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Chapter 17

SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE IN THE PAMPAS


REGION, ARGENTINA
Silvana Irene Torri
College of Agronomy, University of Buenos Aires
Av San Martn 4453, Ciudad Autnoma de Buenos Aires, C1417DSE Argentina, Email:
torri@agro.uba.ar

ABSTRACT

Increased human population has placed great pressure on agriculture to meet ever growing
demands for food, feed, fiber and energy. Conventional tillage has been long associated
with increased fertility, originated from the accelerated microbial oxidation of organic
matter and the release of plant nutrients. However, this practise has been found to adversely
affect soil structure and cause excessive breakdown of aggregates, leading to soil
degradation and yield decrease. Worldwide, most efforts are currently directed to soil
sustainable management in order to minimize negative anthropogenic impacts on soil
resource. This chapter examines the principles of sustainable agricultural production and
the history of sustainable agriculture in the Argentine pampas over the last decades.

1. INTRODUCTION
During the last decades, increased human population has placed great pressure on agriculture
to meet ever growing demands for food, feed, fiber and energy. In Latin America, agricultural
production increased by more than 50 percent from 2000 to 2012, whereas eastern Europe and
central Asia expanded their production by almost 40 per cent (FAO 2012). Long-term
experiments have provided some data on how certain agricultural practices may negatively affect
certain soil parameters. Soil erosion, soil pollution by trace elements or pesticides, loss of
biodiversity, deforestation, eutrophication of water bodies and nitrate leaching are some
examples, among others. There is also an increasing social pressure to mitigate these negative
impacts on agricultural or surrounding natural environments and on human health.

How to cite this book Chapter:


Torri S. 2014. Sustainable agriculture in the Pampas region, Argentina. In: Sustainability behind Sustainability, editor:
A Zorpas. Nova Science Publishers, Inc., Hauppauge, NY 11788, ISBN 978-1-63321-595-5 (ebook) 297-318. 408 p
Tillage has long been an essential component of traditional agricultural systems. In the past,
conventional tillage systems ploughed the soil, turning the topsoil or the A layer upside down
so that buried soil was exposed to the atmosphere. This kind of tillage with primary and
secondary implements loosened and granulated the soil to prepare a seedbed for germination and
growth of crop plants. Conventional tillage has been long associated with increased fertility,
originated from the accelerated microbial oxidation of organic matter (Al-Kaisi, Yin 2005). This
practise was also highly effective to clean the soil surface from annual weeds (Ehlers, Claupein
1994). Soil tillage was performed with certain implements like ploughs, disk harrows and rotary
cultivators that allowed higher working depth and speed. In some cases, however, intensive
tillage has been found to adversely affect soil structure and cause excessive breakdown of
aggregates, leading to poor infiltration rates, plow pan formation, soil surface sealing, erosion,
and a decrease in soil organic matter content (Hamza, Anderson 2005; Gmez et al, 1999).
Consequently, yield potentials declined sharply over time despite an increased use of inputs in the
form of energy, fertilizers or pesticides, and the introduction of crop rotations. As a result,
researchers looked for alternatives to reverse soil degradation originated from soil tillage. The
logical approach has been to reduce tillage. In this way, conservation tillage was introduced as
an agricultural practice that seeks to reduce soil disturbance in order to minimize loss of soil and
water and to maximize soil cover by residues.
The term sustainable agriculture was first used in 1950's by Gordon McClymont, an
Australian agricultural scientist. This term describes agricultural systems that are capable of
maintaining their productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. It is nowadays widely
recognized that sustainable use of soil resources depends on three factors: soil characteristics,
related environmental conditions and land use. These factors interact in such a way that a change
in one factor causes alteration in the others. Taking into account that soil is a non-renewable
resource, and once degraded it poses an extremely slow rate of regeneration, most efforts are
currently directed to soil sustainable management in order to minimize negative anthropogenic
impacts.
Worldwide, adoption of conservation tillage continues to grow steadily. Although it is
difficult to get an accurate estimate of the total area covered, it has been estimated to be practised
on 45 million ha in 2004, and has expanded to 125 million ha in 2012 (Holland, 2004; Kassam,
Brammer 2013 resp.). This spread shows the great adaptability of conservation tillage system to
all kinds of climates, soils and crops.

