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Contour Farming

by Claudia Ringler
Published: Last Updated on
Contour Farming

Contour farming is a technique that involves planting crops along the contour lines of a field, rather than in straight rows. These contour lines are determined by the natural slope of the land and are used to guide the placement of the crops. It is also known as contour plowing, contour tillage, or contour bunding. Contour farming is considered a sustainable agricultural practice because it helps to conserve natural resources.

One of the main ways that contour farming helps to conserve natural resources is by slowing down the flow of water across the field. When crops are planted in straight rows, water can run off the field more easily, leading to soil erosion and nutrient loss. Further, it can also improve crop yields by maximizing the amount of available moisture and nutrients in the soil.

Some countries where contour farming is widely practiced include Brazil, China, India, and the United States. In the United States, it is used on millions of acres of agricultural land, and it is particularly common in the Corn Belt region of the Midwest. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), contour farming is an important tool for conserving natural resources and improving the sustainability of farming operations.

In Australia, contour farming is often used in the wheat-growing regions of the country, such as Western Australia and South Australia. In Brazil, it is commonly used in the coffee-growing regions of the country.

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Types of contour farming

There are several different types of contour farming techniques that farmers can use, each of which may be more or less suitable for different types of crops. Some common types of contour farming techniques include:

1. Contour strip cropping: This involves planting strips of crops along the contour lines of a field, with each strip consisting of a different type of crop. This technique is well-suited for growing crops that have different water and nutrient needs, such as corn and beans.

2. Contour planting: This involves planting crops along the contour lines of a field, rather than in straight rows. This technique is suitable for a wide range of crops, including grains, vegetables, and fruits.

3. Terracing: This involves creating a series of flat, terraced levels on a sloping field, with each level separated by a series of small retaining walls. Crops are then planted on each terrace. This technique is particularly well-suited for growing crops that require a lot of water, such as rice and other moisture-sensitive crops.

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4. Ridge tillage: This involves creating raised ridges along the contour lines of a field, with crops planted on either side of the ridge. This technique is suitable for a wide range of crops, including grains, vegetables, and fruits.

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5. Grass waterways: This involves planting grass along the contour lines of a field to create channels or waterways that can help to capture and hold water in the field. This technique is particularly useful for preventing erosion on sloping fields with heavy clay soils.

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6. Contour bunding: This involves creating small, raised embankments or bunds along the contour lines of a field. These bunds can help to capture and hold water in the field, reducing erosion and improving soil health. This technique is particularly useful for preventing erosion on sloping fields with light, sandy soils.

7. Contour buffer strips: This involves planting strips of grass, shrubs, or trees along the contour lines of a field to create buffer zones between the field and any nearby water sources. These buffer strips can help to filter pollutants and sediment from runoff water, protecting the water quality of nearby streams and rivers.

Steps for implementing

Here are the general steps that a farmer might take to implement contour farming on their farm:

  1. Assess the field: The first step in implementing contour farming is to assess the field to determine the slope and contour lines of the land. This can be done using a topographic map or by conducting a field assessment.
  2. Determine the crop rotation: The next step is to determine the crop rotation that will be used for the field. This will depend on the soil conditions, climate, and other factors specific to the farm.
  3. Mark the contour lines: Once the crop rotation has been determined, the next step is to mark the contour lines on the field. This can be done using a contour map, a laser level, or other tools.
  4. Create the planting beds: Once the contour lines have been marked, the next step is to create the planting beds. This may involve leveling the soil, adding organic matter or other soil amendments, and preparing the beds for planting.
  5. Plant the crops: Once the planting beds have been prepared, the next step is to plant the crops along the contour lines. This may require the use of specialized planting equipment or manual labor.
  6. Monitor and maintain the field: After the crops have been planted, the next step is to monitor and maintain the field. This may involve watering, fertilizing, and weeding the crops, as well as controlling pests and diseases.

