Conservation agriculture: a choice for sustainability

February 8, 2023

In a context where the protection of the environment and human health is a priority, conservation agriculture is strongly promoted by global organisations and institutions.

This practice aims to conserve soil organic matter and improve its quality through sustainable agricultural practices, such as reduced tillage, constant soil coverage and crop diversification to increase soil fertility. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) itself, with the aim of ensuring safe food production, supporting rural economies and protecting the environment, encourages and finances an approach such as conservation agriculture, aimed at preserving soil health, ecological balance and biodiversity, while avoiding the excessive use of chemicals and intensive practices.

Conservation versus conventional agriculture

In addition to a concept of sustainability intrinsic to conservation agriculture, this practice differs from conventional farming for other reasons that go far beyond respect for the soil.

Unlike the intensive cultivation of conventional agriculture, aimed at maximising soil fertility, conservation agriculture uses sustainable cultivation techniques such as crop rotation, organic green-manure, soil cover and mechanical weed control. The implementation of alternative agricultural practices leads to a reduction in the use of chemicals, which in conventional agriculture are meant to increase crop productivity and protect crops, but risk damaging surrounding ecosystems. Here, through the reduced use of chemicals and the implementation of sustainable practices that improve soil quality and fertility in the long term, the conservation approach has a lower environmental impact than conventional agriculture.

agricoltura conservativa

Conservation tillage

With the aim of preserving organic matter and soil structure, conservation tillage involves minimal intervention on the soil to increase productivity and reduce environmental impact.

Although ploughing is considered by many to be outdated and too invasive, it can be carried out within conservation agriculture within certain limits. Through the use of eco-ploughs (modern machinery designed not only for superficial tillage but also more sustainable for the soil) one can in fact work at shallow depths (15-18 cm), without compromising the existing organic matter and limiting (if not in some cases eliminating altogether) the use of chemical agents. Alongside eco-ploughing, however, further tillage aimed at protecting the organic substrate must be carried out.

Through this type of tillage, which is useful for breaking up and mixing the soil surface, the soil is worked to a maximum depth of 15 cm. The turning over effect will be minimal but will result in softer soil (thus easier to cultivate) and naturally richer in organic matter, given the high amount of residue on the surface.

his type of tillage, by combining the subsoiler with a range of accessories, can also be carried out at shallow depths of 15 to a maximum of 35 cm, stirring up the soil and creating channels to help keep water in the soil. This will result in the eventual crops having constant access to a source of moisture and not having to be watered frequently. In addition to saving water and reducing the environmental impact, subsoiling also improves soil structure, increasing drainage capacity (useful in rainy seasons), reducing the risk of erosion and increasing biodiversity.

The objective of such tillage is to break up and mix the surface layers of the soil. By cutting into the soil at shallow depths, it will increase its moisture and nutrient availability for greater fertility.

Conservation agriculture: equipment

The choice of agricultural machinery for conservation agriculture requires a careful evaluation of multiple factors to ensure that the equipment chosen is suited to the specific needs and contributes to a more sustainable use of resources. From a conservation perspective, the machinery used must minimise negative impacts on the soil and the environment to ensure long-term sustainable agricultural production. The main factors to consider when choosing your equipment will certainly be those of adaptability, functionality, quality and sustainability.

The combination cultivator, a tool designed for minimum tillage, works mainly on the surface (10-25 cm) and in a single pass allows mixing, levelling and compacting the soil, keeping it moist and preparing it for future seed drilling.

The disc cultivator works between 5 and 15 cm, and in a single pass is able to mix generously and then level the soil. The overturning that is created is minimal, while the amount of residue that accumulates on the surface is high and naturally provides additional nutrients to the soil.

The subsoiler is a machine capable of scarifying the soil, draining it and boosting its fertility. It is used for deep tillage but, combined with the appropriate accessories, can work up to a depth of 25 cm, creating plenty of mixing.

The rotary tiller is also a machine capable of conserving organic matter in the soil, working at a depth of between 5 and 25 cm and being used at the end of green manuring and cover crops (or agro-ecological covers), sown to improve the quality of the substrate by providing nutrients to the soil.

Combination machines, although not part of the typical conservation equipment, they can still be used to carry out several operations in a single pass. This helps reduce tillage time and costs, but above all emissions and impact on the soil.

Why conservation agriculture is promoted today

It is no coincidence that institutions and organisations such as the FAO promote conservation agriculture worldwide: a practice that promotes the responsible use of natural resources in order to help ensure a more sustainable and secure future for the world’s population.

Increasing soil fertility through low-impact practices is a central goal that international agricultural policies aim to achieve, since the quality of crops depends on the quality of the soil. Harvests that become fodder for animal feed, and food for humans.

Agriculture punctuates the development of life, all life: without fertile soil, it would be impossible to feed the animal world, the population, as well as to produce the energy needed to carry out our daily activities. That is why safeguarding the health of the planet’s soils becomes the key to securing our future.

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