2. PRINCIPLES OF SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTION


Conservation tillage provides a means of profitable crop production, and denotes soil
management systems that result in at least 30% of the soil surface being covered with crop
residues after seeding of the subsequent crop, in order to minimize soil erosion (SSSA, 1997).
However, this term was slowly transformed into conservation (or sustainable) agriculture.
Conservation agriculture removes the emphasis from the tillage component alone and addresses a
more enhanced concept of the complete agricultural system (Verhulst et al., 2010). Conservation
agriculture has been proposed as a widely adapted set of management principles that can assure
more sustainable agricultural production. Next to reducing soil disturbance, it also recommends
the preservation of a soil cover and the use of crop rotations. Sustainable agriculture is deemed as
the production of commodities (food, fiber, or other plant or animal products) emphasizing on the
need to attain ecological, economic and social sustainability. Conservation agriculture involves
the application of three linked principles which are applied simultaneously in the long term in
order to develop synergies to optimize natural resources management at the field level (FAO,
2012). These principles are:
1. minimum mechanical soil disturbance
2. retention of living or dead plant material as surface mulch
3. diversification of crop species grown in sequences and/or associations
The objective of reduced mechanical soil disturbance is to favour a better cohesion
between soil aggregates, to conserve soil moisture and reduce soil erosion. Sustainable
agricultural management includes a broad spectrum of different tillage practices, most of which
are non-inversion techniques. The no-till farming system is based on the complete avoidance of
tillage, except for that tiny slot needed to be opened on the soil to deposit seeds, fertilizers or
some other inputs. Other conservation tillage managements such as strip-till, ridge-till or mulch-
till constitute intermediate tillage intensity approaches.
Maintaining an effective amount of a continuous soil cover of living or dead plant material
as surface mulch is a crucial issue to protect soil from weather aggressions like the physical
impact of rain drops or erosion due to wind and/or water (Parr et al., 1990). A soil surface reside
cover of 30% or more decreases the amount of water evaporated from the soil surface, increases
water infiltration rates, suppresses weed growth and provides shelter and food for soil biota
(Blanchart et al. 2006). Levels of soil organic matter are built up in the upper soil layer because
decomposition of residues left on the soil surface is slow, loss of nutrients are reduced, and soil
temperature is moderated in favour of biological activity. Ideally, the level of soil cover should be
100% of the soil surface, and never less than 30%. Some authors reported that a residue cover of
20% to 30% after planting reduces soil erosion by approximately 50% compared to a bare field
(El Kateb et al, 2013).
The use of crop rotations or intercropping is considered essential to enhance the systems
resilience (Calegari, 2001). Plant species can include annual or perennial crops, trees, shrubs and
pastures in associations, sequences or rotations. The diversification of crop species offers an
option for pest or weed management by breaking the life cycle of insect pests, diseases and weed
(Sumner 1982). The use of deep-rooting leguminous crops in rotations or as intercrops can further
increase soil porosity as well as improve soil productivity through nitrogen fixation (Thierfelder
et al, 2012; Moreno et al, 2011). Added benefits of rotations include increased biodiversity, a
better use of natural resources through residue decomposition and more efficient nutrient cycling.
Nevertheless, the three principles of sustainable agricultural production need to be
strengthened by additional best management practices. These include the use of well adapted
good quality seeds, enhanced and balanced crop nutrition, adjustment in fertilizer management,
integrated pests, diseases and weeds practices, and efficient water management (Kassam et al.,
2011).

3. THE PAMPAS REGION, ARGENTINA


The Pampas Region, Argentina, is one of the largest temperate prairies of the world. It is
located in the Southern Hemisphere, between 32 to 39S and 56 to 67W (Figure 1). This zone
covers more than 52 Mha of agriculturally prime quality land. The region also includes some
areas which are marginal or unsuitable for cropping and are devoted to husbandry.
Figure 1: Pampas region, Argentina, and its subdivisions 1: rolling Pampa; 2: inland flat Pampa;
3: inland western Pampa; 4: southern Pampa; 5: mesopotamic Pampa; 6: flooding Pampa.
Provinces lying partly within the area of interest are named and their boundaries shown ( ).
Isohyets ( ) and isotherms ( ) are also shown.

