Cultivating after early rain.

Tillage is the agricultural preparation of the soil by mechanical agitation of various types, such as digging, stirring, and overturning. Examples of human-powered tilling methods using hand tools include shovelling, picking, mattock work, hoeing, and raking. Examples of draft-animal-powered or mechanized work include ploughing (overturning with moldboards or chiseling with chisel shanks), rototilling, rolling with cultipackers or other rollers, harrowing, and cultivating with cultivator shanks (teeth). Small-scale gardening and farming, for household food production or small business production, tends to use the smaller-scale methods above, whereas medium- to large-scale farming tends to use the larger-scale methods. There is a fluid continuum, however. Any type of gardening or farming, but especially larger-scale commercial types, may also use low-till or no-till methods as well.

Tillage is often classified into two types, primary and secondary. There is no strict boundary between them so much as a loose distinction between tillage that is deeper and more thorough (primary) and tillage that is shallower and sometimes more selective of location (secondary). Primary tillage such as ploughing tends to produce a rough surface finish, whereas secondary tillage tends to produce a smoother surface finish, such as that required to make a good seedbed for many crops. Harrowing and rototilling often combine primary and secondary tillage into one operation.

"Tillage" can also mean the land that is tilled. The word "cultivation" has several senses that overlap substantially with those of "tillage". In a general context, both can refer to agriculture generally. Within agriculture, both can refer to any of the kinds of soil agitation described above. Additionally, "cultivation" or "cultivating" may refer to an even narrower sense of shallow, selective secondary tillage of row crop fields that kills weeds while sparing the crop plants.


Tillage systems

Intensive tillage

Intensive tillage systems leave less than 15% crop residue cover or less than 500 pounds per acre (560 kg/ha) of small grain residue. These types of tillage systems are often referred to as conventional tillage systems but as reduced and conservation tillage systems have been more widely adopted, it is often not appropriate to refer to this type of system as conventional. These systems involve often multiple operations with implements such as a mold board, disk, and/or chisel plow. Then a finisher with a harrow, rolling basket, and cutter can be used to prepare the seed bed. There are many variations.

Reduced tillage

Reduced tillage systems leave between 15 and 30% residue cover on the soil or 500 to 1000 pounds per acre (560 to 1100 kg/ha) of small grain residue during the critical erosion period. This may involve the use of a chisel plow, field cultivators, or other implements. See the general comments below to see how they can affect the amount of residue.

Conservation tillage

Conservation tillage systems are methods of soil tillage which leave a minimum of 30% of crop residue on the soil surface or at least 1,000 lb/ac (1,100 kg/ha) of small grain residue on the surface during the critical soil erosion period. This slows water movement, which reduces the amount of soil erosion. Conservation tillage systems also benefit farmers by reducing fuel consumption and soil compaction. By reducing the number of times the farmer travels over the field, farmers realize significant savings in fuel and labor. Conservation tillage was used on about 38%, 109,000,000 acres (440,000 km2), of all US cropland, 293,000,000 acres (1,190,000 km2) planted as of 2004 according to the USDA.

However, conservation tillage systems delay warming of the soil due to the reduction of dark earth exposure to the warmth of the spring sun, thus delaying the planting of the next year's spring crop of corn.[1]

  • No-till - Never use a plow, disk, etc. ever again. Aims for 100% ground cover.
  • Strip-Till
  • Mulch-till
  • Rotational Tillage - Tills the soil at a specific interval. (every crop, every other year, etc.)
  • Ridge-Till

Effects Of Tillage

Positive effects

  • Ploughing loosens and aerates the top layer of soil which can facilitate the planting of the crop.
  • It helps in the mixing of residue from the harvest, organic matter (humus) and nutrients evenly throughout the soil.
  • It is used for destroying weeds.
  • Drys the soil before seeding.

Negative effects of ploughing

  • Drys the soil before seeding.
  • The soil loses a lot of its nutrients like carbon, nitrogen and its ability to store water. See No-till farming
  • Erosion of soil.
  • Higher rate of fertilizer and chemical runoff.
  • Decreases the water infiltration rate of soil. (Results in more runoff and erosion since the soil absorbs water slower than before)
  • Reduces organic matter in the soil (Microbes, carbon compounds, earthworms, ants, etc.).[2]
  • Destroys soil aggregates.[3]
  • Compaction of the soil, also known as a tillage pan.[4]
  • Eutrophication
  • Can attract some harmful insects to the field.

General comments

  • The type of implement makes the most difference, although other factors can have an effect.[5]
  • Tilling in absolute darkness (night tillage) might reduce the number of weeds that sprout following the tilling operation by half. Light is necessary to break the dormancy of some weed species' seed, so if fewer seeds are exposed to light during the tilling process, fewer will sprout. This may help reduce the amount of herbicides needed for weed control.[6]
  • Greater speeds, when using certain tillage implements (disks and chisel plows), lead to more intensive tillage (i.e., less residue is on the soil surface).
  • Increasing the angle of disks causes residues to be buried more deeply. Increasing their concavity makes them more aggressive.
  • Chisel plows can have spikes or sweeps. Spikes are more aggressive.
  • Percentage residue is used to compare tillage systems because the amount of crop residue affects the soil loss due to erosion.[5][7]
  • See Soybean management practices to see what types of tillage are currently recommended for Soybean Production.


Primary tillage loosens the soil and mixes in fertilizer and/or plant material, resulting in soil with a rough texture.

Secondary tillage produces finer soil and sometimes shapes the rows, preparing the seed bed. It also provides weed control throughout the growing season during the maturation of the crop plants, unless such weed control is instead achieved with low-till or no-till methods involving herbicides.

