For many farms across the world today, tilling soil is an essential part of farm practices. Without tillage they would struggle to grow crops with as much success – or so they think. With the rise of no-tillage farming we thought it would be a great idea to take a look back over history at how tilling has developed and evolved over time.
Tilling in Ancient History
The act of tilling soil is an ancient technique, despite the plough machines we are used to in modern times. Using hand held tools like the hoe, known then as an ard, or using animals and slaves to turn and trample soil is a many century old idea.
Some of the earliest, detailed records of tilling come from ancient Egypt – though the tomb paintings we have are open to some debate as to what they’re really depicting. “Evidence seems to suggest that very little tillage, if any, was necessary on land well-inundated by traditional basin irrigation” Murray says, a contributing author to Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology.
By keeping land well irrigated and therefore fertile, the Egyptians appear to have greatly reduced the need for the land to be tilled. By running water in a basin network through fields they ensure that soil moisture levels are constantly high enough and full of nutrients for their crops without tilling the soil to bring nutrients to the surface and reduce down organic matter. Furthermore, the soil by the Nile used for agriculture was much softer and sandier than the clay type soils many farmers have to deal with today.
Is this something you can make use of on your farm today? It’s certainly an interesting idea but without a large body of water nearby to channel water through to your fields this could be quite costly and require a lot of maintenance.
Still, the idea of a network of irrigation flowing throughout fields has stayed with us through to this day; just look at drip irrigation: a network of pipes dripping water across fields, increasing soil moisture levels and can be used to deliver nutrients and herbicides too.
Centuries of Tilling Developments
Since ancient times agriculture has gone through centuries of technological developments, providing us with more efficient tools and techniques to till our fields with maximum efficiency.
The simple wooden plough is first made record of in English writing as recent as the 12th century, yet we know it’s been around for much longer than that.
These old ploughs are simple structures that are strapped to the back of animals. As they pull along, a blade or simple wooden stick runs through the soil, creating deep gorges in the earth where old soil is pushed over and nutritious, deeper soil is exposed ready for sowing crops.
As the plough develops, additional parts are added to the simple blade running through the ground. The ‘share’ is just one of these parts. The shape of the ‘share’ is what makes these ploughs so successful: by having a variety of different shapes and styles of ‘share’ you’ll end up with different depths when tilling and different techniques for different soil types. The blade cuts through the earth first, followed by the share which pushes soil to either side exposing the deeper soil below.
This type of plough is commonly referred to as the mouldboard plough and when looking at diagrams of this simple device it’s easy to see how our modern ploughs have developed from this original idea.
When you start to replace the runner on these ancient plough devices with wheels, this allows the weight of the plough to increase while ploughing deeper and still running smoothly. At this point we start to see cast iron being used to create the blade and structure of the plough – this drastic increase in weight called for more power needed when tilling fields.
We suspect that strong, powerful oxen were most likely used for pulling ploughs throughout history; the use of horses in agriculture for pulling machinery is a more recent development. The heavy shire horse, for example, only reached high popularity in the UK and USA during the 19th century,
Age of Enlightenment
The 18th century is when science and philosophy start to shape the western world with more vigour – agricultural technology was no exception. During this time we see the rise of the first commercially successful plough that was mass produced (though not on the scale we’re used to today).
We’re of course referring to the British Rotherham plough; its lighter design of simple handles, coulter and mouldboard made it very popular in the UK. Not 60 years later another breakthrough in the UK happens quite by mistake, allowing ploughs to strengthen even further. An Ipswich iron founder with faulty moulds found that when the molten metal that was used to craft the ploughs came into contact with cold metal, the strength of the structure improved considerably.
By 1837 an American blacksmith by the name of Deere invented the steel plough which was a huge success with American farmers struggling with tough land previously thought to be unsuitable for farming.
This just goes to show how new farming technology literally changes the world around us. Who knows, arid deserts and cold climates we currently believe to be impossible to farm on could become an option as agricultural tech continues to develop today.
As we’re going through the developments of the 19th century, steam engines start to pull our ploughs, especially in America where they retain some popularity right through and into the 20th century, however it’s not long until the modern tractor we know starts to change our fields forever…
Modern Tilling Methods
While our tractors are getting more and more high tech (did you know there are companies working on a driverless tractor?!) the science behind tilling has barely changed. Now pulled by great hefty tractors that can till several rows at a time, tilling ultimately still relies on the same techniques.
Our machines make use of carefully calibrated wheels and blades to improve our tilling efforts as precision agriculture drives farming practices forward. Deere, the 19th century blacksmith mentioned previously, left a company that’s still producing some of the most popular tilling equipment that’s used worldwide today.
With the scientific agricultural improvements over the past decades, we’re getting much better at analysing and evaluating our farm management and practices, raising the question of whether tilling our fields is really that good for soil health and yield improvement.
No Tilling Agriculture
No-tillage farming is becoming ever more popular as we better understand what tilling is doing to our soil. So what are the benefits of avoiding this ancient farming technique on your land?
Improved soil nutrition. Every time you till your land you’re tearing up the ecosystem that’s taken months to develop. From earth worm networks to plants that have been reducing the impact of soil erosion and all those important nutrients that are protected under layers of earth.
Protected soil. Every time you till you pull finer soils up to the surface and expose nutrients to the elements where they can be washed or blown away. By not tilling you are locking in those essential nutrients your crops need without compacting the soil by running over heavy tillage machinery.
Great for arid regions. When there’s little water in the soil to begin with, the last thing you want to be doing is digging up that moisture only to see it evaporate off. Not tilling this land will help to seal in the moisture.
There are some huge disadvantages to not tilling your land too, but it really does depend on your soil type and climate. For example, when you forgo tilling on arid land, you’re often left with a very hard, dry surface that’s difficult for rainwater to penetrate. This could cause run-off, flooding and dryer soils as you’ve not tilled the soil to a point where cracks enable water to drain and be absorbed properly.
As the agricultural world is becoming more divided over tilling practices maybe it’s time that you gave different techniques a go! Who knows, you may be the next inventor of technology that changes the world once more.
Whether you go for traditional tilling methods or try out some new methods of keeping your fields healthy and ready for sowing, you’re going to need the latest technology to achieve the optimum yield improvement levels. It’s so important to record and analyse how well your methods perform for your farm so we can drive technology forward and further increase farming efficiency.
Keep up to date with this blog and check back regularly for more developments in the precision agriculture world.
Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Paul T. Nicholson, Ian Shaw, Cambridge University Press, 2000
A History of World Agriculture: From the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis, Marcel Mazoyer, Laurence Roudart, NYU Press, 2006