The climate of the western Pampas region is humid, characterized by long warm summers
and mild winters, whereas the eastern region has a subhumid/semiarid climate. Mean annual
rainfall ranges from 600 mm in the west to 1200 mm in the east, whereas mean annual
temperature ranges from 14 C in the south to 21 C in the north.
The Aeolian sediments from which the soils of the Pampas have developed were brought
from the south west, resulting in a progressively finer texture from south-west to north-east. This,
combined with a gradient in rainfall which increases in the same direction, has produced a
geographic sequence of Mollisols, with Entic Haplustolls (US Soil Taxonomy, USDA, 1999) at
the western limit of the region, and the progressive appearance of Entic Hapludolls, Typic
Hapludolls, Typic Argiudolls and Vertic Argiudolls towards the east (Soriano, 1992). These soils
are associated with minor proportions of Aquolls in the drainage ways. The variability in soil
texture was originally caused by differences in the composition of the parent material, but strong
erosive processes, especially at the beginning of the agricultural period, may have accentuated
original differences (Covas, Glave 1988).
The Pampas was originally grassland, used primarily for livestock grazing with the
introduction of horses in 1536 and cattle in 1573. Cultivation began in the vastly fertile soils of
the central humid portion. In the last quarter of the 19th century, European immigrants increased
land cultivation, wide spreading to the south and the semiarid west regions. Due to economic
reasons, the cropped area gradually increased and the area under grazed pasture diminished.
Nowadays, row crop production is the basis of Argentinas economic development. But in those
days, it was usual to find mixed animal and crop production to maintain soil fertility. The rotation
included three to five years of wheat (Triticum aestivum) and maize (Zea mays), followed by a
similar period of pastures. This combination turned out to be a very sustainable technology. With
time, agriculture slowly became more profitable and, in the northern region, was replaced by
double cropping of wheat and soybeans (Glycine max L. Merrill) (Cloquell, Denoia 1997). In the
last two decades, many farmers in the southern Pampas region also began to change to a
continuous cropping system. In both regions, agriculture was performed on well drained soils,
with nearly 50% of the Pampas Region cropped with soybean, maize and wheat. After several
years, a large number of farmers became aware that conventional tillage systems that employed
the mouldboard plow or disk were leading to a serious degradation of agricultural soils that
inevitably led to a decrease in productivity. Mobilization of topsoil by erosion processes and a net
loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) were noticed in different regions (Bernardos et al., 2001 Hevia
et al., 2003; Quiroga et al., 1996). Despite soil degradation, genetic improvement in wheat and
corn lead, in some cases, to yield increases (Calderini et al., 1999; Maddonni et al., 2000).
In order to overcome soil degradation, minimum mechanical soil disturbance was introduced
to the region as a new management practice. Panigatti (1998) reported that the first no-till
experiences occurred in the 1960s at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA)
research stations at Anguil (La Pampa province) and Pergamino (Buenos Aires province). The
advent of the no-tillage technology caused a paradigm shift in Argentina, and the idea that tillage
was necessary for crop production was finally abandoned. Since then, adoption has increased year
by year thanks to the intensive activities of the Argentinean Association of no-till farmers
(AAPRESID, Table 1). Nowadays, with more than 27 million hectares under no-tillage systems,
representing 78.5% of the country's arable land, Argentina is among the first countries in terms of
no-till adoption. No-till is almost exclusively performed with disc seeders; and more than 70% of
minimum mechanical soil disturbance in Argentina is no till or zero till.

Table 1: Area under no-tillage in Argentina .

Year Area (million


hectares)
1993/94 1.81
1995/96 2.97
1997/98 5.00
1999/00 9.25
2001/02 15.10
2003/04 18.26
2005/06 19.72
2006/07 19,8
2007/08 22,6
2008/09 25,5
2009/10 25
2010/11 27,6

More information under Institucional, Siembra Directa at http://www.aapresid.org.ar/. Aapresid, 2012.


One of the main reasons that favoured the adoption of no till in the pampas region was the
economic benefit that the system offered: reduced labour requirement and reduction in the use of
fossil fuels (Daz Zorita et al., 2002). No-till seeding equipment manufacturers have responded to
the increasing demand in machines, facilitating the rapid growth of this technology. No-tillage
has even allowed expansion of agriculture to marginal soils in terms of rainfall or fertility. Further
benefits associated with conservation tillage included improved soil physical properties and
consequent increases in crop productivity, increased soil carbon sequestration, better soil erosion
control and soil water conservation (Gmez et al, 1999).
At present, agriculture in the Pampas region is very competitive and in the last five years has
been subjected to great technological changes. The widespread utilization of transgenic crops,
herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, with no-till farming prevailing in about half of the cropland
area are some examples. As a result of this technological package, crop yields have markedly
increased in the last few years. Due to its competitive prize and the availability of gliphosate-
resistant soybean, about half of the arable land is cropped with transgenic soybean. The rest of the
area is cropped with maize, wheat, sorghum, sunflower (Helianthus annus L.), or barley
(Hordeum vulgare L). Minor annual forage crops include oat (Avena sativa L.), triticale (Triticum
aestivum), rye (Secale cereale L.) and pastures composed of alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) and
fescue (Festuca arundinacea L.).
The use of cover crops has been widely proposed aiming different purposes, such as
reducing nitrate leaching from the soil profile or as nutrient source to the following crop (Zotarelli
et al. 2009), among other objectives. However, It is widely accepted that soybean yields in the
Pampas have been reported to be higher when the crop is grown as a sole crop in the year than
when it is sown as a second crop after wheat (Calvio et al. 1999, 2003). Nonetheless, research in
the Northern Pampas has demonstrated that the previous inclusion of a winter cover crop does not
affect soybean yield and water content at the time of sowing, provided winter cover crop is killed
at the beginning of the spring rainfall period or before. Therefore, the winter season would be
devoted to confer sustainability to the agricultural system. In this way, most of the alternatives for
sustainable cropping intensification in the Argentinean Pampas seem to be centred in the winter
season, since the most profitable, productive crops occupy the summer season.

4. ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE


Most of the agricultural benefits of sustainable agriculture are related to increased organic
matter in the soil. Favourable agronomic impacts following the implementation of sustainable
agriculture are related to soil physical, chemical and biological properties. The most relevant
environmental impacts are discussed below.

