Conservation Tillage on Organic Farms

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Two-hundred years of tillage have taken their toll on America’s farm soils. The moldboard plow, extensive tillage, and other soil management practices have promoted wind and water erosion, costly nutrient losses from farm fields due to runoff and leaching, and a serious depletion of soil organic matter.
For too long, American farmers simply had to write these losses off as the necessary downside of crop production. If you farmed, it was a given that you used a moldboard or chisel plow to turn the sod bottomside-up, leaving no plant material on the surface. Then, in secondary tillage operations to create a seedbed and grow the crop, you crossed the field several times more with a disc, harrow, and cultivator. The opened soil was vulnerable to wind and water erosion.
Such damage to farm soils is an all-toocommon occurrence in many production regions, including the agrarian South. For two centuries we have extensively cleared land for row-crop production of tobacco, cotton, corn, and soybeans. The resulting loss of topsoil and organic matter has degraded soil quality. Many farm fields have decreased fertility, aggregation, and water-holding capacity as a result.
A growing number of American farmers, however, are attempting to stem the degradation to our soils by adopting a cropping system known as conservation tillage (CT). In this publication, we will describe conservation tillage and discuss how it affects management practices on organic farms. We will focus on these topics:

  • How conservation tillage works, including the obstacles and benefits it presents for organic farmers.
  • Conservation tillage and management practices on organic farms, including the practices that affect organic matter, soil fertility, cover crops, pests, and compaction.
  • CT equipment for vegetable production.
Keith R. Baldwin
CEFS NC State University