Do Productivity and Environmental Trade-offs Justify Periodically Cultivating No-till Cropping Systems?


No-till management has been shown to increase soil aggregation, reduce erosion rates, and increase soil organic matter across a range of soil types, cropping systems, and climates. Few agricultural practices provide similar opportunities to deliver positive benefits for farmers, society, and the environment. The potential benefits of no-till are not being fully realized, however, in large part because no-till is rarely practiced continuously and many fields suitable for no-till are still conventionally tilled. We present here three arguments, based on recent research, in support of the agronomic and environmental benefits of continuous no-till: (i) although there exist agronomic challenges with no-till, long-term yields in these systems can equal or exceed those in tilled soils; (ii) cultivating no-till systems can decrease soil aggregation and accelerate C and N losses so rapidly that years of soil restoration can be undone within weeks to months; and (iii) over time, changes in soil structure and organic matter, coupled with producer adaptation to the need for spatially and temporally explicit chemical applications, increase plant N availability and reduce environmental N losses. At least in theory, then, continuous no-till can be widely practiced to improve the environment and maintain yields with little or no economic sacrifice by producers. In practice, however, many diverse challenges still limit no-till adoption in different regions. These challenges are surmountable, but potential solutions need to be interdisciplinary and address the ecological and especially the social and economic constraints to deploying continuous no-till.


Soil Biogeochemistry and Microbial Ecology

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Agronomy Journal



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© 2006 by the American Society of Agronomy