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Tillage exacerbates the vulnerability of cereal crops to drought

Abstract

Soils used for crop production cover 15.5 million km2 and almost all have been tilled at some point in their history. However, it is unclear how the changes in soil depth and soil properties associated with tillage affect crop yields. Here we show that tillage on slopes thins soils and reduces wheat and maize yields. At the landscape scale, tillage erosion gradually reduces crop yields as the duration and intensity of tillage increase. Over the next 50–100 yr, the overall yields are likely to further decline as modern mechanized agriculture accelerates the process of tillage erosion compared with centuries of non-mechanized tillage. Arresting this downward trend will require more widespread adoption of no-tillage practices and avoidance of down-slope cultivation. The downward pressure on landscape-scale yields due to tillage erosion is expected to be amplified by climate-change-induced increases in dry spells during crop growth.

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Fig. 1: Changes in soil properties and crop yields.
Fig. 2: The effects of soil loss and deposition on topsoil properties.
Fig. 3: Effects of topsoil removal on yields.
Fig. 4: Modelled biomass production and EVI.
Fig. 5: Changes in modelled cumulative landscape-scale biomass production.

Data availability

Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

Aquacrop for GIS is available as an executable file from https://www.fao.org/aquacrop/software/aquacrop-gis/en/. SPEROS-C is available on request from P.F.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge funding from the DAAD Research Stays for University Academics and Scientists programme (91725147) (J.N.Q.), the Soil Hydrology research platform underpinning innovation to manage water scarcity in European and Chinese cropping systems (H2020-SFS-2016-2017/H2020-SFS-2017-2) (J.N.Q.) and the DFG project ‘Tillage erosion affects crop yields and carbon balance in hummocky landscapes’ (FI 1216/12-1) (L.Ö.). We also acknowledge the Landscape Pedology Working Group, Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research ZALF e.V., Müncheberg, Germany for support and data provision.

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J.N.Q. and P.F. contributed equally to the design, literature review, modelling and manuscript preparation. L.K.Ö. supported the modelling and evaluated the remote sensing data for the test site.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter Fiener.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Description of model quality and limitations, and Supplementary Figs. 1–4 and Tables 1 and 2.

Supplementary Data 1

Source data for Fig. 1.

Supplementary Data 2

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Quinton, J.N., Öttl, L.K. & Fiener, P. Tillage exacerbates the vulnerability of cereal crops to drought. Nat Food 3, 472–479 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-022-00533-8

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