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Earth-Friendly Farming: How No-Till Boosts Crops and Captures Carbon

Farmers have long known that healthy soil makes for healthier and more abundant crops.  This is important because of our need to produce enough food globally for a growing population, within a limited land mass.

But food production isn’t the only thing motivating an increased focus on soil health.  Increasingly, we’re learning about the soil’s ability to capture and sequester carbon, making it one of the most significant prospective tools in the fight to slow global warming.

So how does it work – how does soil capture and hold onto carbon?  And how can farmers meet growing demand for crops while still protecting this delicate natural process?  Let’s take a look.

What is carbon?

Carbon is the fourth most abundant chemical element in the universe.  It’s the building block for life as we know it, because it has the ability to form complex molecules like proteins and DNA.  Earth is a ‘closed system’ when it comes to carbon – we have a fixed amount, that never changes.  

How is carbon stored and released?

Most carbon on Earth is stored in the atmosphere and in rock, but a lot is also stored in living matter including live organisms and vegetation.  Plants and other organisms are always exchanging carbon with the atmosphere – this is called the carbon cycle.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is absorbed by plants as they photosynthesise.  This carbon is then stored in the leaves, trunks and roots of the plants or trees.  Living things eat the plants, and convert them into energy in a process called respiration, which generates CO2 as a waste product – this can be exhaled during breathing, or expelled in the form of other C02-based gases like methane, and goes back into the atmosphere.

When plants and other organisms die, the carbon they were made of is released as they decompose, and becomes part of the soil.  Decomposed vegetable matter from plants can eventually, after very long periods of time, be transformed by immense pressure into rocks and even fossil fuels, like coal. 

When we dig up or burn these fuels, large amounts of carbon get released into the atmosphere.  Carbon is also released when we remove vegetation, when we burn trees for fuel, and when we till the soil.

Why is carbon bad?

In short, it isn’t.  Without carbon, life on earth couldn’t exist.  Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere acts like insulation, retaining heat from the sun so that Earth doesn’t get too cold.  But too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere intensifies this warming effect.  

Scientists estimate that since humans started burning fossil fuels during the industrial revolution, the average surface temperature on earth has risen by 1.8°F.  They are concerned that too much warming could have serious consequences for Earth such as a rise in sea levels, habitat loss and extreme weather patterns that could affect farming and food supplies.  

Under the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement, the global goal is to reduce carbon emissions and keep the average surface temperatures at no more than 3.7°F above pre-industrial levels.

How does the soil trap (sequester) carbon?

Many natural environments like forests, wetlands, peatlands and grasslands are referred to by scientists as ‘carbon sinks’ because they trap and store huge amounts of carbon deep underground.

During photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air. They use sunlight and special cells called chloroplasts to convert it into glucose, which they use to help them grow, and oxygen, which they release into the atmosphere.  The carbon molecules remain stored inside the plant’s structures and when the plant decays, they are typically transferred to the soil.  

As plant lifecycles continue, old plants die and new ones germinate, feeding off the decaying plant matter in the soil.  In the upper levels, some carbon will always be exchanged between the soil and the plants or the atmosphere, but if the soil itself is left undisturbed, the stored carbon eventually percolates down to lower and lower levels where it can be locked away or sequestered for much longer.

Does carbon make soil more fertile?

Yes.  Carbon is the main component of soil organic matter and helps give soil its structure, water retention capacity, and fertility.  Soils rich in organic matter can support complex ecosystems including fungi and micro-organisms that are vital for strong, healthy crops.  These soils will have a defined structure that allows them to absorb and retain moisture, and move nutrients around effectively.  As well as supporting strong plant growth, this means that carbon-rich soils are less prone to flooding, wind erosion and other forms of degradation.

Carbon & no-till farming

Increased understanding of how the soil traps carbon and why this can be beneficial for farmers has led to a rise in the popularity of conservation tillage, particularly no-till.

