Conservation tillage and organic farming reduce soil erosion

  • Steffen SeitzEmail author
  • Philipp Goebes
  • Viviana Loaiza Puerta
  • Engil Isadora Pujol Pereira
  • Raphaël Wittwer
  • Johan Six
  • Marcel G. A. van der Heijden
  • Thomas Scholten
Research Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Organic farming


The impact of different arable farming practices on soil erosion is only partly resolved, and the effect of conservation tillage practices in organic agriculture on sediment loss has rarely been tested in the field. This study investigated rainfall-induced interrill sediment loss in a long-term replicated arable farming system and tillage experiment (the FAST trial) with four different cropping systems: (1) organic farming with intensive tillage, (2) organic farming with reduced tillage, (3) conventional farming with intensive tillage, and (4) conventional farming with no tillage. Measurements were carried out under simulated heavy rainfall events with runoff plots in 2014 (fallow land after winter wheat) and 2017 (during maize growth). Organic farming decreased mean sediment delivery compared to conventional farming by 30% (0.54 t ha−1 h−1). This study demonstrated that reduced tillage in organic farming decreased sediment delivery (0.73 t ha−1 h−1) compared to intensively tilled organic plots (1.87 t ha−1 h−1) by 61%. Nevertheless, the combination of conventional farming and no tillage showed the lowest sediment delivery (0.24 t ha−1 h−1), whereas intensively tilled conventional plots revealed the highest delivery (3.46 t ha−1 h−1). Erosion rates were much higher in June during maize growth (2.92 t ha−1 h−1) compared to those of fallow land after winter wheat (0.23 t ha−1 h−1). Soil surface cover and soil organic matter were the best predictors for reduced sediment delivery, and living plant cover from weeds in reduced organic treatments appeared to protect soil surfaces better than plant residues in conventional, no-tillage plots. Soil erosion rates were significantly lower when soil cover was above 30%. In conclusion, this study demonstrates that both organic farming and conservation agriculture reduce soil losses and showed for the first time that reduced tillage practices are a major improvement in organic farming when it comes to soil erosion control.


Soil loss Organic farming Conservation agriculture Arable cropping Soil protection Rainfall simulation Runoff plots 



The authors appreciate the support of Mario Ahner, Sabine Flaiz, Lisa-Marie Funke, Judith Hüttel, Christian Löffler, Lars Arne Meier, and Zhengshan Song during laboratory and fieldwork. We thank Werner Jossi and the Agroscope FAST team for excellent field assistance and maintenance of the experiment:

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© INRA and Springer-Verlag France SAS, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steffen Seitz
    • 1
    Email author
  • Philipp Goebes
    • 1
  • Viviana Loaiza Puerta
    • 2
  • Engil Isadora Pujol Pereira
    • 3
  • Raphaël Wittwer
    • 4
  • Johan Six
    • 2
  • Marcel G. A. van der Heijden
    • 4
    • 5
  • Thomas Scholten
    • 1
  1. 1.Soil Science and Geomorphology, Institute of Geography, Department of GeosciencesUniversity of TübingenTübingenGermany
  2. 2.Institute of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Environmental Systems ScienceSwiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH ZürichZürichSwitzerland
  3. 3.School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine SciencesUniversity of Texas Rio Grande ValleyEdinburgUSA
  4. 4.Research Division Agroecology and Environment, Agroscope Federal Office for AgricultureZürichSwitzerland
  5. 5.Department of Plant and Microbial BiologyUniversity of ZürichZürichSwitzerland

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