Soil Tillage: Types, Purpose, Pros and Cons

In agriculture, soil tillage is the practice of moving the soil to create a suitable surface for growing a new crop. It involves using tools or machines to turn over the ground to expose nutrient-rich soil and prepare it for planting crops.

Tillage is the practice of moving soil with tools and machinery

Photo by Kurt Bouda

Types Of Tillage Tecniques

Primary and Secondary

Primary tillage - Mainly performed with a plough

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Primary Tillage

Primary tillage refers to the initial stage of soil preparation that loosens and breaks up the uppermost layer of soil. This tillage system typically uses a plow, harrow, or cultivator.

The most common type of primary tillage is plowing. Plowing turns over the top layer of soil, which helps aerate the soil and improve drainage. Plowing also helps loosen compacted soils and kills weeds and grasses. Moldboard plows are the most common type of plow used for primary tillage.

 

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Secondary Tillage

Secondary tillage is any other soil movement done after the initial planting and establishment of the crop. Secondary tillage can include cultivating, harrowing, rototilling, and even mowing. The purpose of secondary tillage is to help keep the soil loose and aerated, which helps with water infiltration, drainage, and root development. It also helps to control weeds, break up any clumps of dirt that may have formed, and allows fertilizers to penetrate the soil.

 

Intensive Tillage (Conventional Tillage)

Industrialized agriculture has relied heavily on conventional tillage methods to increase yields and reduce the labor required for planting. This technique maximizes land productivity, but the frequent disturbance of the soil can lead to soil erosion and degradation, loss of soil organic matter, and reduced soil health.

The most common type of intensive tillage is moldboard plowing, which involves turning the soil over with a plow creating big clods. This process helps to break up the compacted ground, aerate the land, and improve drainage. Following moldboard plowing, intensive tillage can include disc harrows, cultivators, subsoilers, chisel plows, and rotary hoes to reduce the ground in finer conditions to optimize seedbed structure, allowing easy incorporation of fertilizer and herbicide into the soil before seeding. 

Conservation Soil Tillage

Conservation tillage is a type of tillage that minimizes soil disturbance. This means less soil is turned over, and less bare ground is exposed to the elements. Conservation tillage can help reduce erosion, improve water infiltration, and increase organic matter in the soil.

Conservation Tillage Tecniques

  • Zero Tillage (or No Till)
  • Zone Tillage (or Strip-Till)
  • Mulch Tillage
  • Rotational Tillage

No-tillage is a type of conservation tillage involving no soil disturbance. Tilling pieces of machinery are not used.

Zone tillage is defined as the tillage limited to the portion of the land that will be the planting area. For instance, a narrow strip of land may be tilled just a few inches wide and inches deep and used for seeding, while the outer part of that strip will remain untilled.

Mulch-till is a type of tillage in which crop residue is left on the soil’s surface to decompose. No-till and minimum-till systems can use this type of system to increase the productivity and fertility of the land.

Rotational tillage is when the soil is tilled every other year or even longer, rotating different cultures with different soil requirements.

History of Tillage

In ancient times, tillage was done with simple tools like hoes, shovels, and rakes. This method was labor intensive but allowed farmers to cultivate the lands and increase crop yield easily. 

With the invention of plows, farmers could till much larger areas of land faster than ever before. Plow-based approaches were particularly popular in Europe, where large-scale crop production was necessary to feed a growing population. Throughout history, innovations, such as horse-drawn harrows first and tractors inventions more recently, revolutionized tillage techniques in the 20th century. 

The invention of tractors has changed the agriculture and tillage techniques

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The Machinery Used for Tilling

The steel plow: Also called moldboard plow, is described as a tool that cuts soil, lifts it, and turns it upside down using a curved plate or moldboard.

The first steel plow was created in 1837 by John Deere. The steel plow allowed farmers to cut through the tough soils, which made farming much more effortless. 

Harrows: They are used to break up and loosen the soil. There are three main types of harrows: disk harrows, chisel plows, and cultivators.