  • The seed bed preparation can be done with harrows (of which there are many types and subtypes), dibbles, hoes, shovels, rotary tillers, subsoilers, ridge- or bed-forming tillers, rollers, or cultivators.
  • The weed control, to the extent that it is done via tillage, is usually achieved with cultivators or hoes, which disturb the top few centimeters of soil around the crop plants but with minimal disturbance of the crop plants themselves. The tillage kills the weeds via 2 mechanisms: uprooting them, burying their leaves (cutting off their photosynthesis), or a combination of both. Weed control both prevents the crop plants from being outcompeted by the weeds (for water and sunlight) and prevents the weeds from reaching their seed stage, thus reducing future weed population aggressiveness.

History of tilling

Tilling was first performed via human labor, sometimes involving slaves. Hoofed animals could also be used to till soil via trampling. The wooden plow was then invented. It could be pulled by mule, ox, elephant, water buffalo, or similar sturdy animal. Horses are generally unsuitable, though breeds such as the scyne could work. The steel plow allowed farming in the American Midwest, where tough prairie grasses and rocks caused trouble. Soon after 1900, the farm tractor was introduced, which eventually made modern large-scale agriculture possible.

Alternatives to tilling

Modern agricultural science has greatly reduced the use of tillage. Crops can be grown for several years without any tillage through the use of herbicides to control weeds, crop varieties that tolerate packed soil, and equipment that can plant seeds or fumigate the soil without really digging it up. This practice, called no-till farming, reduces costs and environmental change by reducing soil erosion and diesel fuel usage. Most organic farming tends to require extensive tilling, as did most farming throughout history, although researchers are investigating farming in polyculture that would eliminate the need for both tillage and pesticides, such as no-dig gardening.

See also


  • Sprague, Milton A., and Glover B. Triplett. 1986. No-tillage and surface-tillage agriculture : the tillage revolution. New York, Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-88410-1
  • Troeh, Frederick R., J. Arthur Hobbs, Roy L. Donahue. 1991. Soil and water conservation for productivity and environmental protection, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0130968074
  • Soil Science of America. 2009. Glossary of Soil Science Terms. [Online]. Available at https://www.soils.org/publications/soils-glossary (28 September 2009; verified 28 September 2009). Soil Science of America, Madison, WI.
  1. ^ Strip Till for Field Crop Production
  2. ^ "Soil Compaction and Conservation Tillage". C O N S E R V A T I O N T I L L A G E S E R I E S. PennState- College of Agricultural Sciences - Cooperative Extensio. http://cropsoil.psu.edu/extension/ct/uc125.pdf. Retrieved 26 March 2011. 
  3. ^ "Soil Compaction and Conservation Tillage". C O N S E R V A T I O N T I L L A G E S E R I E S. PennState- College of Agricultural Sciences - Cooperative Extensio. http://cropsoil.psu.edu/extension/ct/uc125.pdf. Retrieved 26 March 2011. 
  4. ^ "Soil Compaction and Conservation Tillage". C O N S E R V A T I O N T I L L A G E S E R I E S. PennState- College of Agricultural Sciences - Cooperative Extensio. http://cropsoil.psu.edu/extension/ct/uc125.pdf. Retrieved 26 March 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Conservation Tillage and Residue Management to Reduce Soil Erosion University of Missouri: Extension
  6. ^ http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/dec95/tilling1295.htm
  7. ^ Methods for measuring crop residue Integrated Crop Management, May 2002

Further information

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Tillage — Till age, n. 1. The operation, practice, or art of tilling or preparing land for seed, and keeping the ground in a proper state for the growth of crops. [1913 Webster] 2. A place tilled or cultivated; cultivated land. [1913 Webster] Syn:… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • tillage — ou teillage (ti lla j , ll mouillées ou tè lla j ) s. m. Action de teiller le chanvre et le lin, c est à dire de séparer la filasse de la tige, après le rouissage …   Dictionnaire de la Langue Française d'Émile Littré

  • tillage — (n.) late 15c., from TILL (Cf. till) (v.) + AGE (Cf. age) …   Etymology dictionary

  • tillage — [til′ij] n. [ TILL2 + AGE] 1. the tilling of land 2. land that is tilled …   English World dictionary

  • tillage — teillage [ tɛjaʒ ] n. m. • 1803; de teille ♦ Techn. Opération consistant à teiller (le chanvre, le lin). On dit aussi TILLAGE . ● teillage ou tillage nom masculin Opération mécanique conduite sur des fibres libériennes en vue de séparer du bois l …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • tillage — Ⅰ. till [2] ► NOUN ▪ a cash register or drawer for money in a shop, bank, or restaurant. ORIGIN originally in the sense «drawer or compartment for valuables»: of unknown origin. Ⅱ. till [3] ► VERB ▪ prepare and cultivate (land) for crops …   English terms dictionary

  • tillage — noun Date: 15th century 1. the operation of tilling land 2. cultivated land …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • tillage — /til ij/, n. 1. the operation, practice, or art of tilling land. 2. tilled land. [1480 90; TILL2 + AGE] * * *       in agriculture, the preparation of soil for planting and the cultivation of soil after planting. See cultivator; harrow; plow. * * …   Universalium

  • tillage — noun a) the cultivation of arable land by plowing, sowing and raising crops b) land that has been so cultivated …   Wiktionary

  • tillage — till|age [ˈtılıdʒ] n [U] the activity of preparing land for growing crops …   Dictionary of contemporary English