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Agricultural technology, application of techniques to control the growth and harvesting of animal and vegetable products.
Mechanical processing of soil so that it is in the proper physical condition for planting is usually referred to as tilling; adding nutrients and trace elements is called fertilizing. Both processes are important in agricultural operations.
Tillage is the manipulation of the soil into a desired condition by mechanical means; tools are employed to achieve some desired effect (such as pulverization, cutting, or movement). Soil is tilled to change its structure, to kill weeds, and to manage crop residues. Soil-structure modification is often necessary to facilitate the intake, storage, and transmission of water and to provide a good environment for seeds and roots. Elimination of weeds is important, because they compete for water, nutrients, and light. Crop residues on the surface must be managed in order to provide conditions suitable for seeding and cultivating a crop.
Generally speaking, if the size of the soil aggregates or particles is satisfactory, preparation of the seedbed will consist only of removing weeds and the management of residues. Unfortunately, the practices associated with planting, cultivating, and harvesting usually cause destruction of soil structure. This leaves preparation of the seedbed as the best opportunity to create desirable structure, in which large and stable pores extend from the soil surface to the water table or drains, ensuring rapid infiltration and drainage of excess or free water and promoting aeration of the subsoil. When these large pores are interspersed with small ones, the soil will retain and store moisture also.
Seedbed-preparation procedures depend on soil texture and the desired change in size of aggregates. In soils of coarse texture, tillage will increase aggregate size, provided it is done when only the small pores are just filled with water; tillage at other than this ideal moisture will make for smaller aggregates. By contrast, fine-textured soils form clods; these require breakage into smaller units by weathering or by machines. If too wet or too dry, the power requirements for shattering dry clods or cutting wet ones are prohibitive when using tillage alone. Thus, the farmer usually attempts tillage of such soils only after a slow rain has moistened the clods and made them friable.
Some soils require deepening of the root zone to permit increased rate of water intake and improved storage. Unfavourable aeration in zones of poor drainage also limits root development and inhibits use of water in the subsoil.
Tillage, particularly conventional plowing, may create a hardpan, or plow sole; that is, a compacted layer just below the zone disturbed by tillage. Such layers are more prevalent with increasing levels of mechanization; they reduce crop yields and must be shattered, allowing water to be stored in and below the shattered zone for later crops.
The moldboard plow is adapted to the breaking of many soil types. It is well suited for turning under and covering crop residues. There are hundreds of different designs, each intended to function best in performing certain tasks in specified soils. The part that breaks the soil is called the bottom or base; it is composed of the share, the landside, and the moldboard.
When a bottom turns the soil, it cuts a trench, or furrow, throwing to one side a ribbon of soil that is called the furrow slice. When plowing is started in the middle of a strip of land, a furrow is plowed across the field; on the return trip, a furrow slice is lapped over the first slice. This leaves a slightly higher ridge than the second, third, and other slices. The ridge is called a back furrow. When two strips of land are finished, the last furrows cut leave a trench about twice the width of one bottom, called a dead furrow. When land is broken by continuous lapping of furrows, it is called flat broken. If land is broken in alternate back furrows and dead furrows, it is said to be bedded or listed.
Different soils require different-shaped moldboards in order to give the same degree of pulverization of the soil. Thus, moldboards are divided into several different classes, including stubble, general-purpose, general-purpose for clay and stiff-sod soil, slat, blackland, and chilled general-purpose. The blackland bottom is used, for example, in areas in which the soil does not scour easily; that is, where the soil does not leave the surface of the emerging plow clean and polished.
The share is the cutting edge of the moldboard plow. Its configuration is related to soil type, particularly in the down suction, or concavity, of its lower surface. Generally, three degrees of down suction are recognized: regular for light soil, deep for ordinary dry soil, and double-deep for clay and gravelly soils. In addition, the share has horizontal suction, which is the amount its point is bent out of line with the landside. Down suction causes the plow to penetrate to proper depth when pulled forward, while horizontal suction causes the plow to create the desired width of furrow.
Moldboard-plow bottom sizes refer to width between share wing and the landside. Tractor-plow sizes generally range from 10 to 18 inches (25 to 45 centimetres), although larger, special-purpose types exist.
On modern mechanized farms, plow bottoms are connected to tractors either as trailing implements or integrally. One or more bottoms may be so attached. They are found paired right and left occasionally (two-way), with the advantage of throwing the furrow slice in a constant direction as the turns are made. A variation is the middlebreaker, or lister, which is a bottom equipped with both right- and left-handed moldboards.
The disk plow employs round, concave disks of hardened steel, sharpened and sometimes serrated on the edge, with diameters ranging from 20 to 38 inches (50 to 95 centimetres). It reduces friction by making a rolling bottom in place of a sliding one. Its draft is about the same as that of the moldboard plow. The disk plow works to advantage in situations where the moldboard will not, as in sticky nonscouring soils; in fields with a plow sole; in dry, hard ground; in peat soils; and for deep plowing. The disk-plow bottom is usually equipped with a scraper that aids in pulverizing the furrow slice. Disk plows are either trailed or mounted integrally on a tractor.
The rotary plow’s essential feature is a set of knives or tines rotated on a shaft by a power source. The knives chop the soil up and throw it against a hood that covers the knife set. These machines can create good seedbeds, but their high cost and extra power requirement have limited general adoption, except for the small garden tractor.
The chisel plow is equipped with narrow, double-ended shovels, or chisel points, mounted on long shanks. These points rip through the soil and stir it but do not invert and pulverize as well as the moldboard and disk plows. The chisel plow is often used to loosen hard, dry soils prior to using regular plows; it is also useful for shattering plow sole.
Subsoil plows are similar in principle but are much larger, since they are used to penetrate soil to depths of 20 to 36 inches (50 to 90 centimetres). Tractors of 60 to 85 horsepower are required to pull a single subsoil point through a hard soil at a depth of 36 inches. These plows are sometimes equipped with a torpedo-shaped attachment for making subsurface drainage channels.