  • Disk harrows are the most common type of plow used for tillage. They consist of a series of disks that rotate and chop up the soil as it moves through. 
  • Chisel plows are another type of standard tillage tool. They have sharp blades that cut through the soil and loosen it up. 
  • Cultivator: A machine used in agriculture for tillage, breaking up and turning over the soil in preparation for planting. Cultivators are usually pulled behind a tractor, but there are also self-propelled models.
  • A rotary tiller: It is a versatile tool used in large-scale agriculture and very common for small gardens and hobby farmers. A rotary tiller can prepare a garden bed for planting, aerate the soil, or remove weeds.

Photo By RenzoVet

The chisel plough consists of a series of large, pointed chisel-like blades that are mounted on a sturdy frame. The blades are usually spaced several inches apart and can range in size from 8 to 20 inches, depending on the type of soil and the intended depth of cultivation. The blades are typically made of high-strength steel and can be sharpened or replaced as needed.

 

Photo By RenzoVet

The disk harrow consists of a series of circular disks or blades that are mounted on a frame. The blades are usually spaced several inches apart and can range in size from 16 to 30 inches, depending on the type of soil and the intended depth of cultivation. The disks are made of high-strength steel and are concave to help cut and pulverize soil.

 

Pros and Cons Of Tillage

A plow is a standard tool used in tillage to break up the soil, usually before planting crops. The benefits of plowing are: 

  1. It helps to loosen compacted soil, making it easier for roots to penetrate and promoting better drainage. 
  2. Plowing also helps to aerate the soil, which is important for plant growth. 
  3. It Helps mix organic residues and nutrients evenly into the soil.
  4. Plowed soils tend to warm up faster in wet conditions, helping to stay drier. 
  5. Plowing can also help to control weeds, breaking them mechanically and burying their seeds deep within the soil where they are less likely to germinate. 
  6. Burying the surface contaminated by crop residues helps to keep worms and other insects away and reduce crop disease spread.
  7. Additionally, plowing can help break up clods of soil and level out field surfaces.

Tillage is often considered a necessary part of farming, but disadvantages and adverse effects exist. 

  1. Plowing can lead to soil erosion, as the exposed topsoil is more susceptible to being washed away by rain or wind. 
  2. Tillage can lead to the loss of nutrients and fertility of the soil. 
  3. Lifting, tilting, and breaking down the ground reduces earthworms, microbes, and insects.
  4. Plowing can disrupt the natural drainage patterns of the land, leading to waterlogging and flooding.
  5. Disruption of the soil allows chemical runoff.
  6. Tillage dries the soil.
  7. Soil loses the capacity to store water.

Is Tillage Sustainable?

Many soil quality characteristics, such as soil density, drainage, water-holding capacity, good infiltration and levels of organic matter, and beneficial soil organisms, can be negatively affected by tillage.

Constant and frequent tilling of the soil will inevitably disrupt the quality and structure of the ground. 

We must change how we work lands to keep good quality soil and make agriculture more environmentally friendly.

Management of the soil tilling system must become more sustainable in the future. Balanced and science-driven choices must be taken to positively affect soil quality and maintain a good agriculture production level.

Conclusions

Tillage has played an indispensable role in agricultural practices throughout history, facilitating the growth of civilizations and feeding an ever-expanding global population. The types of tillage techniques, ranging from primary to conservation methods, have evolved based on the needs of the times and the understanding of farming techniques.

Tillage has undeniably transformed barren lands into fertile fields; however, it comes with challenges. Soil erosion, nutrient loss, disruption to beneficial microorganisms, potential for waterlogging, chemical runoff, and overall impact on soil health underscore the pressing need to reconsider traditional tilling techniques.

Given its potential drawbacks, the question of tillage’s sustainability hangs in the balance. The call for sustainable farming practices is vital as the global community grows more environmentally conscious

Blending traditional knowledge with innovative techniques is imperative, ensuring soil health and agricultural productivity coexist.

Please leave a comment below and share this post with friends, colleagues, and anyone passionate about sustainable agriculture. 

RenzoVet
RenzoVet

A Veterinarian who grew up in the countryside of a small Italian town and moved to live and work in the United Kingdom. I have spent most of my professional time trying to improve the quality of life of animals and the environmental and economic sustainability of farm enterprises.

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