Agricultural practices account for roughly one-quarter of the land use in the Bay watershed. Of that land, approximately 17 percent is devoted to crop production, which contributes significant amounts of nutrients and sediment to the Bay and its tributaries. But an increasing number of farmers in the Bay watershed are turning to a new, more Bay-friendly method of crop production called “no-till” farming.
Traditionally, cropland is fertilized and plowed in the spring to turn over the soil and prepare a good seedbed for planting. However, strong, frequent spring rains cause stormwater to rush across bare crop fields, which do not yet have plants to stabilize the soil and absorb the fertilizer. Excess nutrients and sediment from fertilizers and freshly plowed fields run off into surrounding waterways, eventually winding up in the Bay.
No-till farming, also known as conservation tillage or zero-tillage, leaves the soil undisturbed from the fall harvest to spring planting. Seeds are planted in very narrow slots that are “drilled” into the ground using disk openers, or coulters.
There are many benefits of no-till farming compared with traditional methods, including:
No-till farming is considered such a critical part of Bay restoration that several no-till programs have recently received Chesapeake Bay Targeted Watershed Grants, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These grants help organizations implement innovative programs to reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that flow into the Bay.
In 2006, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection - in partnership with Penn State Cooperative Extension, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Capital Area RC&D Council, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council - received a grant to oversee the conversion of 12,750 acres of cropland to continuous no-till agriculture. This conversion will reduce the annual nitrogen load to the Susquehanna River by over 99,000 pounds, and the annual phosphorous load by over 17,000 pounds.
Farmers and landowners interested in no-till farming can contact their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office for more information.