Conservation Agriculture, Practices, Principles

Introduction to Conservation Agriculture, Farming Practices, and Principles: What is Conservation agriculture?: Conservation Agriculture (CA) is a set of soil management practices that conserves soil water, minimizes the disturbance of the soil’s structure, enhances biodiversity, and improves crop yields. The main aim of Conservation agriculture is to produce high crop yields while reducing production costs, conserving water, and maintaining soil fertility.

Conservation agriculture promotes minimum soil disturbance, plant species diversification, maintenance of a permanent soil cover, and improves crop yields. It conserves natural resources, biodiversity, and labor. It reduces heat stress, increases available soil water, and builds up soil health. It promotes minimum soil disturbance that is No-till farming. It contributes to increased water and nutrient use efficiency, improves natural biological processes above and below the ground surface, and improved crop production. It is a set of soil management practices that the disruption of the soil’s structure minimizes, composition and natural biodiversity. Conservation agriculture has proven the potential to improve crop yields by adopting several practices.

Conservation Agriculture, Practices
Conservation Agriculture Practices (Pic credit: pixabay)

A Step-by-Step guide to Conservation Agriculture, Farming Practices, and Principles

Conservation agriculture is a sustainable approach method to improve agricultural production which aims to protect soil from erosion and degradation, and then increase crop yields. Minimum soil disturbance, maintenance of permanent soil cover, and use of crop rotations are the three main principles of Conservation agriculture. If we want to improve soil quality, we must turn our field of interest to the application called Conservation agriculture system, which belongs to the principles of sustainable nature.

Conservation Agriculture involves the below procedures;

  • Timely implementation – All operations carry at the best time in the cropping season that is preparation, seeding/planting, fertilization with organic and inorganic fertilizers, and controlling weeds and insect pests.
  • Precise operations – paying attention to carrying out all tasks carefully.
  • Efficient use of inputs – not wasting any resources such as labor, time, seeds, crop residue, manure, fertilizer, and water.
  • It is a system minimizing soil mechanical disturbance and crop diversification is a sustainable agro ecological method to resource-conserving agricultural production.

What are the main principles of Conservation agriculture?

Conservation agriculture is based on three main principles. They are;

  • Minimal soil disturbance,
  • Maintaining soil cover, and
  • Improved crop rotations

1. Minimum mechanical soil disturbance or disturb the soil as little as possible – The idea is to plant directly into the soil, without hoeing or ploughing methods. The tillage system is reduced to ripping planting lines or making planting holes with a hoe. It is through direct seed and/or fertilizer placement.

2. Keep the soil covered as much as possible or permanent soil organic cover – At least 30% with crop residues and cover crops. Mulch, special cover crops, and crop residues left on the field protect the soil from erosion and limit weed growth. Farmers remove crop residues or mix them into the soil with a plough or hoe and this is opposed to conventional farming. As a result, the soil is left bare, so it is easily washed away by rain or is blown away by the wind.

3. Mix and rotate crops – Rotate crops means planting the same crop each season. This allows multiplication cycles of pests, diseases, and weeds resulting in higher crop yields and maintenance of soil fertility.

To improve crop rotation, more legumes are grown which fix nitrogen and then help succeeding crops. The main function of minimum tillage is to minimize soil organic matter losses and increase soil carbon and nitrogen stocks. One percent increase in organic matter can capture about 10 times more tons of carbon dioxide. In this way, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is reduced. Also, to maintain a healthy soil system, there shouldn’t be any bare soil left. Permanently covered soil leads to many benefits like maintaining water capacity in soil which stops drying of soil, manages nutrients, and increases yields. It gives us the opportunity how to use natural resources more efficiently with minimal impact on the environment.

All principles have to be applied at the same time for gaining the full benefit of Conservation agriculture. This ideal is not possible everywhere, but farmers must try to go in that direction as far as possible.

Conservation agriculture is a pathway towards agro-ecosystems for achieving enhanced and sustained productivity management, increased profits, and food security while conserving and improving the natural resource base along with the environment. It is practiced in many parts of the world as they are formed on ecological principles which make the land use sustainable. It relies on the practical application of three linked principles, along with other relevant good agricultural practices (GAPs) of crop production, and must be taken care of for suitable design, planning, and implementation processes.

