no-till sowing notill farmingOrganic farming can build up soil organic matter better than conventional no-till farming. This virtue of organic farming methods, amid the expanding marketing of no-till methods and overpriced no-till equipment, have been proven by a long-term study by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists.

Agricultural team of researchers made the discovery during a nine-year study at the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC), Beltsville, Md. BARC is operated by ARS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency. 

Plant physiologist John Teasdale, with the ARS Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory in Beltsville, was surprised to find that organic farming was a better soil builder than no-till. No-till has always been thought to be the best soil builder because it eliminates plowing and minimizes even light tillage to avoid damaging organic matter and exposing the soil to erosion.

Organic farming, despite its emphasis on building organic matter (which is most effective with biodynamic farming technology), was thought to actually endanger soil because it relies on tillage and cultivation—instead of herbicides—to kill weeds.

But Teasdale’s study showed that organic farming’s addition of organic matter in manure and cover crops more than offset losses from tillage. At the same time, the use of chemicals in conventional no-till agriculture depresses organic matter in the soil and thus eliminates the positive effect of the minimal tillage.

From 1994 to 2002, Teasdale compared light-tillage organic corn, soybean and wheat with the same crops grown with no-till plus pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

In a follow-up three-year study, Teasdale grew corn with no-till practices on all plots to see which ones had the most-productive soils. He found that the organic plots had more carbon and nitrogen and yielded 18 percent more corn than the other plots did.

No-till can become an effective and soil-friendly technology of tomorrow’s agriculture but the equipment manufacturers should not misuse the positive aspects of no-till to gain extra margins for their “unique” equipment. The combination of organic farming and no-till technology can only provide the most effective result when the capital investment in no-till equipment becomes as efficient as conventional equipment investment.


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