Benefits of Conservation Tillage Systems - SARE (2023)

There are both environmental and economic benefits to conservation tillage systems. Environmental benefits include improved water quality; reduced nutrient losses; increased water availability; improved air quality; and improved soil quality, meaning increased organic matter and improved soil structure, porosity and tilth. Economic and societal benefits include improved quality of life (reduced labor, greater flexibility in planting); improved profitability (reduces wear and tear on equipment, saves fuel and fertilizer, improved productivity, carbon credits); and improved wildlife habitat. The benefits are many, diverse and interwoven. More detail is provided on the benefits of conservation tillage in the sections below.

Environmental Benefits

Reduced Soil Erosion

When soil is tilled and loosened, and residue is buried or removed, the potential for erosion increases. The Southeast has highly erodible soils and experienced irreversible soil erosion prior to 1900 [31, 48]. Research has proven that conservation tillage, including crop-residue management, conserves soil and water on southeastern soils [31, 50] and improves soil productivity. On the loess silty-clay loams of northern Mississippi, soil losses declined about 86 percent when no-till equipment with fluted coulters was used rather than conventional tillage [37]. In the Southern Coastal Plain on highly weathered loamy sands planted in cotton, sediment losses were reduced significantly using conservation tillage rather than conventional tillage [52]. In the Southern Piedmont sandy-clay loams and sandy clays, conservation tillage has been shown to reduce erosion [30] when compared to conventional tillage. With the inclusion of winter cover crops, it will also restore soil productivity [31].

Improved Soil Health

In the humid Southeast, conservation tillage systems have positive effects on chemical, physical and biological soil properties when compared to conventional tillage. Reduced mechanical disturbance results in less destruction of soil organisms and their habitat. Biological activity is more robust. Organic matter in the soil and at the soil surface provides nourishment for soil organisms that are part of the foundation of the food web. Soils in conservation tillage systems generally have a greater abundance of earthworms, arthropods, microorganisms, fungi and bacteria. Disease is reduced due to the greater competition between disease microorganisms and beneficial microorganisms. Plants grown under conservation tillage experience less stress and are likely to be stronger and more resistant to disease.

(Video) What is Sustainable Agriculture? Episode 3: Conservation Tillage and Soil Health

Researchers have found higher values of organic matter, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium in cropping systems that utilize conservation tillage systems rather than conventional tillage systems. Results in Georgia have shown that the degree to which soil organic matter accumulates depends on the amount of organic carbon returned to the soil [27]. This suggests that the addition of cover crops in winter and limiting residue removal will increase organic-matter levels. Higher organic-matter levels have been shown to increase the soil’s cation-exchange capacity, which helps keep nutrients in place and in a form easily exchangeable with plant roots.

Plant roots in conservation tillage systems have been shown to be more abundant and extensive, both laterally and vertically, than roots in conventional tillage systems. These extensive root networks provide more moisture and nutrients for plant growth. Edwards et al. [20] found that conservation tillage increased soil organic matter 56 percent in the Southeast, while no change in organic matter was measured for conventional tillage.

Improved Water Conservation

Crop residue protects soil from raindrop impact, which in turn reduces soil crusting that results in surface sealing [42]. Soil crusting reduces water infiltration and air exchange that can impair crop germination. In a rainfall simulation study on a Southeast silt loam, researchers found that runoff losses averaged 28.7 mm for conventional tillage and 16.7 mm for conservation tillage [44]. In Alabama, on Southern Coastal Plain loamy sand, researchers found that conservation tillage produced only half as much runoff as conventional tillage plots [47, 51, 52]. Conservation tillage systems increase soil porosity, resulting in increased rainfall infiltration and soil water-storage capacity [8, 21].

(Video) Practical Conservation Tillage for Western Region Organic Cropping Systems

Improved Air Quality

In many regions, erosion by wind can be a serious problem both environmentally and agronomically. In the east, the Southern Coastal Plain soils are most vulnerable to wind erosion. Wind erosion factors influenced by soil management and sediment supply (or how loose and easily transportable the soil is) include vegetative cover and timing of farming operations. Conservation tillage does not loosen or invert the soil; it leaves vegetation in place to help prevent wind-erosion losses. Crop residues on the soil surface reduce wind velocity and the ability of wind to move soil particles.

Improved Wildlife Habitat

Management of agricultural land has vital implications for wildlife. Just as humans require nutritious food, clean water and adequate shelter (refuge from the environment and from predators), so does wildlife. Sedimentation is a critical water-quality problem, especially for aquatic fauna and other wildlife that feed directly on them. Conservation tillage systems reduce sedimentation in water bodies by reducing soil erosion.