The Conservation agriculture system is based on interrelated principles. They are minimal mechanical soil disturbance, permanent soil cover with dead plant material, and crop diversification through rotation. It mainly helps farmers to maintain and boost crop yields and increase profits, while reversing land degradation, protecting the environment, and responding to growing challenges of climate change conditions. Farmers practice zero-tillage farming to reduce soil disturbance, which allows direct planting without plowing. The combination of intercropping and crop rotation is called zero tillage farming means growing two or more crops at the same time on the same piece of land. Also, these are core principles of sustainable intensification.

Soil management in Conservation agriculture

The biological activity of soil like the spatial arrangement of soil components is fundamental to sustaining agricultural productivity and determines in their complexity the soil health and fertility. Soil management practices improve soil fertility by minimizing losses of soil, nutrients, and agrochemicals from erosion, and surrounding natural vegetation and wildlife in absolute terms in the self-recovery of the respective ecosystems. Good agricultural practice must be;

  • Create a detailed knowledge of the nature, distribution, and potential uses of soils.
  • Avoid mechanical soil disturbance to the possible extent.
  • Avoid soil compaction beyond the soil elasticity.
  • During rotations improve soil organic matter until reaching an equilibrium level.
  • By using cover crops to minimize erosion loss by wind and water.
  • Maintain balanced nutrient levels in soils.
  • By adapting application methods avoid contamination with agrochemicals, organic and inorganic fertilizers, and other contaminants.
  • Keep a record of inputs and outputs of each land-management unit.

Benefits and challenges of Conservation agriculture

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Benefits of Conservation agriculture
Benefits of Conservation agriculture (pic source: pixabay)

Zero-tillage farming with residue cover saves water, increases the organic matter of soil, as well as costs of machinery, will be reduced, fuel and time associated with tilling. Leaving the soil undisturbed increases water infiltration holds soil moisture and then helps to prevent topsoil erosion. It improves water intake that allows for more stable yields during weather extreme conditions exacerbated by climate change.

Conservation agriculture provides many benefits for farmers. Farmers can face constraints to adopt these conservation agriculture practices. Soils with poor drainage or wetlands can make adoption challenging in conservation agriculture. Farmers tend to use them for fodder first when crop residues are limited. Also, it is knowledge-intensive and not all farmers have access to the knowledge required on how to practice conservation agriculture. It increases yields over time but farmers may not see yield benefits immediately. By adapting research and some new methods is helping farmers to overcome these challenges and then facilitate the adoption of a conservation agriculture system.

Some benefits of conservation agriculture are given below;

There are many benefits of adopting conservation agriculture to the farmers, soil, environment, and ultimately to the whole society by sustaining and conserving our natural resources. These all benefits comprise economic, environmental, resource conservation, sustained crop productivity, enhancement in water and nutrient use efficiency, erosion control, and adaptation to climate change, etc.

Conservation agriculture practices provide many advantages on global, regional, local, and farm levels;

Sustainability – Conservation agriculture enhancing the natural resources and increasing the different variety of soil biota in agricultural systems without sacrificing yields on high production levels.

Land – Conservation agriculture increases the productivity of the land. It improves soil structure and protects the nutrient losses by maintaining a permanent soil cover and minimizing soil disturbance. Also, these practices enhance soil organic matter (SOM) levels and nutrient availability by utilizing growing green manure/cover crops (GMCC’s) and keeping these residues as surface mulch. Therefore, arable land under Conservation agriculture is more productive for much longer periods.

Carbon sequestration – No-till fields act as a sink for CO2 and Conservation farming applied on a global scale can provide the main contribution to controlling air pollution in general and global warming in particular. Farmers applying this practice can eventually be rewarded with carbon credits.

Labor savings – By using Conservation agriculture practices, farmers can save between 30 and 40% of the time, labor, and fossil fuels. The reduced labor comes from the absence of some tillage operations during the planting season in Conservation agriculture.

