How Conservation Tillage Helps the Environment

It seems like every day there’s a new claim out saying farmers hurt the environment.

We know that’s not true. Farmers, of all stripes, use a variety of tools to guarantee they’re farming with as sustainably as possible.

Some farming practices, like conservation tillage, have even improved the environment.

corn field“In 1970s, there was a revolution in agriculture. A real conversion from conventional intensive systems to a system that was more in tune with nature — conservation tillage,” Richard Fawcett, a retired Iowa state agronomy professor said.

Thanks to herbicides, like atrazine and glyphosate, farmers don’t have to disturb the soil with tillage or plowing.

No-till has a number of environmental benefits:

  • Less soil erosion: Conservation tillage dramatically reduces erosion and soil runoff. According to the Conservation Technology Information Center at Perdue University, “Depending on the amount of residues present, soil erosion can be reduced by up to 90% compared to an unprotected, intensively tilled field.”
  • Cleaner water: The EPA says erosion and soil run off is the most significant pollutant of American waterways, so by reducing it we also improve our water quality.No till corn farming saves 150 million tons of topsoil every year – the equivalent of 5 million worth of dump trucks filled with soil. That’s soil that is now staying on the farm instead of running off into water.
  • Healthier soil: When soil is tilled, carbon is released into the atmosphere. No-till agriculture keeps that soil in the ground. As farmer Brian Scott explains, ”Tillage disrupts the natural structure of soil and releases some of the carbon soil organisms thrive on.  Soil biology plays an important role in providing crops with the water and nutrients they need.”
  • Less air pollution: When farmers don’t have to plow, they use less fuel. Conservation tillage saves an average of 3.5 gallons of fuel/per acre.
  • More wildlife: Conservation tillage, enabled by herbicides, helps to make great habitats for birds, aquatic creatures and small animals.Soil runoff in water harms aquatic habitats by undermining food chains. The lack of sunlight makes it hard for plants and algae to grow, denying fish a source of food.No-till land is also great for birds and small mammals that can make homes there.“There’s been an explosion in wildlife. With conservation tillage, with no-till we actually use our land for a dual purpose. We can efficiently provide food and fuel and fiber and also provide wildlife habitat,” Fawcett said.

With all the great benefits of no-till it’s good to know the practice is growing. In the U.S., no-till farming is now increasing about 1.5% each year. In 2009, more than a 1/3 of farms in the U.S. had some no-till fields.

So next time someone asks about herbicides or environmental affect of farming, you can talk about conservation tilling: a farming practice that’s improving the environment.


Elizabeth Held is a director at the White House Writers Group, where she advises food and agriculture clients.