Conservation tillage also provides food opportunities and shelter for small mammals and birds [3] such as mice, rabbits, bobwhite or quail. This in turn provides nourishment for predators such as rattlesnakes, raccoons, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, bobcats and coyotes. Researchers have reported higher nest densities and nest success in conservation tillage fields as compared to conventional tillage fields [14, 18, 34]. In the Southeast, cotton fields are abundant and provide little to no cover or food source if clean tilled. Cederbaum [10] reported higher densities of breeding birds in conservation-tillage cotton fields as compared to conventional tillage, especially with conservation tillage fields using strip cropping. Wildlife specialists recommend that areas within and around conservation tillage fields be managed to provide habitat, especially for birds and rabbits.

(Video) Management Choices & Interpretation for Conservation Tillage Systems

Economic Benefits

When farms convert from conventional tillage systems to conservation tillage systems, there is potential to lower production costs and improve farm profitability. The agronomic benefits associated with conservation tillage practices, such as improved soil productivity, may improve yields, thereby increasing net returns [6, 33]. While this potential exists, profitability of the cropping enterprise depends on a number of additional factors, including effective management, soil suitability, pest pressures and climate.

Lower Production Costs

Cost savings with conservation tillage systems over conventional systems primarily stem from reductions in the use of labor and machinery. This includes both short- and long-term cost savings in variable and fixed labor costs as well as fuel and machinery costs. The savings will likely differ from farm to farm due to differences in weather and farm characteristics, such as farm size, as well as management approaches [54]. Labor savings are a result of a decrease in pre-harvest activities. This includes reductions in operator labor for machinery as well as reductions in hand labor for other farming activities such as maintenance of equipment.

Reductions in fuel and machinery costs result from fewer passes over the field with less tillage and cultivation. Fewer pieces of equipment are needed, and smaller, less powerful tractors can do the work. A significant savings results from a decrease in diesel-fuel consumption. This savings increases as diesel-fuel prices go up. Labor savings and longer machinery life will allow farmers to increase the acres of land being farmed, further increasing farm profits and viability. Another factor that will lower production costs is the inclusion of high-residue winter cover crops. Winter cover crops reduce weed pressure and improve water conservation, resulting in reduced pesticide and irrigation costs [45].

(Video) Reduced Tillage Systems for Organic Vegetable Production

Improved Crop Yields and Revenue Opportunities

Studies comparing conventional and conservation tillage systems have mixed results when analyzing crop yields. In a number of cases, conservation tillage systems resulted in reduced yields during transition to conservation tillage, but compensated with cost savings [46]. In a Georgia Piedmont Ultisol, conservation-tillage cotton fertilized with broiler litter produced more lint in four out of five years, compared to conventional-tillage cotton fertilized with mineral fertilizer [22, 23]. Averaged over the five years, conservation tillage, regardless of fertilizer, produced 32 percent more cotton lint than conventional tillage.

Addition of cover crops to conservation tillage systems often results in increased crop yield and net returns compared to conservation systems without cover crops. Past agronomic research has shown the potential yield benefits of using cover crops prior to cash crop planting [24, 35, 40]. For example, Bergtold et al. [6] examined the profitability of alternative mixtures of high-residue cover crops in conservation tillage systems. They found that net returns for cotton with a rye/black oat cover crop mixture increased 10–37 percent over the conventional tillage treatment.

Financial Incentives

To further enhance the profitability of conservation tillage systems, especially during initial periods of adoption, take advantage of financial incentives from programs such as EQIP and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) offered by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Other potential sources of revenue in conservation tillage systems may come from activities such as winter annual grazing [1], providing farm operations with additional sources of income and helping to reduce risk.

(Video) Fertility and Conservation Tillage


What are the benefits of conservation tillage? ›

These include a decrease in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, less reliance on farm machinery and equipment, and an overall reduction in fuel and labor costs. In addition, conservation tillage methods have been shown to improve soil health, reduce runoff, and limit the extent of erosion.

How do conservation tillage practices in agriculture benefit the soul? ›

Aside from erosion control, the other advantages of conservation tillage are increased water infiltration, a greater addition of organic matter to the soil, and savings of fuel and time for the farmer.

What are two reasons farmers would use conservation tillage? ›

Combating soil erosion and providing economic advantages to farmers are the primary benefits of conservation tillage.

What are the benefits of agriculture conservation? ›

Soil, Water, and Biodiversity: Conservation programs help farmers, ranchers, and foresters enhance soil health, mitigate water pollution, and create habitat for a diversity of wildlife species.

