Gaining ground with no-till and conservation agriculture
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Gaining ground with no-till and conservation agriculture

Novag stands for much more than no-till technology.
No-till means consistent farming in a cultivation system without tillage, but with permanent vegetation and diverse crop rotations. The no-till scene: what we at Novag mean by that, is not only the sowing method, but the entire “conservation agriculture” cultivation system. This system offers solutions for the many problems and challenges in agriculture. And our no-till technology provides the key,” says Maik Freitag, Sales and Field Engineer, Novag GmbH, Germany.


While the term no-till is not precisely defined, conservation agriculture (CA) stands for an entire farming system in which no-till is practised. According to the FAO definition, it is based on three main principles:
1. A renunciation of tillage and minimal soil intervention during sowing, leaving a maximum of 25% of the surface tilled.
2. An organic mulch cover of at least 30% of the soil surface immediately after sowing.
3. A diversity of crops that includes at least three species in the crop rotation.
The English term regenerative agriculture is just as clearly defined. In this production system, the above-mentioned three principles of conservation agriculture are supplemented by two additional principles: the integration of livestock farming and year-round soil root penetration.

The German definition ‘Regenerativen Landwirtschaft’, on the other hand, is not clearly described and differs significantly in practice from the standard cultivation systems of regenerative agriculture and conservation agriculture. Representatives of the German system publicise shallow tilling and deep loosening of the soil, for example. Likewise, conservation agriculture is not to be confused with the German term “konservierende Bodenbearbeitung”. While the latter simply means no ploughing is permitted, conservation agriculture does not allow any soil intervention at all.

Novag T-SlotPlus coulter system 
The no-till technique must therefore be able to handle firm soils and dense mulch layers. “Our machines are developed precisely for such tough applications and are equipped with our unique Novag T-SlotPlus coulter system, consisting of our T-ForcePlus cross-slot coulter and our IntelliForcePlus automatic coulter pressure control. We are the only ones to offer the cross-slit coulter in Europe,” emphasises Ramzi Frikha, CEO, Export Manager and head of development at Novag.

Other agricultural machinery manufacturers work with tine or disc coulter systems in no-till. The tine coulter creates a U-shaped slot. It completely clears the seed slot and thus prevents the negative effect of hairpinning, but has the disadvantage that it works the soil intensively. It leaves a loosened and mixed soil over a width of several cm. Additionally, the tine coulter is susceptible to blockages. Direct sowing in dense mulch layers is very difficult.

The disc coulter leaves a V-shaped slot. It clogs less frequently but can cause significant breakdowns during field applications. The disc coulter cannot cut through dry crop residues or a standing catch crop, meaning these crop residues are pressed into the sowing slot. The seed is then placed on top of these crop residues, and in very dry conditions, fails to get enough soil contact and water for germination.

The T-ForcePlus cross-slit coulter from Novag combines a large cutting disc with two sowing shoes (so-called blades) and thus creates a slot in the soil in the shape of an inverted T. This coulter also does not always manage to cut all crop residues and presses them into the soil with the cutting disc to some extent. However, the blades run above the depth of the cutting disc, so that the seed or fertiliser is deposited to the left, right and above the disc slot. As such, the seed is placed with certainty in an area with 100% soil contact and does not touch the crop residues. Due to the unimpaired residual moisture in the soil, it enjoys optimal germination conditions even in dry weather.


Automatic coulter pressure control Novag IntelliForcePlus 
“With high coulter pressures of up to 500 kg, we can penetrate through every mulch layer and into every soil, no matter how firm, and achieve an absolutely uniform placement depth thanks to our IntelliForcePlus automatic coulter pressure control system,” says Maik Freitag. IntelliForcePlus is operated via the Novag terminal from the tractor cab. In ex-works models, one coulter on each seeding bar is equipped with a sensor that measures the coulter pressure 50,000 times per second and adjusts it to the stipulated target value in real time.


Opportunities offered by no-till 
Currently, 120 of our machines are running in 15 countries around the world under a wide range of site conditions. We know that our no-till technology really works on all soils – provided that the three principles of conservation agriculture are followed. In this constellation, no-till offers solutions to farmers worldwide for their current and future challenges. So far conventional agriculture has provided few promising solutions for these challenges. The farms are caught in a dilemma between climate change, increasing price pressure, legal requirements and a lack of time and skilled labour. No-till can provide them with the opportunity to “kill several birds with one stone”, says Maik Freitag.


Improved soil quality 
The renunciation of all tillage and working with varied crop rotations and dense mulch layers protects the arable soil from compaction, drying out and water and wind erosion (-98 % soil loss through erosion). Its organic activity is facilitated (+400 % fungi, earthworms; +150 % bacteria), its structure and therefore, its accessibility is improved and the humus content is increased or at least maintained. As such, no-till delivers a soil capable of withstanding periods of high heat and lack of seeding rain as well as heavy rainfall. A healthy soil can absorb large amounts of water in a short time, drain it into deeper layers and store it for a longer period of time. Soil that is regularly worked cannot do this. It heats up and loses water through evaporation.
Depending on the intensity of the tillage this can be 15 (disc harrow) to 40 (plough) mm/m². No-till has the potential to store this large amount of water in the soil. Processed soils also lack structure and precipitation percolates only very slowly. Consequently, silting and soil erosion occur. “However, this does not only apply to erosion-prone areas such as slopes. On any soil that is cultivated, minimal, invisible erosion takes place during precipitation, through which more and more humus and nutrients are lost. A slope of only 0.5 % is sufficient for this. A farm’s success is based on the soil structure, which is damaged and destroyed with every tillage pass,” explains Maik Freitag.


Falling costs 
With consistent implementation of the no-till principles, the plant populations are noticeably more vigorous and healthier, so that pesticide and fertiliser use can be steadily reduced during the course of the transition. This saves costs for equipment, working time and machine use. “The direct seeder enjoys the same benefits, but to the full extent because tillage is completely eliminated. Every user however, regardless of the size of the farm, reduces their machine and labour costs by an average of 50 % with no-till,” knows Maik Freitag.


More biodiversity 
As a matter of fact, international studies show that areas of no-till land have a higher biodiversity rate of insects and birds than organically farmed areas. Even Nabu has recently published a policy paper on regenerative agriculture in which it argues for an exemption of glyphosate application if regenerative agriculture and no-till are practised. The policy paper was prepared in cooperation with practitioners, which is why we see it as a positive sign for no-till,” says Maik Freitag.


The first successes with no-till are achieved one to two years after transition to conservation agriculture, depending on the soil and other starting conditions. Yield fluctuations of ± 10 % may occur depending on the year, but in the long term no-till stabilises yields while significantly reducing costs and improving soil protection, soil structure, biodiversity and environmental protection. Therefore, no-till is just as suitable for farms with high-yielding soil, as for those with marginal soil.