For generations, farmers believed that the best way to keep soil healthy and get good yields was to churn it up before each planting to make it very friable, and apply lots of fertilizers – but in recent times, that thinking has begun to change.  It’s becoming accepted that while fertilizers may always be needed to support intensive farming regimes, less tillage helps the soil to retain these nutrients as well as moisture.

What is no-till farming?

No-till farming is the gold standard of conservation tillage because, as the name suggests, it’s built on the principle of not tilling the soil.  In no-till, the previous crop residue is left in place to decompose and a system of crop and potentially livestock rotation is used to manage soil nutrition in addition to the application of fertilizers.  

During planting, seed openers are used to cut a trench right through the previous year’s trash, into which the seed is planted and covered over with as little soil disturbance as possible.  This means that as much of the carbon as possible contained in the soil and in the plant matter is left in place, offering the greatest opportunity for long-term carbon sequestration.  Here are some benefits of no-till for farmers and the environment:

Soil structure is preserved

Plant roots, pores and capillaries in the soil structure are preserved so that the soil can more easily move moisture and nutrients around.  Fertilizers and rainwater are absorbed more readily, reducing the risk of soil degradation or erosion even in intensive farming cycles.

Micro-organisms flourish

Soil is full of micro-organisms from insects and worms down to microscopic fungi and bacteria that can be beneficial for crops.  When we don’t turn the soil over as in conventional tillage systems, these organisms can thrive – ensuring crops grow strongly, and capturing even more carbon in the soil.

Water is conserved

One of the biggest benefits of no-till is that it prevents loss of moisture from the soil.  Even when surface layers appear dry and cracked, in no-till systems you typically find that the subsoil stays moist for much longer than in conventional systems.  This can make crops much more resilient to drought.

Agronomic efficiency

Farmers running no-till systems can save significantly on fuel because they don’t till or cultivate the soil before planting or during the growing season.  They also save money on tillage parts and machinery.  No-till farming is a very time-efficient way of working, although it does require some careful thought and planning to make the system work effectively.

Other conservation tillage methods like strip-till, ridge-till and mulch-till are less effective at retaining soil structure and preventing carbon release, but they do help to slow the process down which has benefits for farm yields and the environment alike.

Looking for tools for your conservation tillage system?

Wearparts offers a wide range of tillage and planting parts compatible with all popular machinery brands and designed to give your no-till or conservation tillage system the edge.  Discover 30% longer wearlife and guarantees against breakage for efficient planting and less downtime – find a dealer today!

Farm Machinery Maintenance: Your 5-Step Summer Checklist

The middle to end of summer on the farm is a time for watching and waiting.  Crops are nearing maturity and almost ready for harvest, there’s little to be done by way of weed management or soil conditioning – so this is a perfect time for farmers to get on with some essential farm machinery maintenance.

Getting ahead on machinery maintenance now means harvest time and subsequent fall planting will be smooth sailing – and by the time winter bites, your equipment will be tucked up warm in the barn, ready to swing back into action in the spring.  Ensuring your farm machinery is kept in good working order can also extend its lifespan.

With that goal in mind, here are 5 essential farm machinery maintenance jobs to carry out during these quieter days of summer:

1. Analyze fluid quality

A bit like a blood test for humans, analyzing the fluids – like engine oil or hydraulic fluid – in your machines is a way to assess their health and ultimately, their lifespan.  Since you probably topped up your fluids right before the planting season, having them analysed midcycle is a great way to know if the products you’re using to lubricate moving parts are holding up under your specific farm conditions, and whether they’ll be good throughout harvest and fall planting before needing to be topped up again.

And it’s not just the fluid itself – if a component is contaminated or starting to fail, the evidence will be there in the fluid long before you notice any visible or audible signs of a problem.  Having your fluids tested is a valuable tool for identifying potential issues before they cause problems in the field. 

