Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast

A Future for Conservation Tillage Systems

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To look into the future of conservation tillage systems, the authors interviewed members of the Conservation Agriculture Systems Alliance, a group of “voluntary producer organizations that work hard to promote no-till systems and other practices that provide economic benefits, as well as environmental benefits to their regions.” We asked the members: (1) What do you see in the future for conservation tillage systems over the next 10–20 years? and (2) Do you expect conservation tillage to become the “norm”? Respondents answered an overwhelming “yes” to the second question.

A member of the group, responding to the first question, provided a response that sums up much of what was discussed:

I think conservation tillage systems will continue to grow in popularity. With increasing fuel prices, producers will eventually discover that they can successfully grow a crop without all of the tillage operations they currently use.

I think the concept of ‘conservation agriculture’ as defined by the FAO will become more prevalent. The basic tenets of conservation agriculture are minimal soil disturbance; erosion is controlled; all crop residues are returned to the soil; something is growing all the time, whether it is an agronomic crop or a cover crop; and livestock are an integral part of the system.

I think the interest in cover crops will continue to grow. The current level of use of cover crops will pale in comparison to what it will be in 10 years. We are just beginning to understand what cover crops can do for cropping systems in terms of soil-quality improvement, nitrogen fixation, nutrient cycling and carbon cycling.

We will see equipment innovations, such as planters that can operate in standing corn, which will allow timelier establishment of cover crops.

We will see the development of agronomic crop varieties and cover crop varieties that will enable timelier sequencing of these crops.

Much of what is mentioned above constitutes a conservation tillage system as presented in Chapter 1. Other members emphasized the continued use of cover crops, continuous green ground cover and diverse cropping rotations. One member commented: “As fertilizer and oil get more expensive, farmers will turn to biological systems to provide fertility and focus on building their soil.” Crop rotations may increasingly incorporate legume crops, also called green manures, to provide needed fertilization for cash crops in the rotation.

Some members mentioned that an intensification of conservation efforts is needed to further protect our degraded soils. These members came up with suggestions such as “maintaining at least 80 percent cover between crops; practicing invisible seeding of crops and cover crops (means using a no-till planter); including diverse rotations; and integrated pest and nutrient management plans.” These members emphasized that continuous no-till, ridge-till or strip-till is needed to sustain vigorous and resilient agronomic systems. If conservation tillage is not continuous, it will not be sustainable and farmers will turn to continuous no-till.

One member suggested that environmental-credit markets, such as carbon markets, are a method to help unlock the value of conservation and may be a positive policy tool. The member suggests that “the value of the system beyond yield and environmental protection is just part of the overall value that must be unlocked.” This additional value arises from the potential off-site benefits and societal benefits from conservation tillage systems. If these can be capitalized on, then farmers may have an additional incentive to intensify conservation efforts.