4.1 Soil organic carbon and microbial activity

Most of the agricultural benefits of conservation tillage are related to increased levels of
organic matter in the soil. The percentage of soil organic carbon (SOC) in the topsoil is
significantly higher under sustainable agriculture systems compared to conventional tillage when
averaged over fertiliser application means. An explanation to this is that, under conventional
tillage, moldboard plowing buries essentially all residues. The incorporation of crop residues into
the soil improves soil moisture and enhances the availability of substrates to microbial attack by
providing more direct contact between the residues and the soil decomposers, increasing the
oxidation of organic matter (Melero et al. 2009). Conversely, crop residues remain on the soil
surface under no till, resulting in slower decomposition of plant residues, decreasing SOC losses.
Moreover, plant residues reflect solar radiation, insulating the soil. As a result, soil temperatures
in surface layers can be significantly lower (2 - 8 C) under conservation tillage, limiting
decomposition (Wang et al, 2012; Arora et al, 2011). With time, an organic mulch is developed
on the soil surface, and this is eventually converted to stable soil organic matter because of
reduced biological oxidation compared to conventionally tilled soils (Melero et al. 2009).
Stratification of soil organic matter with depth is typically observed in soils under conservation
tillage (Zhang et al, 2011). Stratication is characterized by a signicantly higher concentration of
soil nutrients in the surface layer (05 cm) and lower nutrient levels at the 1020 cm depth. The
degree of stratification of soil organic matter with conservation tillage depends upon i. the
inherent level of soil organic matter related to climatic conditions, ii. the type and intensity of soil
tillage, iii. type of residue produced, and iv. years of management. Decomposition is usually
faster as the nitrogen (N) concentration of residues increase and the carbon (C)/N ratio decreases
(Jensen et al. 2005).
Stratification of soil organic matter stabilizes soil moisture and reduces soil temperature
fluctuations in the surface layer. The accumulation of crop residues on the soil surface layer
greatly reduces soil evaporation and, in addition, improves soil water holding capacity. The straw
left on the surface of non-ploughed soils can be considered to be a key factor to improve
aggregate stability, to increase water infiltration, to provide protection against erosive water
forces and to reduce the formation of surface crusts. For these reasons, it has been hypothesized
that the degree of stratification of SOC with depth may be a good indicator of soil quality
(Franzluebbers, 2002). Stratification of SOC with soil depth was reported when degraded
cropland was restored with conservation tillage (Hernanz et al, 2009; Spargo et al, 2012).
In the Rolling Pampa, Alvarez et al (1995) reported that conservation tillage systems resulted
in 42-50% more total SOC than conventional tillage systems at a soil depth of 0 to 5 cm.
Likewise, in the Rolling Pampa an increase of 8% of organic matter in the top 20 cm was
measured under no-tillage compared with plow tillage in a long-term experiment (Daz et al,
1995). As carbon inputs are usually similar between tillage treatments in this region, difference in
soil organic matter content may due to lower mineralization rates under no-tillage. Soil
temperature difference between tillage systems were reported to be in the range 1- 6C. In other
studies, decomposition of maize residues under no-till treatment were reported to be slower than
when they were incorporated into soil by tillage. This has been attributed to drier conditions in
crop residues left on the soil surface (Sanchez 1988).
In the semiarid Pampas region, the inclusion of legumes and cattle grazing in crop sequences
on Entic Haplustolls from had positive effects on SOC and N contents (Miglierina et al., 2000).
Likewise SOC in the 030 cm layer was evaluated after 4 years of no-till. Carbon accumulation
increased with no-till crop production relative to the initial condition (Diaz-Zorita et al, 2002).
An alternative to increase the amount of biomass returned to the soil is through the
sustainable intensification of agriculture. The intensification sequence index (ISI) is an intuitive
indicator that expresses the number of crops per year in a given crop sequence (Farahani et al.
1998, Caviglia, Andrade 2010). Crop sequences usually grown in the Pampas region usually
show an ISI greater than 1, and include i) soybean, soybean, maize (3 years, 3 crops, ISI=1); ii)
wheat, soybean, maize (2 years, 3 crops, ISI=1.5); iii) wheat, soybean, wheat, soybean, winter
cover crop, maize (3 years, 6 crops, ISI=2). The inclusion of cover crops (CCs) during the winter
season could be one strategy to increase the ISI in crop sequences where soybean predominates
(Martnez et al, 2013).
Microbial activity in the topsoil is higher under no till compared to conventional tillage
(Rabary et al. 2008). The straw left on the surface provides more substrates for microbes and
creates a stable environment for biological activity (Lupwayi et al., 2004). Micro and macro
faunal (earthworms) populations become more like those of natural soils. Soil fauna decomposes
the mulch, incorporates and mixes it with the soil, contributing to the physical stabilization of soil
structure. Moreover, larger organisms such as earthworms modify soil physical structure by the
creation of burrows, which can penetrate the sub-soil and control soil aeration, improve fast water
inltration and drainage, and decrease the risk of soil erosion (Arden-Clarke, Hodges 1987).
In the semiarid Pampas region, the high SOC content in the top layer of no-tilled promoted
greater populations of earthworms (Falco et al., 1995). Fernandez Canigia et al.(2000 a,b) studied
the effects of tillage practices and crop sequences on microbial diversity in Typic Hapludolls
under no-till. Results indicated that microbial diversity was more affected by changes in crop
productivity or the quality of crop residues than by tillage.

