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Development of reduced tillage systems in organic farming in Europe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2011

Paul Mäder*
Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Ackerstrasse, 5070 Frick, Switzerland.
Alfred Berner
Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Ackerstrasse, 5070 Frick, Switzerland.
*Corresponding author:


No-tillage and reduced tillage are considered sustainable options of conservation tillage. While US organic farming researchers have focused on no-tillage, European organic farming researchers have concentrated on reduced tillage through the reduction of tillage depth or the application of noninversion tillage practices. Combinations of these two approaches have been implemented by the use of the two-layer plow or the layer cultivator. These innovations often came from farmers, aiming at reducing off-farm inputs such as fuel, and saving costs and labor, while at the same time building up soil fertility. Systematic, documented research on reduced tillage systems in Europe started only 1–2 decades ago, with experiments in Germany, Switzerland and France. While most experiments mimic stockless farms, other experiments include fodder crops such as grass–clover ley and applications of manure and slurry as is typical for mixed farms with animals and crops. Soil organic carbon, microbial activity and soil structure are often improved in the upper soil layer under reduced tillage compared with plowed soils. However, these positive findings were confounded by lower yields in some cases and enhanced weed pressure, except for the two-layer plow. Often it was not possible to determine whether and to what extent yield reduction was due to weed competition or to nitrogen shortage, because of retarded nitrogen mineralization in spring in reduced tillage systems. In systems with manure use, also higher soil fertility measures concomitant with increased yields were reported under reduced tillage. Indeed, it is difficult to gain an overview on research activities dealing with reduced tillage in organic farming in Europe due to dispersed experimental infrastructures and the scarcity of peer-reviewed published literature. To close this knowledge gap a European Network is being established aiming at further developing reduced tillage systems in organic farming, addressing the issue of carbon sequestration and N2O emissions, as well as weed and nutrient management.

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