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conservation agriculture

What is the goal of Conservation Agriculture?

Conservation Agriculture (CA) aims to conserve, improve and make more efficient use of natural resources through integrated management of available soil, water and biological resources combined with external inputs. It contributes to environmental conservation as well as to enhanced and sustained agricultural production. It can also be referred to as resource- efficient agriculture.

What are the characteristics of Conservation Agriculture?

Conservation Agriculture maintains a permanent or semi-permanent organic soil cover. This can be a growing crop or a dead mulch. Its function is to protect the soil physically from sun, rain and wind and to feed soil biota. The soil micro-organisms and soil fauna take over the tillage function and soil nutrient balancing. Mechanical tillage disturbs this process. Therefore, zero or minimum tillage and direct seeding are important elements of CA. A varied crop rotation is also important to avoid disease and pest problems.

Rather than incorporating biomass such as green manure crops, cover crops or crop residues, in CA this is left on the soil surface. The dead biomass serves as physical protection of the soil surface and as substrate for the soil fauna. In this way mineralisation is reduced and suitable soil levels of organic matter are built up and maintained.

What is Conservation Agriculture not?

Zero-tillage: zero tillage is a technical component used in Conservation Agriculture but not everyone carrying out zero tillage is practicing Conservation Agriculture. Conservation agriculture not only avoids tillage by forcing the seed with heavy direct drills into the soil, by maintaining a soil cover it also improves the structure of the soil. This facilitates direct planting.
Conservation Agriculture uses biological tillage. Zero tillage as stand alone technique can also be applied in conventional agriculture under certain circumstances.

Conservation tillage: conservation tillage are practices that leave crop residues on the surface which increases water infiltration and reduces erosion. It is a practice used in conventional agriculture to reduce the effects of tillage on soil erosion, however, it still depends on tillage as the structure forming element in the soil. Never the less, conservation tillage practices such as zero tillage practices can be transition steps towards Conservation Agriculture.

Direct planting/seeding: this is only a technique that refers to seeding/planting without preparing a proper seedbed. The same equipment is used in Conservation Agriculture. However, the term direct seeding can also be used for implements which combine primary and secondary tillage and seeding in one machine/tractor operation.

Organic farming: Conservation Agriculture is not a synonym of organic farming, although it is based on natural processes. CA does not prohibit the use of farm chemical inputs. For example, herbicides are an important component in Conservation Agriculture, particularly in the transition phase, until the new balance of weed populations is managed. However, in view of the importance of the soil life for the system, farm chemicals, including fertilizer, are carefully applied and over the years, quantities applied tend to decline. In some cases organic farming can be practiced within the CA framework.

Is Conservation Agriculture compatible with Integrated Pest Management (IPM)?

Conservation Agriculture is not only compatible but actually works on IPM principles. CA, like IPM, enhances biological processes. It expands the IPM practices from crop and pest management to land husbandry. Without the use of IPM practices the build up of soil biota for the biological tillage would not be possible.

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