Healthier soils – Soils under Conservation agriculture have high water infiltration capacities reducing surface runoff and thus soil erosion significantly. This improves the surface water quality reducing pollution from soil erosion, and enhances groundwater resources. In many regions, it has been observed that natural springs that had dried up many years ago, started to flow again. The potential effect of a massive Conservation adoption on global water balances is not yet fully recognized.

Increased yields – Crop yields tend to increase over the years with yield variations decreasing.

Reduced costs – Conservation farming is attractive because it allows a reduction of the production costs, reduction of time and labor, particularly at times of peak demand such as land preparation and planting and it reduces the investment cost and maintenance of machinery.

Water – In the Conservation agriculture system, use less water due to increased infiltration. Also, mulches protect the soil surface from extreme temperatures and reduce surface evaporation.

Nutrients – At the soil surface nutrient supplies are enhanced by the biochemical decomposition of organic crop residues. While much of the nitrogen needs of primary food crops can be done by planting nitrogen-fixing legume species, other plant essential nutrients must be supplemented by additional chemical and organic fertilizer inputs.

Why start using Conservation agriculture?

You can start Conservation agriculture for many reasons.

To improve your yields – Yields in many areas are falling. The main cause of this is declining soil fertility caused by the way of farming. The rising population has farmers abandon traditional practices that left the land fallow for several years and cultivate ever-smaller plots. Though, intensive tilling and hoeing year after year can produce a hardpan in the soil. Then, that restricts root growth and stunts plants. Rainwater pounds the bare soil, and forming a surface crust that the water cannot penetrate. It runs off, taking the valuable topsoil with it, and erosion in some places is so severe that there is little soil left.

To get a good crop yield, farmers often apply more and more fertilizer. Plants are more vulnerable to drought with less moisture in the soil. Then, they start to wilt after a few days without rain. It prevents hardpans from forming, protects the soil, increases soil moisture levels, and restores soil fertility, so stabilizing yields and improving crop production over the long term.

To reduce your production costs – Tilling the soil is expensive in conservation agriculture. Fuel and fertilizer prices and labor costs rise constantly, while market prices of farm products have fallen. Farmers cannot recoup their production costs by selling the products, so they end up making a loss.  Conservation agriculture will help these farmers cut costs while increasing their crop yields.

To overcome shortages of labor and farm power – Many farm households suffer from a severe lack of labor and farm power. Some draught animals have died because of disease, or their owners have had to sell them to pay for medical treatment. A lack of farm power forces farmers to look for other methods to farm. They are Agro Ecologic Zones, Water Management, Soil Management, Sustainable and Organic Agriculture, Soil cover, Conservation tillage systems, mixed cropping, and Crop rotation, Agroforestry, Processing and Value Addition, Sustainable Energy, and Energy and Climate Change.

Conservation Agriculture Practices

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Conservation Agriculture Practices
Conservation Agriculture Practices (pic credit: pixabay)

Sustainable land management – Sustainable land management is also called land husbandry. It is a broad term that includes various crop types and livestock production that aim to produce good yields year after year while conserving soil and water resources. Conservation agriculture system is a type of sustainable land management.

Green Revolution vs No-till or Reduced-till Revolution – The Green Revolution did not provide adequate advantages to resource-poor vulnerable farmers without access to external inputs namely fertilizers, hybrid seeds, and water. It is beginning to benefit all farmers and communities at large. Conservation agriculture is a silent multi-stakeholder movement driven by an urge to produce more food at less cost, conserve land and water resources and improve environmental quality. It easily conforms to as an important component of the strategy for food security, and rural development improves environmental quality and helps preserve natural resources at the same time.

Minimum mechanical soil disturbance – Generally, soil biological activities are supposed to produce stable soil aggregates as well as variant sizes of pores which allows proper aeration and infiltration of water. With mechanical soil disturbance by tillage or cultivation practices, the biological soil structuring processes fade away. Minimum soil disturbance is responsible for maintaining the optimum composition of respiration gases, appropriate porosity for soil water movement, and germination of weed seeds. The minimum mechanical soil disturbance indicates permanent low soil disturbance, no-tillage, and then involves no-till direct seeding along with no-till weeding.

