How does surface tillage and harrow use impact soil structure and fertility?

Surface tillage and harrow use are common practices in agriculture. Think of it like using your hand hoe in your home garden, although weโ€™re talking about a much bigger scale!

Have you ever wondered exactly why you use a hoe in your home garden, or why harrowing in agriculture is so common?

There are several reasons, backed up by science, that show the benefits that surface tillage can make. However, that doesnโ€™t mean you should rush out and hoe your garden every day. As farmers know, correct cultivation practices are vital to ensure positives arenโ€™t turned into negatives.

The benefits of harrowing in agriculture

Surface tillage and harrow use in agriculture can provide many benefits, just like hoeing can in your home garden.

Here are some of the main paybacks:

  • One of the key benefits that comes from harrowing in agriculture is weed control. Surface tillage and harrowing is a great weed control method. It can be used to remove and bury weeds, which reduces competition for nutrients and moisture. This in turn can lead to improved crop growth and yield.
  • Surface tillage and harrowing can help mix organic matter into the soil. The organic matter might be last seasonโ€™s crop, manure or a green manure crop. By mixing organic matter into a farm soil โ€“ or for that matter your garden at home โ€“ the soil will be improved, fertility will be increased and the amount of nutrients available to the next crop will rise. All of which lead to improved plant growth and yield.
  • Another key benefit of harrowing in agriculture, and a key reason why you use a hoe in your home garden, is to break up the soil. Breaking up soil clumps and turning over the soil improves soil aeration and reduces compaction, allowing plant roots to access oxygen, water and nutrients more easily.
  • Surface tillage and harrow use in agriculture can expose organic matter to air, water and sunlight, which is ideal to promote microbial activity in the soil. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi play an important role in soil fertility. They help break down organic matter and release nutrients, so that they are available to plants.
  • Breaking up the soil by using surface tillage or harrowing provides an ideal environment for seeds to germinate. Thatโ€™s seeds for the next crop for the farmer. And the key items that we like to eat โ€“ such as wheat, oats and barley โ€“ for you and me!
The benefits of harrowing in agriculture

Correct harrowing in agriculture is the key

On reading the benefits, you may wonder why farmers arenโ€™t out every day cultivating their paddocks and fields. They donโ€™t and the reason is simple.

When done correctly, every farm can benefit from surfacing tillage and harrowing. When done incorrectly, however, there can be negative impacts to the soil and the farm.

For example, while we highlighted above how cultivation can aerate the soil and reduce compaction, the reverse can also be true.

Soil compaction occurs when the soil becomes too dense, making it difficult for air and water to penetrate the soil. This can result in poor root growth and limited access to nutrients and water. This will lead to decreased plant growth and yield.

When the soil is compacted, it can also be difficult for microorganisms to break down organic matter, reducing soil fertility.

Incorrect surface tillage and harrowing in agriculture can contribute to soil compaction by breaking up the soil structure, causing soil particles to become more tightly packed.

The other big potential impact of poor cultivation practices is soil erosion. This is particularly the case if the soil is tilled or harrowed too aggressively or too often.

Soil erosion can cause the loss of topsoil, nutrients, and organic matter. This can impact soil fertility, making it more difficult for plants to grow.

It can be devastating to agricultural lands.

Increasing the benefits; reducing the negatives

How do farmers use surface tillage and harrowing to increase the benefits and reduce the negatives? In simple terms, they understand their land and their agricultural environment.

Following European settlement, trees were cut down, stumps removed and land cleared. Farmers then used European agricultural practices from the northern hemisphere, including cultivation, to grow crops.

But this is Australia. Not England or Scotland. Our soils and climates are very different to Europe and by using European practices soil issues soon resulted, in particular erosion.

Australian farmers are helping to overcome soil issues by farming in a way that is appropriate for their specific lands and their specific climate. This can include management strategies such as retention of crop residues, reduced tillage and crop rotation.

It’s certainly not a one size fits all approach. Given the variability of aspects such as soil and climate across Australia, management strategies must be tailored to specific farming lands.

Technology improvements in harrowing in agriculture

Technology is helping to improve the way harrowing is used in technology.

For example:

  • Many Australian farmers are using GPS technology to guide their cultivation efforts and ensure they are not going over the same area too often. This is being further advanced by automated tractors and other agricultural equipment.
  • Some farmers are using drones to allow them to check on their land from the comfort of their homes. They can then monitor, for example, when best to undertake cultivation work.
  • Surface tillage equipment has also changed significantly. For example:
    • Bute Discs sells the Bute 625 and Bute 850 which   get better results from fewer passes. The discs can be customised to suit any specific soil on any specific day. It can even be adjusted in the field quickly and easily.
    • Thereโ€™s also our Dog Leg Harrow that leaves stubble coverage on the surface of the soil while leaving the roots undisturbed. This makes it ideal for erosion-prone soils.

In summary, surface tillage and harrow use can be used to improve the soil structure and fertility of Australian agricultural lands. Farmers, and businesses like Bute Discs, are ensuring the farming practices of today are more sustainable for future generations.

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