Tillage has been inseparable from crop production since the earliest days of agriculture. Tillage is the very first task at the beginning of an agricultural season. It is the practice of preparing the soil for planting, usually performed on farms using specialised tillage implements. High yields are associated with well-cultivated soil, providing a proper environment for seeds to germinate and roots to grow. In addition, tillage can help to control weeds, disrupt pest lifecycles, incorporate nutrients into the soil, and manage crop residues*. Tillage affects soil workability and thereby eventually impacts all other field operations: the amount of necessary water for irrigation, the amount of pesticide, as well as the necessary supplement of nutrients. According to APOLLO’s user requirements survey, it has been identified that tillage and spraying were the operations carried out most frequently by farmers during a crop period, independent of the crop type. In addition, it was found that farmers who apply conservation agriculture may decide not plough the soil at all. On the other hand, farmers that practise more intensive agriculture (e.g. in Spain) carry out a higher number of such operations in a year. It is evident that tillage plays a central role throughout the agricultural season.
Keep your soil healthy means higher yields
Tillage quality is crucial in order for crops to complete their biological cycle. Tillage creates suitable growing conditions and promotes sustainable soil fertility. The amount of water in the soil is an important consideration for effective tillage. If soil is tilled when its water content is higher than soil’s upper plastic limit, large clods can be produced and structural damage can occur to the soil, which will impede plant growth and lead to uneven stands. If, on the other hand, the soil water content is less than soil’s lower plastic limit, tillage requires excessive energy and dust is created resulting to severe soil degradation. This is a major threat to agricultural sustainability. When tillage is performed when soil moisture conditions are optimal, soil degradation is reduced, and energy efficiency is improved. Healthy soil allows water infiltration, root penetration, and air exchange to occur, while the best conditions are created for germination and growing.
As previously mentioned, tillage affects many soil parameters that are crucial for the efficiency of cropping inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, the uptake of water and its transpiration, soil biophysical properties and processes, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
Reduce costs and decrease emissions
Of all farm management practices, tillage may have the greatest impact on the environment. One aspect of ineffective tillage practices is soil degradation. Tillage is the most energy-hungry – and, hence, most costly – field operation. Tillage can account for more than exceed 50% of the total fuel consumption during a growing season. Some farmers do not till their soil, as a practice, in order to avoid downgrading the soil quality and to reduce costs. However, not tilling seems to imply other important environmental risks. In recent years, it has been proven that compared to no-till practices, tillage lowers the amount of nitrous oxide (N2O) released into the atmosphere per hectare by up to 66% percent. This is significant considering that nitrous oxide is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, trapping up to 300 times more heat that carbon dioxide (CO2). Hence, it becomes obvious that improved tillage practices could be a better solution to help reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions than not tilling at all.
Organic farming is all about minimising the use of harmful chemicals and maintaining environmental and agricultural sustainability. Two of the main problems that organic farmers need to deal with without the help of pesticides and herbicides are weeds and pests. A common technique to address these issues is by means of tillage. On one hand, organic farmers cannot use chemical herbicides to control weeds. On the other hand, weeds can be hosts of pests and diseases and thus weed control can also help in pest control. So instead of spraying pesticides, organic farmers simply till more often than conventional farmers. However, such frequent tillage might increase the negative impacts on soil quality and prove costly through the extra wear on machinery and additional labour requirements. Producers should consider the impact of sustained frequent tillage on soil quality and resources management.
Farmers generally decide when it is best to till based on their own experience. Four issues are usually taken into account: i) the weather, ii) the soil moisture, iii) the current month, and iv) what operations are planned after the tillage, and how soon it would be feasible to perform them after tilling. For example, inappropriate tilling may result in delays to the seeding operation. Seeding later than the appropriate seeding time usually leads to yield decrease because the crop doesn’t take advantage of its genotype’s yield capacity.
Usually, the final decision on when to till is taken in the field using the “touch and feel” method, which of course means physically visiting the field. On this basis, the farmer decides whether to till immediately or not. If best management practices are applied, fuel and labour time can be reduced, whilst avoiding low quality tillage operations that may result in yield decrease.
How can farmers benefit from the APOLLO Tillage Scheduling service?
APOLLO aims to help farmers to sustainably manage their fields and create the conditions for reducing costs and enable higher yields. By providing information anytime and anywhere on when tillage should be performed, farmers will be able to make better decisions. The advice provided by APOLLO can also help farmers to improve their resource consumption. Farmers will be better able to assess when to perform tillage and to identify soil workability across the field. They will therefore be able to immediately address issues which tilling could solve, e.g. areas that require draining.
Currently, there is no application or a farm management tool available on the market that helps farmers to schedule tillage operations.
The APOLLO Tillage Scheduling service will help farmers to reduce their fuel consumption during field operations, improve soil workability and potentially sustain resources from seeding to harvest.
We would like to thank Mr. Zisis Tsiropoulos (Agronomist), Mr. Evangelos Anastasiou (Agronomist) and Dr. Spyros Fountas (Precision Agriculture expert) from the Agricultural University of Athens, for their scientific contribution to this article.
Image credits: Zbysiu Rodak (https://unsplash.com/@zbigniew)
*Crop residues may cause problems during seeding. Tillage can help to manage crop residues by incorporating them into the soil and thus avoiding problems during seeding.