What is conservation tillage advantages and disadvantages? ›

The most important advantage of conservation tillage systems is significantly less soil erosion due to wind and water. Other advantages include reduced fuel and labor requirements. However, increased reliance may be placed on herbicides with some conservation tillage systems.

What are the five benefit of soil conservation? ›

Improved Environment:

Improved soil quality and productivity. Reduced erosion. Increased water infiltration and storage. Improved air and water quality.

How does conservation tillage improve soil structure? ›

Conservation tillage improves soil aggregate stability that enhances nutrient retention and reduces soil erosion thereby contributing to soil fertility and mediates air permeability, water infiltration, and nutrient cycling.

Does conservation tillage increase crop yields? ›

Conservation tillage can improve soil physical structure and water storage, protect moisture, and increase crop yield. However, the long-term adoption of a single tillage method may have some adverse effects on soil and ecological environment, although crop yields have increased.

What are examples of conservation tillage? ›

Conservation tillage cultivates land that uses leftovers from last year's crops to reduce soil erosion and runoff. These can be stalks of corn or any other crop. Farmers use them to cover fields before and after planting a new crop.

What are 3 types of conservation tillage? ›

The CTIC identified five types of conservation tillage systems:
  • no-tillage (slot planting),
  • mulch tillage,
  • strip or zonal tillage,
  • ridge till (including no-till on ridges) and.
  • reduced or minimum tillage.

Is conservation tillage better than conventional tillage? ›

Conservation tillage offers the advantage of reduced field operations compared to conventional tillage which should result in lower costs, better yields and reduced risk. Water loss is reduced, soil structure improves, and oxidation of organic residues is not as rapid as tillage is reduced.

What are two reasons why soil conservation is important? ›

Soil conservation is essential for: Reducing climate change's destructive impact worldwide. Maintaining a balanced climate cycle. Providing healthy ecosystems where plants, trees, and animals can thrive.

What are the positive effects of conservation? ›

Preservation of open space, trails, parks and greenways creates jobs, enhances property values, expands local businesses, attracts new or relocating businesses, increases local tax revenues, decreases local government expenditures through the natural provision of ecosystem services, decreases the cost of recreation and ...

What are 3 benefits of sustainable agriculture? ›

Increase profitable farm income. Promote environmental stewardship. Enhance quality of life for farm families and communities. Increase production for human food and fiber needs.

Why is conservation important on farms? ›

It will improve your soil, reduce erosion, and maintain or even improve your crop yields. Conservation Farming will introduce more flexibility into your farming operations, reduce your fuel bills, and conserve more of that usually precious rain that falls on your land.

What is a major problem with conservation tillage? ›

The change from conventional tillage to a zero-till farming system can lead to drastic changes in the physical conditions of soil. Decreases in plant yield have been attributed to lower soil temperatures, higher bulk densities and resistance to penetration, phytoxicity problems, and an increased weed population.

What are the 7 methods of soil conservation? ›

Soil conservation practices are tools the farmer can use to prevent soil degradation and build organic matter. These practices include: crop rotation, reduced tillage, mulching, cover cropping and cross-slope farming. farmers to increase soil organic matter content, soil structure and rooting depth.

What are the advantages of soil conservation at the community level? ›

Soil conservation policies aim to reduce the risk of soil erosion in vulnerable land (e.g., hill and steepland country), the downstream costs associated with nutrient losses and sediment loadings to waterways, and damage to productive farmland and towns.

Why is conservation of soil necessary list any three methods of soil conservation? ›

A consequence of deforestation is typically large-scale erosion, loss of soil nutrients and sometimes total desertification. Techniques for improved soil conservation include crop rotation, cover crops, conservation tillage and planted windbreaks, affect both erosion and fertility.

Is conservation tillage sustainable? ›

In addition to healthier soil and more sustainable fields, by converting to a conservation tillage process, there is potential to lower production costs and improve farm profitability. Cost savings primarily stem from reductions in the use of labor and machinery.

What are the principles of conservation tillage? ›

Conservation agriculture is based upon three principles: minimum tillage and soil disturbance, permanent soil cover with crop residues and live mulches, and intercropping. Minimum tillage minimizes soil organic matter losses and leads to increase soil carbon and nitrogen stocks.

What is conservation tillage in simple words? ›

Conservation tillage means any minimal tillage system that leaves sufficient crop residue to cover the soil surface by at least 30%. No-till farming, in which the soil is left undisturbed by tillage and the residue is left on the soil surface, is the most effective soil conservation system.

