By Sharon Omahen University of Georgia
When people think of farming, images of freshly plowed fields often come to mind. But that picture is changing. More farmers are learning that starting with a clean slate may not be the best way to farm.
Using conservation tillage systems, farmers don't plow their fields. This saves them labor and fuel, adds nutrients to the soil and reduces erosion and runoff.
"Today, more and more farmers are looking for ways to build up their soil," said Julia Gaskin, a land application specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "Not plowing or harrowing the soil is just one way."
Gaskin works with U.S. Department of Agriculture counterparts and the Georgia Conservation Tillage Alliance to educate farmers statewide on the benefits of conservation tillage systems.
Holds soil in place
Conservation tillage systems encourage farmers to follow a main crop with a cover crop. "Cover crops hold the soil in place and provide organic matter," Gaskin said. The next crop is planted into the cover crop's debris. Gaskin says this reduces soil crusting, allowing more water to soak into the soil rather than running across it.
"As a result, the soil can hold more water," Gaskin said. "And holds it in the root zone. Research conducted at UGA and the USDA Agricultural Research Service has shown, this water-holding power can mean the difference in getting a crop through the common small summer droughts."
Conservation tillage is helping improve farming's image, too, she said.
"Agriculture is often viewed as a polluter, so it's important for people to realize that farmers are working to improve the environment," she said. "When farmers use conservation tillage systems, they plant more efficiently, there's less erosion and (fewer) pollutants."
The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service has shown that if a farmer plants cotton conventionally in loamy sand on a 5-percent slope, he could lose as much as 13 tons of soil per acre per year to erosion.
Benefits streams, too
"In the Piedmont, that amount would be a lot higher," said NRCS state agronomist Jimmy Dean. "By leaving just 70 percent of the soil covered with crop residue on the field, a farmer can literally prevent tons of soil from running off into a stream."
That's good for their fields and the streams. "There's no question this can be a big benefit to our state's water quality," he said.
"Most farmers think they can't build up a field while they're farming it," Dean said. "We let them know that you can increase the soil's organic matter and improve (its structure) by not tilling the soil."
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service reports that 28 percent of the row crops in Georgia are grown using conservation tillage. That includes 31 percent of the cotton, 50 percent of the soybeans and 33 percent of the corn.
"UGA research has shown that increasing soil organic matter creates a soil with more beneficial predators," Gaskin said. "These can help control the pests, because there's a natural system of checks and balances."
But for all its soil and environmental benefits, conservation tillage is catching on for other reasons.
Reduces fuel, labor costs and helps quail
"Farmers are reducing their fuel costs because they're making fewer passes over the field," Gaskin said. "Their irrigation costs are down because the soil holds more water. And their crops' yields are up."
Conservation tillage systems are also a useful tool for increasing wildlife populations.
"We're losing 3 percent of our quail population each year," said Dean. "We are learning that we can reverse this trend by using conservation tillage. It gives them (quail) places to nest and provides food and cover."
Dean says, in a plowed field, it takes a quail chick 24 hours to find enough food for a day. In a conservation tillage field, that same quail chick get its daily food intake in just 4 hours.
Yet another bonus is an increase in family time.
"When a farmer spends less time on a tractor, he can spend more quality time with his family," Gaskin said. "There's time to take his son fishing or go to his daughter's ball game."
According to the NRCS, Georgia has more no-till cotton and peanut production than any other state. This is credited to the efforts of 6 conservation tillage alliances.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)