4.2 Soil physical properties

Soil structure is a key factor in soil functioning and in the evaluation of the sustainability of
crop production systems. Soil structure is the result of numerous soil processes that continually
interact, resulting in the arrangement of the solid parts of the soil and of the pore space located
between them (Marshall, Holmes 1979). Therefore, soil structure is vulnerable to the type and
intensity of tillage practices (Carter 2004; Garbout et al, 2013), especially in the upper 5 cm of the
soil profile. The physical disturbance and pulverization caused by mouldboard plough alters
aggregate-size distribution, typically by breaking apart the largest soil aggregates and disrupting
their formation and stabilization cycles (Six et al., 1999). The aggregate formation process in
conventional tillage is interrupted each time the soil is tilled with the corresponding destruction of
aggregates. Much of the environmental damage in intensive arable lands such as erosion,
desertification and susceptibility to compaction originate from soil physical degradation.
Degradation of unprotected aggregates at the soil surface results in the formation of crusts that
reduce infiltration rate.
On the other hand, increased soil organic matter on the top layer due to no-tillage was
reported to improve aggregate stability, probably due to its binding effects on soil structure
(Sapkota et al, 2012). The enlarged biological and microbiological activity within the first
centimetres of the soil profile results in highly resistant soil aggregates. Increased aggregate
stability under limited tillage is associated to a higher proportion of macro and mesopores and
increased volumetric water content at field capacity (Chenu et al., 2000). Many studies in
different soil and climatic conditions have demonstrated a positive correlation between soil
organic matter and the structural stability of soil aggregates (Mikha, Rice 2004; Sapkota et al,
2012).
In the pampas region, increase in soil aggregate stability in topsoil was widely reported as a
result of no till adoption (Colombani, 2004; Costa, Aparicio, 2006; Aparicio , Costa 2007,
Alvarez el al, 2009). Although macroporosity and water infiltration were also expected to
increase, several studies have shown that reduced till or no-till decreased macroporosity, resulting
in lower water infiltration rates (Taboada et al., 1998; Micucci and Taboada, 2006; Sasal et al.,
2006; Taboada et al., 2008). Results from Pergamino (Rolling Pampas) and Anguil (semi-arid
Pampas) indicated that soil physical status at the beginning of no-till systems was a critical factor
in the productivity of these soils (Ferrari, 1997; Quiroga et al., 1998). The low macroporosity of
the fine loamy soils of the western part of the Argentine Pampas has been attributed to pedogenic
factors (Taboada et al., 1998). In the northern Pampas region, soils have a high fine silt content
(60-65%) in the cultivated layer. Because of this, compaction of the topsoil under no-till systems
is a serious problem in the region (Buschiazzo et al., 1999; Ferreras et al., 2000).
Conservation agriculture systems can induce higher infiltration rates, being sometimes
almost double of those of conventional systems. Surface residue cover reduces surface sealing,
thereby increasing water infiltration (Dardanelli, 1998). Furthermore, the mulch limits the amount
of solar energy reaching the soil surface, decreasing evaporation of soil water by 10 to 50 %
depending on the amount of mulch cover. This is a second reason for the greater amount of soil
water availability under reduced tillage systems. During the critical period of water requirement,
soil water content in the Pampas region was usually higher under no-till than in conventional till.
Soil water content differences were, in average, 7 mm for soybean, 11 mm in for wheat and 19
mm in for corn, covering 1 to 3 days the evapotranspiration demand during the flowering stage
(Totis, Perez 1994). In the subhumid and semiarid Argentinean Pampas, soil water contents were
11 to 15% greater with conservation tillage than with conventional tillage at the end of the fallow
period of different crops (Buschiazzo et al, 1998).
Results from several studies have shown an increase in soil bulk density with the conversion
of conventional tillage to no-tillage (Arshad et al, 1999). Under conventional tillage, bulk density
in the plough layer is lowered by the mechanical inversion of the soil, which increases soil
porosity. Due to the lack of disturbance, bulk density was reported to be significantly higher in
no-till compared to conventional tillage management in the 05 cm layer on Typic Argiudolls in
the southern Pampas (Wyngaard et al, 2012; Fabrizzi et al., 2005; Aparicio, Costa 2007).
However, this trend was not observed in those soils in the 520 cm layer, indicating that the effect
of the mechanical disturbance was just superficial. Conversely, other studies reported that soil
bulk density decreased with time (Pedrotti et al. 2005; Sapkota et al 2012; Mupangwa et al,
2013). A plausible explanation is that mulching may have reduced bulk density through
promotion of aggregation and pore development in the soil system as the residues decomposed. In
the subhumid and semiarid Argentinean Pampas, Buschiazzo et al (1998) reported lower bulk
density values in conservation tillage compared conventional tillage. These results were
associated with greater soil biological activity, especially earthworms.
In long-term experiments in the pampas region, higher soil compaction was observed in no-
till compared to conventional till (Sasal et al., 2006, Daz-Zorita et al, 2002). This was associated
with a gradual consolidation of the soil matrix over time due to rain and the absence of annual
loosening. Daz-Zorita et al (2002) reported that although bulk soil density values were above the
threshold limit for normal crop growth (Vepraskas, 1994), the reduction in crop yield was related
to differences in the bulk density of the 015 cm layer at seeding. After some years of continuous
no till, many soils of the pampas region developed shallow compaction and topsoil hardening,
resulting in an increase in bulk density, mechanical resistance and decreased macroporosity
(Taboada et al., 1998; Daz Zorita et al., 2002; Sasal et al., 2006). Nonetheless, the hardness of
these soils diminished when the water content increased, so the period with potentially limiting
soil impedance was less in no-till soils than in tilled soils (Quiroga et al., 1998). Soil compaction
occurs in no-till because vehicle tyres or tracks impose loads that cause vertical and horizontal
soil deformation, reducing porosity. A compacted soil layer produces a mechanical impedance to
root growth, reducing the soil volume explored by roots for nutrients and water (Dexter, 2004).
Considering modern Argentina's farm machinery equipment, agricultural soils of the Pampas
region receive about 20 Mg km ha1 of traffic intensity during seeding operations. Although this
value represents only 20% of the total traffic compared to conventional tillage systems, it occurs
at a moment of minimum mechanical stability (Botta et al., 2008).

