||5 person days/ha|
|Maintenance cost||Weeding, harvesting, and reseeding: US $1.2/ha|
India has widely implemented conservation agriculture and other forms of sustainable agriculture in the past years. Successful results have been obtained especially when implementing rice-wheat systems, click here to find an example.
Conservation agriculture has been widely tested and practiced throughout Brazil. Click here to read about a successful case study in which conservation agriculture has been implemented for the cultivation of soybeans.
After years of stressing the soil with big machinery and intense soil tillage, the no-tillage method is being tested as a sustainable solution to save soil quality and water while decreasing labor and other cost investments. Click here to read about a case study in Switzerland.
Other case studies:
If you want to know more about conservation agriculture worldwide and have an insight on the lessons learned, here is an interesting article.
- Click here for a useful training guide on conservation Agriculture for extension agents and farmers.
- If you want to know more about the benefits of conservation agriculture, watch this video.
- Here you can find more examples of conservation agriculture from the WOCAT database.
- Trees: Conservation Agriculture in combination with trees has also been proven to be effective. Click here if you want to know more about it.
- Seeding: To have more examples of possible ways of seeding in a no-tillage scenario give a look at this guide.