Which tillage system is best? ›

1. No tillage (No-till) No-till systems leave the greatest amount of residue cover on the soil surface and provide the greatest erosion control (Figure 2). Fertilizers may be broadcast in no-till systems, but band applications at or after planting are preferred.

Why is conservation important 3 reasons? ›

There are three main reasons why we conserve: To repair some of the damage done by humans and maintain the environment for future generations. To maintain species diversity for our benefit and that of wildlife. To provide opportunities for education and the enjoyment of the environment.

What are the economic benefits of land conservation? ›

Preservation of parks, forests, farms, stream valleys and trees increases the value of nearby houses, increases tax revenues, supports local businesses, decreases government spending through the natural provision of ecosystem services, decreases the cost of recreation, and creates jobs.

How is conservation good for the environment? ›

What is environmental conservation and why is it important? Environmental Conservation is the practice of preserving the natural world to prevent it from collapsing as a result of human activities, such as unsustainable agriculture, deforestation and burning fossil fuels.

What is a positive impact of sustainable agriculture? ›

Conserving the environment and preventing pollution

By adopting sustainable practices, farmers will reduce their reliance on nonrenewable energy, reduce chemical use and save scarce resources. Keeping the land healthy and replenished can go a long way when considering the rising population and demand for food.

What are two advantages of sustainable farming? ›

What are the benefits of Sustainable Agriculture?
  • Prevents farm pollution by avoiding the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
  • Improves soil health and promotes biodiversity through crop and livestock rotation.
  • Conserves water and ensures the environment is not depleted for future generations.

How does sustainable farming benefit farmers? ›

Sustainable agriculture avoids the application of hazardous pesticides and fertilisers. This means that sustainable farmers are able to produce food that is not only safer for the consumer, but also for farmworkers and the surrounding communities.

What are the effects of conservation farming? ›

Conservation Agriculture is 20 to 50% less labour intensive and thus contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through lower energy inputs and improved nutrient use efficiency. At the same time, it stabilizes and protects soil from breaking down and releasing carbon to the atmosphere.

How important is land conservation? ›

Land conservation can help to protect valuable habitat for these species. Ecosystem services are the benefits that healthy, natural ecosystems provide. For example, vegetated land absorbs rainwater and runoff, reduces flooding and soil erosion, and filters water as it permeates the soil.

What are the three key principles of conservation agriculture? ›

Farmers are increasingly adopting conservation agriculture practices. This sustainable farming method is based on three principles: crop diversification, minimal soil movement and permanent soil cover.

What are the pros of conventional tillage? ›

Conventional tillage can increase porosity and loosen soil, allowing for good air exchange and root growth. It is also an effective way of incorporating manure and breaking up sod fields.

What are two of the benefits of tillage? ›

Farmers' choices about soil preparation, including tillage depth and the number of tillage operations, can reduce weed growth, improve nutrient management, and influence crop seeding. In general, less disturbance of soil can lead to more organic matter and lower potential for soil erosion and compaction.

How does conservation tillage reduce erosion? ›

Conventional tillage, such as moldboard plowing, leaves the soil surface bare and loosens soil particles, making them susceptible to the erosive forces of wind and water. Conservation tillage practices reduce erosion by protecting the soil surface and allowing water to infiltrate instead of running off.

What are the three advantages of tilling? ›

The most basic and vital objectives of tillage include seedbed preparation, weed control and soil and water conservation.

What are the 4 advantages in minimum tillage? ›

Advantages of minimum tillage

Less resistance to root growth due to improved structure; Less soil compaction by the reduced movement of heavy tillage vehicles and less soil erosion compared to conventional tillage.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of tilling? ›

Pros and Cons
  • Pros. Breaks up compacted soil. Adds air and organic matter. Helps eliminate pests.
  • Cons. Destroys natural soil structure, making soil more prone to compaction. Reduces soil's moisture-retaining ability. Brings dormant weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate.

How does conservation tillage manage soil fertility? ›

Conservation tillage practices preserve or improve soil structure and allow rain and plant roots to penetrate. They encourage a diverse community of soil organisms that help break down stubble, aerate the soil and add nutrients. Stubble protects soil from wind and water erosion.


1. Conservation Tillage
2. Zone Tillage from Vegetable Farmers and their Sustainable Tillage Practices
3. Effects of Tillage on Soil Health from Vegetable Farmers and their Sustainable Tillage Practices
4. What is SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education)?
5. Compaction and Cover Crops
(NDSU Soil Health)
6. The 2014 Conservation Tillage Conference - Fargo, ND
(NDSU Soil Health)
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