4.3 Soil nutrients

Distribution of nutrients in soils under no tillage differs from tilled soil. One major constraint
of no till management systems is the stratification of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K)
and other nutrients with depth (Cade-Menun et al., 2010; Mallarino, Borges 2006). Stratification
of soil nutrients results from minimal mixing of surface-applied fertilizers and crop residues with
soil, limited vertical movement of immobile nutrients and nutrient cycling. The latter is the result
of root absorption from deep to shallow soil layers and deposition on the soil surface in the form
of crop residue. Slower decomposition of surface crop residues may prevent rapid leaching of
nutrients, which is more probable under conventional tillage when residues are incorporated into
the soil. Furthermore, organic matter improves the fertilization efficiency due to its high cation
exchange capacity that prevents nutrient losses (Kramer et al., 2006).
Under reduced till, soils are not removed or artificially aerated, so nitrate content measured
in a particular moment is usually lower compared to soils under conventional tillage. The higher
nitrate availability under conventional tillage is the result of tillage-induced oxidation of SOC.
However, tilling the soil for SOC decay may not necessarily result in nutrients being released at
the most opportune time for crop uptake, resulting in a potential loss due to leaching. Conversely,
soils are cooler, wetter, and less well aerated under no till management, originating lower
nitrogen mineralization rates (Echeverria, Sainz Rozas 2001). Significant increases in total N
have been measured with increasing additions of crop residue (Dalal et al. 2011). Several studies
showed a significant decline in nitrate losses in soils with reduced tillage compared to
conventional tillage. Under no tillage, inorganic N can be immobilized in some situations, for
example when surface crop straw has a large C/N ratio composition. Maize and soybean residues
immobilized a very low quantity of fertilizer N during the wheat growing cycle. On the other
hand, differences in decomposition between incorporated residue and surface residue affect
timing of nutrient release. Some authors postulated that short-term no till may be considered as a
soil building phase where higher rates of N cycling are occurring (Soon, Clayton 2003).
Nevertheless, nitrogen fertilizer requirements usually increase under conservation agriculture
(Martens, 2000).
In the Rolling Pampa, Alvarez and Steinbach (2009) analysed data from 35 essays and found
an increase in nitrate content before sowing of 21 kg ha1 under CT compared with NT.
Temperature was reported to be the most important factor regulating microbial mineralization
processes in the Pampas region. However, at the beginning of the 20082009, soil nitrate and
sulphate content were not affected by medium-term fertilization or tillage in the Southern Pampas
region. This behaviour was explained by the high precipitation prior to soil sampling, which may
have caused N losses by leaching (Wyngaard et al, 2012).
Stratification of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) at the soil surface (05 cm) has been
observed when no-till or other conservation tillage systems have been used for at least 3 or 4
years (Mallarino, Borges 2006). When soil moisture is adequate, nutrient stratification has not
been found to decrease nutrient availability because nutrients are absorbed as a result of root
activity near the soil surface. The straw left on the surface reduces water evaporation, and helps to
keep soil surface moist and cool, enhancing root activity near the soil surface. However, P
stratification is of concern for two reasons: low P concentrations in the rooting zone may greatly
reduce crop yields (Lupwayi et al., 2006) and high concentrations near the soil surface may
increase the runoff of dissolved P (Sharpley, Smith 1994). Numerous studies have reported higher
extractable P levels in zero tillage than in tilled soils, probably due to reduced mixing of the P
fertilizer with the soil, leading to lower P-fixation. It appears like that no till enhances arbuscular
mycorrhizal fungi development (Wright, 1998), improving P uptake by lending their hyphal
networks to plants (Nayyar et al. 2009).In a typic Argiudol of the Southern pampas region,
fertilization and tillage significantly affected P Bray concentration in the 05 cm layer, whereas
no differences between tillage systems were found at the 520 cm layer (Wyngaard et al, 2012).
Stratication of soil K in no-till elds causes plant K uptake to be more dependent on root
system characteristics (Fernndez et al, 2008). Therefore, it may increase the likelihood of K
deciency in crop tissues as well as yield loss in growing seasons when drought occurs. In the
pampas region, the first soil analysis to measure soil fertility was performed in the 1930s. At that
moment, very high levels of SOC, N, P and other nutrients were determined. These findings
validated the belief that Pampass soils were inherently rich in nutrients. For many years, the
doses of fertilizers applied replenished only a small percentage of the N, P, K and S removed by
wheat, maize, soybean and sunflower at harvest. Nowadays, soils of the Pampas region are
deficient in nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and, in the last years, sulfur (S), but well provided with
potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg) under native conditions.
There is scarce information on the effects of tillage on crop yields in the Semiarid Pampas
region. In these soils, organic matter has been found to be closely related to soil productivity,
through its positive effects on soil aggregation and the storage and supply of water and nutrients
az-Zorita et al., 1999). It has been frequently demonstrated that in semiarid regions, crop
yields are commonly greater under conservation tillage to those under conventional tillage due to
greater soil water accumulation resulting from plant soil cover (Lindwall et al., 1994). This agrees
with the results of Buschiazzo et al (1998) for soybean, sorghum, and wheat cultivated in the
subhumid and semiarid Argentinean Pampas. However, yields of corn and sunflower may have
been reduced by low soil temperatures at planting time as compared to those with conventional
tillage (Buschiazzo et al, 1998). In the humid pampas region, the adoption of no-till or other
limited tillage methods had no impact on soybean, wheat or corn yields compared to conventional
tillage if nitrogen fertilizer was used to offset differences in nitrate availability (Wyngaard et al,
2012). Therefore, the increase in crop yield in the humid Pampas region during the last decades
does not seem to be related to no-till adoption, but to the use of a technological package including
transgenic crops, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.

