Contour Ploughing: An Overview

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In modern farming, there are two main methods farmers use to cultivate their land: contour ploughing and terrace farming. Both have unique benefits, but deciding the best option for your specific situation can be challenging. Here we will take a deeper look at the differences between terrace farming and contour ploughing.

Terrace farming creates stepped terraces on sloped land, while contour ploughing follows the contours of the land when ploughing. 

Contour Ploughing and Terrace farming

Terrace farming is the farming practice that involves the creation of stepped terraces on sloped land. This technique prevents soil erosion (causes of soil erosion) and makes the most of the land’s potential. The benefits of terrace farming, particularly, include:

  • Improved soil quality and fertility
  • Reduced water runoff
  • Increased production

The procedure of terrace farming

Terrace farming is traditional agriculture where the sloping land is converted into small flat levels. This farming retains the soil by constructing small earth walls, stones, or concrete. The primary purpose of terrace farming is to prevent the soil from being washed away by the wind or rain.

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Terrace farming involves the following steps:

  • The first step is to remove the slope of all the trees and shrubs. This would make the land ready for the construction of the terraces.
  • The next step is known as marking the contours. In this step, the slope’s contours are drawn using a level or a spirit level.
  • In the third step, The contours are used to build the terraces using a bulldozer or a tractor.
  • Filling the terraces: The fourth step is to fill the terraces with soil using a bulldozer or a shovel.
  • The final step refers to the cultivation of the land by using a plow or a tractor.

Contour Ploughing

Contour ploughing is a well-established agronomic measure contributing to soil and water conservation. The soil is plowed along the contour instead of up and downward. This decreases the velocity of runoff. Consequently, it leads to soil erosion by concentrating water in the downward furrows.

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Contour ploughing, on the other hand, purposely builds a barrier against rainwater runoff collected in the furrows. Infiltration rates increase, and more water is kept in place. Contour ploughing is especially important when biological conservation effects are poor at the beginning of the rainy season. The effectiveness of contour ploughing decreases with an increase in slope gradient and length, rainfall intensity, and soil erodibility.

Contour ploughing is used to prevent soil erosion and to make the most of the land’s potential. Additionally,the benefits of contour ploughing include:

  • Reduced water runoff
  • Increased production
  • Improved soil quality and fertility

Contour ploughing is regarded as one of the ancient methods of conservation ploughing. It involves tilling the cropland along the gentle slopes instead of up and down the gradient. Consequently, this cultivation has been essential, especially in areas prone to violent storms or heavy rainfall. It prevents the fertile topsoil from being carried downhill by free-flowing rainwater.

Contour Ploughing – A Brief History

The first known use of contour ploughing dates back to the Phoenicians in 1200 to 900 B.C. In the 1930s; it was regarded as one of the main procedures promoted by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Consequently, U.S. Department of Agriculture established it in 1935 as a response to the problem of desertification and soil erosion.

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Particularly, by 1938, new techniques and contour ploughing had reduced soil loss by 65% despite the drought. Subsequently, the Soil Erosion Service, a federal program, has taught farmers how to use terracing and contour ploughing techniques to preserve soil.

Contour Ploughing Procedure

The procedure of contour ploughing is as follows:

  • The plow is drawn along the contour of the land.
  • Soil gets lifted thereby creating a furrow on the slope.
  • Additionally, the size of the newly created furrow depends on the length of the land and the hill’s gradient.
  • The ground from the furrow is subsequently used for creating a ridge on the other side of the slope.
  • You need to repeat this process until the entire field has been plowed.

Contour Ploughing and Terrace Farming Differences

Contour ploughing and terrace farming are different in the following ways:

  1. Based on the definition.
  2. Based on purpose.
  3. Based on benefits.
  4. Based on equipment.

Based on definition

Terrace farming is the farming practice of creating stepped terraces on sloped land, while contour ploughing is the farming practice of following the contours of the land when ploughing.

Based on purpose

Soil erosion is prevented by Terrace farming. It makes the most of the land’s potential. On the other hand, contour ploughing is used to avoid soil erosion, make the most of the land’s potential and increase production.

Based on benefits

The benefits of terrace farming include improved soil quality and fertility, reduced water runoff, and increased production. The benefits of contour ploughing include reduced water runoff, increased production, and improved soil quality and fertility.

