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Tillage without using a plough: beneficial for soil and climate

Maike Krauss is measuring greenhouse gasses on a ploughed plot; visible in the background is a plot cultivated with reduced tillage. (Photo: FiBL, Thomas Alföldi)

The emissions of climate-affecting gases like nitrous oxide and methane are similar, whether a cultivator or a plough is used. However, without a plough, more CO2 is sequestrated into the soil – in the form of humus. (Photo: FiBL, Thomas Alföldi)

Ploughless tillage can reduce soil erosion and contribute to protecting the climate. Two recent publications by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) on reduced tillage support this thesis.

(Frick, 21 June 2017) Positive effects on soil and climate can ensue when an organic farmer stops working with a plough. A FiBL trial gained these insights in clayey soils in Frick, Switzerland. Over the course of 13 years, about 8 % more humus formed in the soils tilled with a cultivator and skim plough compared to soil cultivation with a plough. In other words, reduced tillage sequestrates 2.3 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per ha more in a year than cultivation with a plough.

Farmland resembles a natural meadow

A plough mixes humus about 20 cm deep into the topsoil. In a reduced tillage system, however, more humus builds up in the topmost 10 cm. Below that threshold, the humus content remains stable or decreases. Thus, the distribution of humus in a reduced tillage system is closer to a meadow than a field. This can prevent soil erosion and increase the presence and variety of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi.

Greenhouse gases: Timing is more important than type of soil cultivation

Neither one of the examined crops grass-clover and winter wheat showed a difference in nitrous oxide emitted from the two systems. Methane emissions are at the same low level. However, the weather conditions have a huge influence. Tilling wet soils, whether performed with a plough or a cultivator, is not only ill advised for reasons of soil protection, but also due to the high nitrous oxide emissions.

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Publications and articles

  • Krauss, M., Ruser, R., Müller, T., Hansen, S., Mäder, P., Gattinger, A. (2017): Impact of reduced tillage on greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon stocks in an organic grass-clover ley - winter wheat cropping sequence. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 239, 324-333. doi: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2017.01.029
  • Krauss, M., Krause, H.-M., Spangler, S., Kandeler, E., Behrens, S., Kappler, A., Mäder, P., Gattinger, A. (2017): Tillage system affects fertilizer-induced nitrous oxide emissions. Biology and Fertility of Soils 53, 49-59. doi: 10.1007/s00374-016-1152-2
  • Krauss, M., Perrochet, F., Lori, M., Ruser, R., Müller, T., Zikeli, S., Gruber, S., Claupein, W., Mäder, P., Gattinger, A. (2017): Reduzierte Bodenbearbeitung im Biolandbau – Klimaaspekte. Agrarforschung Schweiz, 8(6), 226–231.

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