Fluid analysis laboratories are widely available and even in remote locations, you can have your fluid samples analysed by mail.  Most labs will provide free, easy-to-use kits for submitting a sample and the overall process is both simple to do, and inexpensive.

Summer Farm Machinery Maintenance Checklist - analyse fluid quality image

2. Check and adjust tires

You’ve heard the saying ‘no foot, no horse’? Well the same holds true for farm machinery and tires – and paying attention to the condition and pressure of your tires now can pay dividends for soil health later on.

Checking for punctures and signs of wear is a given – but overlooking tire pressure can undo years of careful soil structure management, so it’s vital to ensure that the pressure is right not just for your tractor, but also for the loads it will be pulling.

Manufacturers do provide information about the weight of their machines and components so it’s possible to do an ‘on paper’ weight calculation, but by far the best way to know the loaded and unloaded weight of your equipment is to borrow a platform scale and weigh it.  Accurately knowing the weight of your tractor and attached implements not only means you can ballast accurately for best traction, it also means you can select the right tire and pressure for your load/speed requirements. 

Using the lowest tire pressure possible for your required load and speed ensures minimal soil compaction without causing undue wear and tear on tires or using too much fuel.  These calculations may seem time consuming, but you only need to do them once – then you can simply refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines and adjust tire pressure for soil conditions in the future.

3. Inspect chains and belts

Belts and chains are vital components for power transfer in farm machinery, but over time they can stretch or even slip, causing reduced efficiency and potential breakdowns.  It’s important to perform regular checks on these components so you can spot any problems early, and make the call on whether to replace a belt mid-season, or wait until harvest/fall planting are complete.

Summer Farm Machinery Maintenance Checklist - inspect chains and belts image

4. Check cooling systems

Engine coolant is often referred to as antifreeze, but it’s actually just as important in hot weather as in cold.  Most newer tractors are liquid cooled which means they use a coolant fluid, circulated throughout the engine by a water pump to a radiator, where heat generated during engine combustion is transferred from the fluid to the air with the help of powerful fans.  The cooled fluid is then re-circulated to prevent overheating when the engine is under load. This process happens over and over again and every time it does, a proportion of the protective additives in the coolant are consumed, reducing its quality over time.  If the coolant is not refreshed or replaced, this loss of protective additives can lead to corrosion and electrolysis in the engine.

It’s important to ensure all components of the cooling system including the radiator, radiator cap, fan system and pump drive belts are kept clean and in good order.  You should also select the right type of coolant for your machine based on the manufacturer’s guidelines, and make sure levels are kept topped up – taking care to follow the correct concentrate to water ratios.  

NEVER mix coolants containing propylene glycol with ethylene glycol-based formulas, as this can cause a buildup of harmful deposits inside the engine.

5. Service air conditioning systems

Whether it’s harvesting in late summer heat or planting in strong spring sunshine, nothing gets a farmer hot and bothered like an overheating tractor cab.  Servicing your air conditioning system regularly means you’ll stay cool when it counts.

All air conditioning systems will leak refrigerant very slowly, so they’ll need re-gassing periodically by a specialist.  The system should be drained, cleaned and re-gassed annually for optimal performance.  Don’t be tempted to put this off, especially if you notice a drop in cooling power, because as with all fluids, a reduction in the quality of your refrigerant as it ages can cause expensive damage to the AC system as a whole.

In between professional services, you can ensure your system stays on point by keeping the cabin filters and condenser coils clean.  Make sure all hoses are flowing freely and not perished, cracked or damaged by rodents.  Over winter, it’s a good idea to turn on your AC for 15 minutes once a month, to prevent perishable parts such as hoses and o-rings from drying out in cold weather.

Replacement tillage and planting parts

It goes without saying that a part of farm machinery maintenance is regular inspection and replacement of ground engaging components and other wear parts.  If you’re satisfied that all routine maintenance tasks are under control and you’re looking to have some new tillage or planting parts on hand ahead of the new season, locate your nearest Wearparts dealer!