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Home > Protecting Our Lands & Waters > Conservation > Conservation Practices > Conservation Tillage

Conservation Practices | Minnesota Conservation Funding Guide


Conservation Tillage

Newly planted soybeans in corn residue. Photo courtesy USDA NRCS.
Newly planted soybeans in corn residue. Photo courtesy USDA NRCS.

No-till soybeans growing in wheat stubble. Photo courtesy USDA-ARS.
No-till soybeans growing in wheat stubble. Photo courtesy USDA-ARS.

No-till planting into corn residue. Photo courtesy Univ of MN.
No-till planting into corn residue. Photo courtesy Univ of MN.

Measuring the space between ridges in ridge-tilled soybeans. Photo courtesy USDA NRCS.
Strip tillage (right). Photo courtesy Les Everett, Univ of MN.

Measuring the space between ridges in ridge-tilled soybeans. Photo courtesy USDA NRCS.
Measuring the space between ridges in ridge-tilled soybeans. Photo courtesy USDA NRCS.

Mulch tillage using a chisel plow. Photo courtesy USDA NRCS.
Mulch tillage using a chisel plow. Photo courtesy USDA NRCS.

Conservation tillage is any method of soil cultivation that leaves the previous year's crop residue (such as corn stalks or wheat stubble) on fields before and after planting the next crop, to reduce soil erosion and runoff. To provide these conservation benefits, at least 30% of the soil surface must be covered with residue after planting the next crop. Some conservation tillage methods forego traditional tillage entirely and leave 70% residue or more.

Conservation tillage is especially suitable for erosion-prone cropland. In some agricultural regions it has become more common than traditional moldboard plowing.

Conservation tillage methods include no-till, strip-till, ridge-till and mulch-till. Each method requires different types of specialized or modified equipment and adaptations in management.

No-till and strip-till involve planting crops directly into residue that either hasn't been tilled at all (no-till) or has been tilled only in narrow strips with the rest of the field left untilled (strip-till).

Ridge-till involves planting row crops on permanent ridges about 4-6 inches high. The previous crop's residue is cleared off ridge-tops into adjacent furrows to make way for the new crop being planted on ridges. Maintaining the ridges is essential and requires modified or specialized equipment.

Mulch-till is any other reduced tillage system that leaves at least one third of the soil surface covered with crop residue.

Why practice conservation tillage on your land?

Environmental benefits

  • Reduces soil erosion by as much as 60%-90% depending on the conservation tillage method; pieces of crop residue shield soil particles from rain and wind until new plants produce a protective canopy over the soil
  • Improves soil and water quality by adding organic matter as crop residue decomposes; this creates an open soil structure that lets water in more easily, reducing runoff
  • Conserves water by reducing evaporation at the soil surface
  • Conserves energy due to fewer tractor trips across the field
  • Reduces potential air pollution from dust and diesel emissions
  • Crop residue provides food and cover for wildlife

Practical benefits

  • Fewer trips across the fields saves time and money (lowers fuel, labor and machinery maintenance costs) and reduces soil compaction that can interfere with plant growth
  • Optimizes soil moisture, enhancing crop growth in dry periods or on droughty soils

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Similar & related practices

Conservation tillage is often used together with other in-field upland soil erosion control practices such as contour farming, contour stripcropping, contour buffer strips, terraces, grassed waterways or water & sediment control basins.

Other cropland erosion control practices covered in this Conservation Funding Guide include cover crops and conservation crop rotations .

Riparian buffers such as grass filter strips and forested buffers are important complementary water quality practices: Whereas conservation tillage helps minimize soil erosion and runoff from fields, buffers adjacent to waterways provide a second defense against water pollution by trapping and filtering any sediment that does leave the field.

More information

Guidance from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

Other resources

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Contact

See contacts for specific programs that fund this practice in the side-by-side payment comparison or contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District