Permanent organic soil cover – It is imperative in Conservation agriculture to protect the soil from the harmful effects resulting from exposure to rain and sun; to provide constant food supply to the soil micro and macro organisms, together with plant roots. Soil cover is attained with biomass obtained from crop residues and cover crops.

Diversified crop rotations – Diversified crop rotation is required for providing food to the soil microorganisms along with nutrients utilization by the crops in rotation which are present in different soil layers due to leaching. It can be attained by rotating deep-rooted crops with shallow-rooted crops. The crop rotations which mainly involve legumes are beneficial for biological nitrogen fixation, reducing pest infestation by disruption of the pests’ life cycle and also improving biodiversity.

Conventional Vs Conservation Agriculture

Both conventional farming and Conservation agriculture include a different variety of operations. The main operations are field preparation, planting, fertilization, weeding, harvesting, and field operations after the harvest. There are many variations in both ‘conventional’ and ‘conservation’ approaches, so the descriptions are simplified and could not depict what happens in a particular area. It is characterized by ploughing and limited recycling of organic materials. All these lead to higher stable yields.

Organic Agriculture Vs Conservation Agriculture

These two agricultural systems maintain a balance between agricultural resources by using crop rotation and protect the soil’s organic matter. The main difference between conservation agriculture and organic agriculture is that organic farmers use a plow or soil tillage, while farmers who practice conservation agriculture sector use natural principles and do not till the soil. Without using inorganic fertilizers organic farmers apply tillage to remove weeds.

Conservation agriculture farmers use a permanent soil cover and then plant seeds. They can use inorganic fertilizers to manage weeds in soils with low fertility. Over time, the use of agrichemicals can be reduced or slowly phased out. Both methods rotate crops to keep the soil fertile and use water retention techniques by planting cover crops. Both organic and conservation farming have a similar performance. Though, the main difference between the two is environmental friendliness.

Organic agriculture involves growing crops and livestock without using agrochemicals. It is possible to do conservation agriculture organically without using fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, but many types of conservation farming use these agrochemicals but in small amounts and with care. While conservation agriculture stresses zero or reduced tillage and maintenance of soil cover, seems not bound by these practices.

How does Conservation agriculture differ from climate-smart agriculture?

Both conservation and climate-smart agriculture are similar, their purposes are different. These agriculture systems aim to have a positive effect on the environment and sustainably intensify smallholder farming systems. It helps farmers to adapt to and increase crop yields despite climate risks.

Climate-smart agriculture aims to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate conditions change by sequestering soil carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and finally increase productivity and profitability of farming systems to ensure farmers’ livelihoods in a changing climate. Conservation agriculture can be considered climate-smart as they deliver on the objectives of climate-smart agriculture.

Pest, weed, and fertility management in Conservation agriculture

In any agricultural system, pest, weed, and fertility management are critical issues. Any limitation related to pest, weed, and soil fertility should be assessed and addressed before implementing conservation agriculture.

In case of a lack of resources, some solutions have been found by farmers. They are weed control, crop rotations, use of manure, and other crops for soil fertility, etc. Combining conservation with organic agriculture has been adopted by small-scale farmers.

Pest management – New, or in appearance so far unknown pests, might occur at the beginning, which can involve inputs of chemicals. Though, using crop rotations and cover crops should help in this task, by interrupting the infection chain between subsequent crops. In conservation agriculture, pest and disease control are based on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) technologies.

Weed management – Synthetic chemical herbicides can be necessary for the first years but have to be used with much care to reduce the negative impact on soil life. Mulch cover and cover crops, crop rotations, and herbicides are the technologies to control weeds. For exceptional cases, mechanical weeders exist for tractors that can work through a mulch cover. The amount of herbicides decreases because the farmer becomes more experienced in managing the system. Biological weed control can be effective through the appropriate choice of cover crops.

Fertility management – Soil limitations like acidity, salinity, or toxicity problems must be addressed in the implementation of conservation agriculture. Soil organic matter (SOM) and choice of crops and cover crops play a key role in soil fertility management, and especially SOM provided by root decomposition. The integration of livestock in the system can also be a solution mainly for the farmers with poor resources or access to mineral fertilizers. The use of organic and mineral fertilizers can be necessary.


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