European Journal of Agronomy issue:33 pages:231-241
Many strategies exist to combat soil degradation through erosion and compaction on agricultural fields. One of these strategies is conservation agriculture (CA). Reduced or no-tillage techniques, together with crop residue management and crop rotation are the pillars of CA. The term reduced tillage covers a range of tillage practices but it never involves inverting the soil. In this way, soil disturbance is minimised and crop residues are left on the soil. Studies in many European countries have shown that CA can indeed be very effective in combating soil erosion. However, soil and water conservation do not appear as main
drivers in farmers’ decisions to shift or not to CA. Economic factors tend to be more important, but there are a lot of uncertainties on this domain. Studies show that production costs are mostly reduced, mainly by reduced fuel costs. Although many European studies have investigated the effect of reduced soil tillage on crop yields, a lot of uncertainties still exist. Most of the studies only cover a small range of field experiments, in one region. We present a meta-regression analysis (47 European studies, 563
observations) that compares crop yields under conventional tillage (CT), reduced tillage (RT) and notillage
(NT) techniques. We analysed the possible influence on the relative yield ((RT or NT)/CT) of crop type, tillage depth, crop rotation, climate, CT yield and length of application of RT or NT. Our analysis shows that, while the introduction of conservation tillage in Europe may indeed have some negative effect on yields, these effects can be expected to be limited: the overall average reduction we found was ca. 4.5%. NT reduces crop yield on average with 8.5%. However, RT leads to a reduction in crop yields
for maize and winter cereals only. By applying a linear mixed model, the importance of tillage depth and crop type as classification effects could be confirmed. Surprisingly, no-tillage did perform worse under drier climatic conditions. Negative effects such as an increased prevalence of pests and a lower quality of seed placement seem to outweigh possible gains due to increased water availability. On clay and sandy soils, however, this negative effect of no-tillage is counteracted, and all conservation tillage techniques perform better under drier climatic conditions. Another important finding is that, in cereals only rotations, relative yields under conservation tillage tend to decrease with time.
Our analysis shows that conservation tillage is certainly a viable option for European agriculture from the viewpoint of agricultural productivity. Potential negative effects on agricultural productivity can be strongly reduced by applying sufficiently deep tillage and using a crop rotation including crops other than cereals.