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What do farmers mean when they say they practice conservation agriculture? A comprehensive case study from southern Spain

Carmona, Inmaculada, Griffith, Daniel M., Soriano, María-Auxiliadora, Murillo, José Manuel, Madejón, Engracia, Gómez-Macpherson, Helena
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2015 v.213 pp. 164-177
Helianthus annuus, case studies, conventional tillage, cooperative research, crop residues, crop rotation, crops, data collection, direct seeding, disturbed soils, energy efficiency, farmers, farms, fertilizers, grain yield, minimum tillage, production costs, soil quality, spring, stakeholders, statistical analysis, surveys, wheat, Spain
Conservation agriculture (CA), which is promoted worldwide to conserve soil, water and energy and to reduce production costs, has had limited success in Europe. The objectives of this study were to assess annual crop systems currently managed under CA in southern Spain, identify obstacles to CA adoption, and recommend strategies to overcome those obstacles. We employed the following methods: (i) examination of original government data used to monitor CA; (ii) survey of CA farmers to characterize their practices and perceptions; (iii) agronomic, economic and energy use comparison of minimum tillage (MT) and conventional tillage (CT); and (iv) a stakeholder focus group to identify strategies for improving CA. Farmers selectively implemented some components of CA while disregarding others as a strategy to adapt to local conditions. Although most researchers define CA as a system that combines minimum soil disturbance, maintenance of crop residues, and crop rotation, in practice most farmers and organizations equated CA with direct seeding of cereals without considering residues or crop rotation. Official national statistics did not include all of these CA components either. Examination of government data revealed that only 13% of monitored plots were not tilled consecutively. The most common CA system (50% of farms) was direct seeded wheat rotated with tilled sunflower. This system (classified as MT) and CT were not significantly different with regard to wheat yield, soil quality, net return or energy use in either crop, which was likely due to similar residues management, recurrent soil disturbance in MT, and disuse of moldboards in CT. In wheat, fertilizers represented the largest energy input (68% TEI) in both systems followed by diesel consumption (12% and 19% in MT and CT, respectively). To overcome the most important identified problems in CA, we highlight the need for collaborative research with farmers and other stakeholders to develop appropriate drill technology for spring crops, identify non-cereal crops that are better adapted to CA than sunflower, improve residues management, increase energy efficiency through better fertilizer management, and promote CA among farmer groups excluded by socioeconomic barriers. Finally, international standards to guide data collection and statistical analyses on all components of CA will enable researchers and institutions to compare information and find solutions to common problems.