Breaking Down Soil Tillage and Crop Rotation
As we’ve discussed in previous pieces, the adoption of sustainable and regenerative practices is crucial to meeting the needs of present and future generations… and it starts and ends with our soil.
The facilitation of healthy and productive soils is the foundation from which farmers must build. These nature-based farming methods, such as cover cropping, no-till, and crop rotation, can improve, maintain, and even restore the health of our soils and farm ecosystems.
We explored cover crops in our previous piece, Understanding Cover Crops: The Basics & Their Benefits. This week, let’s break down tillage and crop rotation – two soil-growing practices that can lead to more robust, resilient, and productive farms.
What Is Tillage & Crop Rotation?
Similar to cover cropping, minimized tillage and crop rotations are on-farm practices that can impact the health and productivity of the soil.
Tillage is the practice of turning and aerating the soil to prepare for planting. This practice can encourage root growth, control weeds, and suppress pests. While many use “tilling” synonymously with “plowing,” plowing is a more intense form of tilling and produces an entirely new layer of soil.
Crop rotations involve growing different crops in recurrent succession within the same piece of land and across growing seasons. This practice can help replenish the soil's nutrients while breaking weed and pest cycles.
From Industrial to Sustainable
For millennia, farmers have prepared for the next planting by tilling the soil to incorporate new organic matter, suppress weeds, and increase aeration; this improves the soil’s texture and facilitates crop root development.
However, agronomic advancements in the 20th century brought drastic transformations in tillage, particularly in the industrialized West. Farmers began to swap animal-powered plows for mechanized tractors that could be easily outfitted with chisels, plows, blades, or rakes to turn the soil over and break up large chunks.
As industrial agriculture grew in popularity, farmers sought to maximize their yields further. In addition to incorporating mechanization, they increased both planting frequency and density. Ultimately, however, these intensive practices led to soil compaction, soil erosion, and a loss of essential nutrients.
Today, farmers are more mindful of the impact that a sole focus on yields can have on the soil; farmers and agriculture technologists are increasingly adopting sustainable methods, such as no-till and crop rotations, to maximize yields while restoring and preserving their land for the future.
The Dawn of No-Till
To minimize soil compaction and erosion, which reduces the soil's capacity to retain water and other nutrients, many farmers are now turning to no-till soil methods. Rather than tilling a crop’s leftover residue back into the soil to prepare for a new planting season, no-till farming minimizes soil disturbances altogether. Instead, farmers plant seeds directly into the crop residue of previous seasons.
No-till farming practices can provide numerous environmental benefits. By allowing the past crop’s residue to decompose naturally into soils, farmers can improve organic matter and carbon content. This can reinforce the soil’s capacity to hold water and increase nutrient availability for the next crop.
Feeding the Soil with Crop Rotations
On the other hand, crop rotations can be used to replenish and balance soil nutrients.
Each crop requires a specific set of nutrients within the soil to achieve optimal growth. Cotton, for example, utilizes nitrogen in the soil at a rapid rate compared to other crops. In turn, planting only cotton can quickly deplete the topsoil’s stock of this essential nutrient.
By implementing crop rotations, farmers can prevent one crop from exhausting the soil of a particular nutrient. When a field planted with cotton is subsequently planted with nitrogen-producing legumes, like peanuts, the nutrient is replenished within the soil.
It is important to note that no agricultural practice is one-size-fits-all, however. The transition to implementing crop rotations, or reducing or eliminating tillage, are matters of careful consideration and depend on each farm’s unique location, climate, soil type, and crops. In many cases, farmers may choose to combine practices in order to meet a farm’s specific needs and conditions.
Reaping The Rewards of Sustainable Farming
Smart tillage and crop rotation practices can not only help farmers both maintain and rebuild their soil, but they can also improve a farm’s overall bottom line – presenting an opportunity for investors looking to drive impact.
By incorporating crop rotations, for example, farmers can reduce fertilizer costs. Leveraging minimized or no-tillage methods can also reduce costs, as less fuel and equipment time is required throughout your operation. This can result in better returns for both farmers and investors.
Sustainably managing farmland will also reinforce the land’s value in the long term. Farms with healthy soils should be worth more over time, and this will be increasingly true as natural resources become more scarce.
At FarmTogether, our mission is to bring creative and transformative capital to sustainable farming while opening a vital asset class to all investors. FarmTogether’s agricultural operations have been certified as in conformance with the Leading Harvest Farmland Management Standard. Additionally, we partner with best-in-class operators with a track record of successful sustainable farm management and who align well with our interest in promising financial returns.
Interested in learning more about FarmTogether's commitment to funding sustainable and prosperous farming, to include regenerative agriculture? Check out our Why We Invest page.
Disclaimer: FarmTogether is not a registered broker-dealer, investment adviser or investment manager. FarmTogether does not provide tax, legal or investment advice. This material has been prepared for informational and educational purposes only. You should consult your own tax, legal and investment advisors before engaging in any transaction.