Benefits of contour farming

Contour farming is a method of agricultural land management. This practice offers several advantages and benefits, including:

  1. Reducing soil erosion: By planting crops along the contour lines of a field, farmers can help to slow down the flow of water and reduce soil erosion. This can help to preserve the fertility and productivity of the soil over the long term.
  2. Improving crop yields: By planting crops along the contour lines, farmers can take advantage of the natural slope of the land to maximize the amount of available moisture and nutrients in the soil. This can lead to healthier, more productive crops.
  3. Conserving natural resources: Contour farming helps to conserve soil and water resources by reducing erosion and runoff. This can help to make farming operations more sustainable and efficient.
  4. Enhancing soil health: Contour farming can improve the structure and health of the soil by increasing the amount of organic matter and promoting the growth of beneficial microorganisms.
  5. Improving water quality: By reducing soil erosion and runoff, contour farming can help to improve the quality of nearby water sources, such as streams and rivers.
  6. Increasing efficiency: By planting crops along the contour lines of a field, farmers can reduce the amount of time and resources required to cultivate and harvest their crops. This can make farming operations more efficient and cost-effective.
  7. Enhancing biodiversity: By planting a variety of crops along the contour lines of a field, farmers can create a diverse ecosystem that can support a wide range of plant and animal life. This can enhance biodiversity and help to promote the health and resilience of the agricultural ecosystem.
  8. Providing additional income: In some cases, contour farming can provide farmers with additional income through the sale of non-traditional crops or through the provision of ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration or water purification.
  9. Enhancing the aesthetics of the landscape: Contour farming can create a more visually appealing landscape, as the curved rows of crops can add interest and diversity to the appearance of a field.

Cons of contour farming

Like any agricultural practice, contour farming has its own set of potential drawbacks or challenges. Some potential cons of contour farming include:

1. Increased labor and equipment requirements: Implementing contour farming techniques may require additional labor and equipment, as the crops must be planted along the contour lines of the field. This can be more time-consuming and costly compared to planting in straight rows.

2. Reduced field size: In some cases, contour farming techniques may result in a reduction in the overall size of a field, as the contour lines may take up more space than straight rows. This can result in reduced crop yields in some cases.

3. Difficulty in establishing crops: Planting crops along the contour lines of a field can be more difficult than planting in straight rows, as the rows must follow the natural slope of the land. This can make it more challenging to establish crops, particularly in fields with steep slopes or complex terrain.

4. Challenges in herbicide application: Applying herbicides to crops planted along the contour lines can be more challenging than in straight rows, as the curved rows may be more difficult to navigate with herbicide application equipment.

5. Limited compatibility with certain crops: In some cases, certain crops may be more difficult to grow using contour farming techniques due to their size, shape, or other characteristics. For example, tall crops like corn may be more difficult to plant along the contour lines than smaller crops like beans.

6. Limited compatibility with certain soil types: Some soil types may be more or less suitable for contour farming techniques. For example, heavy clay soils may be more prone to erosion when planted along the contour lines, while sandy soils may not hold moisture as well when planted in this manner.

7. Risk of crop damage: Crops planted along the contour lines of a field may be more prone to damage from wind, frost, or other weather events, as they may not have the same level of protection as crops planted in straight rows.

8. Reduced efficiency in irrigation: Irrigating crops planted along the contour lines may be more challenging and less efficient than irrigating crops planted in straight rows. This may require more time and resources to manage.

9. Increased risk of pest and disease problems: Crops planted along the contour lines may be more vulnerable to pest and disease problems due to the reduced air circulation and sunlight exposure in some areas of the field.

10. Limited compatibility with mechanized farming equipment: Some types of mechanized farming equipment may not be well-suited for use in contour farming operations due to the curved rows and uneven terrain. This may require farmers to rely more on manual labor or specialized equipment, which can be more time-consuming and costly.

Difference between contour farming and step farming

The main difference between contour farming and step farming is the way in which the land is shaped and managed. Contour farming is a method of agricultural land management that involves planting crops along the contour lines of a field, rather than in straight rows.

Step farming, also known as terracing, is a similar technique that involves creating a series of flat, terraced levels on a sloping field, with each level separated by a series of small retaining walls. Crops are then planted on each terrace. This technique helps to reduce soil erosion and improve soil health, while also making it easier for farmers to access and work on their fields.

Conclusion

Contour farming is a technique that involves planting crops along the contour lines of a field to reduce soil erosion and improve crop yields. While it may require additional labor and equipment and may not be suitable for all crops or soil types. It is a widely-used and effective agricultural practice that offers numerous benefits.

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