4.4 Water quality

Water quality concerns from cropland are primarily from sediment, nutrient and pesticide
runoff. Conservation tillage practices have a major impact on water quality. The presence of plant
residues on the soil surface, and the stratification SOC increases water infiltration rates
(Franzleubbers 2008). As explained in a previous section, infiltration rate increases are a
consequence of improved topsoil macroporosity. On the other hand, residues intercept rainfall,
decreasing the impact of rain drops. Therefore, crop residues reduce runoff velocity and give
water more time to infiltrate. As a consequence, the risk for soil erosion to surface waters is
lessened, whereas ground water resources are replenished.
Surely, the major water quality benefit from conservation tillage systems is reduced soil
erosion and runoff. However, several studies have reported that the major proportion of P loading
of runoff is sediment-born P. This process is an important component of non point-source
pollution and may accelerate eutrophication of natural waters (Jordan et al, 2012; Gao et al,
2012). Conservation tillage helps to reduce water runoff and soil erosion because of a reduction in
sediment-borne P (Franzleubbers, 2008). However, continual applications of fertilizer to no-till
soils may lead to a superficial accumulation of P, which in turn may increase the potential for P
loss in runoff waters. Devlin et al. (2000) reported that between 75-90 % of total P that moves
into surface waters is attached to eroded soil particles. Conservation tillage practices may greatly
reduce this movement, but the remaining 10 to 25 % is dissolved in runoff water. Therefore, P
fertilizers should be applied using Best Management Practices (BMPs) according to soil test
recommendations. Other authors have also recommended that adoption of conservation tillage
requires a change in fertiliser application techniques and inputs (Gurung et al, 2012).
With more water entering the soil, the potential to contribute to groundwater quality
problems is increased. The creation of macropores consisting of worm holes, cracks or root
channels may encourage preferential flow from the soil surface to the soil profile (Shipitalo et al.,
2000). Macropores that are vertically oriented are more persistent under traffic than horizontal
pores (Blackwell et al. 1990). Many of these pores would be biopores and would extend well
below the zone of tillage. Therefore, concern has raised on rapid nutrient transport through these
preferential flow paths to groundwater (Addiscott, Thomas 2000). However, water infiltration,
retention, and flow do not only depend on the quantity and size of pores but also on the
interconnectivity and shape of pores (Bouma, Anderson 1973). Drees et al. (1994) found
interconnection of fine macropores (50-100 m) throughout the profile in zero tillage soil.
Leaching of nitrate to groundwater may occur when nitrate in excess of crop needs is present in
the soil solution and water percolates through preferential flow paths. Risk of leaching is greatest
on coarse textured soils, with shallow aquifers being most vulnerable. Although conservation
tillage is sometimes hypothesized to increase the leaching risk due to an increased pore
connectivity within the soil, data comparing N dynamics under conventional and conservation
tillage are limited and inconclusive (Holland, 2004).
4.5 Pesticides
One of the main roles of tillage is to provide an efficient control of weeds. Competition
from weeds is the most important of all biological factors that reduce agricultural crop yield.
When tillage frequency and depth are reduced, fewer weeds are uprooted, dismembered, or buried
deep enough to prevent emergence (Peign et al., 2007). Tillage also changes the soil climatic
conditions which control weed dormancy, germination and growth, promoting or inhibiting
weeds germination and establishment. Reducing tillage intensity generally tends to increase the
concentration of weeds in the topsoil (Vasileiadis et al., 2007) and is very often associated with
an increase in herbicide use. In addition, the efficacy of many herbicides has been shown to be
reduced under conventional tillage due to i) increased adsorption in surface layers of untilled soil
with higher organic matter; ii) physical interception and adsorption of soil surface residues; and
iii) development of herbicide resistance. Therefore, an additional concern is the perception that
conservation tillage more heavily relies on pesticides to control weeds, insects, and diseases than
if tillage is used to suppress these problems.
In soils, pesticides can be found as dissolved molecules in the aqueous phase and/or as