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Based on equipment

Terrace farming requires using a terracing tool, while contour ploughing involves using a plow.

Why use Contour Ploughing on crop land?

Farmers can benefit from contour farming. They can:

  •  Keep valuable topsoil in place on sloping fields.
  •  Slow the water down and let it soak into the soil.
  •  Improve irrigation systems and conserve water
  • .Reduce labor and make harvesting easier.
  • Improve the appearance of the farm.

Where is Contour Ploughing used? 

Contour Ploughing is used 

  • On sloping fields where crops are grown 
  • On sloping areas with vegetable beds 

You must be aware of water movement when growing crops on slopes. Consequently, it would help if you were extra careful to protect your fields from water damage. It would be best if you planned for heavy rain before the rains fall. Consequently, smooth, long, even slopes speed up runoff water.

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Additionally, fast-moving water has a lot of power to cut deep into the land. It can wash soil off your field and damage or destroy your crops. Use conservation practices to shorten slope lengths, make them more irregular, and slow down rainwater.

For the best results, you need to combine contour farming with contour farming and other conservation practices: 

  • Hillside Ditch: Hillside Ditch digging a small ditch across the slope to divert rainwater 
  • Vegetative barriers: Growing small strips of stiff plants across the slope
  • Residue Management: Leaving slash in the field for soil protection 
  • Mulching: Bringing in Mulching material to cover and protect the soil 
  • Cover Crops: growing crops to plow down and fertilize cash crops 
  • Alley Cropping and Hedgerow Planting: growing hedges of bushes and trees across the slope

Contour Buffer Strips

Like strip cropping, contour buffer strips use grass or permanent vegetation. This helps to trap  nutrients from getting washed away. Another difference is that the buffer strips will be narrower than strip cropping. Buffer strips must be at least 15 feet wide. The width will also depend on the slope, soil type, field conditions, climate, and erosion potential. Additionally, it is common for buffer strips to consume 20 to 30 percent of the slope area. The vegetation is kept high in spring to aid in slowing runoff.

Contour Ploughing reduces soil erosion

The ridges formed by the contoured rows slow down the water flow rate. A reduced water flow reduces the soil’s hazard for erosion.

To reduce soil erosion even further, you can plant vegetative hedges, bunch grass, or shrubs on the contour at regular intervals. The addition of this vegetation act as a porous filter, reducing the carrying capacity.

There is no reduction in the runoff water. However, it has dramatically reduced the percentage of soil loss. The reduced percentage of soil loss  happens to be better than conventional tillage systems.

Grass strips at half to one meter are highly effective at reducing erosion over four years. These hedges can increase the time for water to infiltrate into the soil and help in sedimentation and deposition of eroded material by reducing the carrying capacity of the overland flow.

Standard methods such as pipes, canals, and sprinklers are used for irrigation of crops. Areas that use contour farming methods can conserve water because of how much better contours allow rainwater to seep into the soil.

Advantages of Contour Ploughing

  • Soil Erosion
  • Improved water quality due to controlled sedimentation
  • Enhances and maintains favorable soil structure
  • Prevents downwash thereby keeping the soil fertility high.
  • Minimizes surface crust
  • Favors a high water infiltration rate
  • Reduces water runoff rate and amount
  • Directs and captures rainwater
  • Increase crop yields by 15 percent.
  • Reduces the fuel consumption , subsequently it is easier on equipment
  • Creates microclimates of sunlight and shade.
  • Allows us to utilize hills particularly maximizing land usage for growing crops.

Disadvantages of Contour Ploughing

  • When dealing with more steeper and prolonged slopes, farmers need to move to strip cropping.
  • Herbicide carry over may be a problem.
  • Need to add Grassed water ways in areas where runoff concentrates.
  • Irregular slopes require more than one key contour line.
  • If the amount of rain exceeds your contouring system’s surface detention capacity. Subsequently, it can speed up erosion and may even cause gulling.


The difference between contour ploughing and terrace farming is that contour ploughing creates furrows in a zigzag pattern. On the other hand, terrace farming creates level ridges on a sloping surface. Both methods have pros and cons, but which is more effective for your specific needs depends on the situation. 

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