molecules bound to the solid phase. The affinity of pesticides for the solid phase controls the
extent of sorption and thus their availability and their capacity to remain immobilized, to be
transformed, or to be transported in the environment. The accumulation of organic residues on
soil surface in conservation tillage generally leads to an increase in pesticides fixation in this soil
layer (Houot et al., 1997). The coarse SOM fraction (>50 mm) has greater capability for binding
pesticides than finer fractions (Barriuso et al., 1994). Theoretically, fixation and accumulation of
pesticides in the topsoil layers leave more time for microbial decomposition and would be less
prone to leach down the soil profile (Gavrilescu 2005). This is in part due to soil organic matter
stratification, which serves as an energy source for soil microorganisms. Biotic degradation of
pesticides is most often seen as quantitatively more important than abiotic degradation.
Depending its nature, interception of pesticides by superficial crop residues may generate
photodegradation, thus reducing the persistence of the molecules (Selim et al., 2003). However,
and in spite of all this background knowledge, runoff is one of the major sources of non-point
pesticide contamination of streams (Wauchope, 1978; Vera et al, 2010).
In the pampas region, there is very little data on the extent of water contamination, and its
source is more likely to be industrial rather than rural, given the historically low use of fertilizers,
herbicides, and pesticides. In the last years, due to increased use of herbicides and pesticides,
many researchers tried to asses the critical period in which pesticides would transfer from the
crop to the runoff in different crops (Jergentz et al, 2004; Jergentz et al, 2005; Zanini et al, 2009;
Vera et al, 2010; Mugni et al, 2011; Paracampo et al, 2012; Mugni et al, 2012, among others)
Argentina is the worlds third largest transgenic soybean producer after the USA and
Brazil. Soybean production in Argentina has increased over the last decade, currently with 19 700
000 hectares of sowed area in 2012/2013. A total of 95% of this area corresponds to a transgenic
variety of glyphosate tolerant soybean, which is cultivated by direct sowing. Glyphosate (N-
(phosphonomethyl)glycine) is a broad-spectrum herbicide used to control a wide range of pests
and is the active principle in Roundup, a product widely applied in the regional agriculture
practice. Its wide use has led to controversy regarding its possible effect on the environment. In
the rolling pampas, the application period of pesticide for this crop is between November to
March. During this period, short and heavy rainfalls are very common in this region and cause
intensive surface runoff. Together with the suspended soil, pesticides are transported to non-target
compartments such as aquatic ecosystems (Peruzzo et al, 2008). In the Rolling Pampas,
glyphosate losses were reported to be lower that 0.03% by drainage and 0.6 % by runoff
throughout soybean growing period under no till (Sasal et al, 2010). Likewise, rain increased the
transport of glyphosate from the area of influence to downstream sites, increasing glyphosate
levels in the water stream (Sasal et al, 2010; Vera et al, 2010). Although significant research
advances have been made in the pampas region, the environmental fate of pesticides under
conservation tillage presents many contradictions and remains poorly understood (Alletto et al.,
2010).

5. CONCLUSION
Conservation tillage enhances the sustainability of agricultural systems, and minimizes some
environmental negative impacts of agricultural activities. Reduced tillage leads to significant and
complex changes in soil physical, chemical and biological properties. Several soil properties were
reported to improve as a consequence of decreased disturbance and the maintenance of a crop
residues cover in reduced or no-tillage systems: reduced soil erosion, increased SOM, enhanced
soil porosity, water holding capacity are some beneficial effects of this practise. Lower
susceptibility for soil crusting and erosion and a high abundance of vertically oriented continuous
earthworm burrows resulted in increased infiltration rates and reduced soil losses Soil organic
matter under conservation agriculture becomes increasingly stratified over time. This
stratification can be viewed as an improvement in soil quality. Conservation tillage can mitigate
sediment and nutrient loss to the environment. However, runoff loss of bioavailable P and
pesticides tend to be greater with conservation tillage than with conventional tillage.
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