Step Farming: Purpose and Benefits

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Step farming is an efficient and often the only solution for hilly farmlands. Yet, its advantages are multifold. The importance of Step farming goes far beyond cultivating lands that are not suitable for agriculture otherwise.

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Furthermore, terrace farming prevents soil erosion and contributes to plant soil conservation. Nowadays, the method allows the growing of versatile crops, and its management is more comfortable with online agricultural software.

What Is Step Farming?

Step farming is an agricultural practice that involves rearranging farmlands or turning hills into farmlands by constructing specific ridged platforms. These platforms are called steps.

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The essential feature is to excavate and move topsoil to form ridges and farmed areas. The basic underlying principle is that water flows down to lower platforms when the upper ones are full. Consequently, the amount of water is distributed more or less evenly, not just at the foot of the hill.

The Necessity of Step Farming 

Such farming on slopes typically decreases water flows and prevents erosion of soil. However, using hill farming in the mountains is not the only option. Moreover, terrace farming can also be done on the relatively level ones on gentle slopes or wavy lands at different field elevations. It is quire similar to contour ploughing

Common Types Of Step Farming

Depending on the soil infiltration properties, areas for cultivation with such farming are either tilted or level. If soil infiltration is sufficient, they are made level. Typically, outlets are also not required.

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The most common step farming types are broad-base, narrow-base, and grassed back-slope. Their choice is dependent on the steepness of the hill. Consequently, not all types imply farming on all steep slopes.

Broad-Base Step Farming

The broad-base farming technique is suitable for the gentlest hills, and step cultivation embraces all the slopes. Consequently, they should suit machinery needs, and the step spacing typically equals the number of machinery swaths. Crossing the ridges is prohibited as the equipment is supposed to move between the steps via pre-designated passages. Broad-based farming is applicable on slopes up to 8%.

Grassed Back-Slope Step Farming

Grassed back-slope farming is an excellent example of perennial terracing. In this method, the back slope cover is a perennial grass. Unlike the central part, the rear slope is not cultivated in the given farming technique. Typically, the main feature includes the soil taken from the downhill upwards, with further leveling for farming.

Narrow-Base Step Farming

Narrow-Base farming is an example of perennial farming technique. However, permanent vegetation covers both the back and front sides in this case. These parts are not cultivated. Like with the grassed back slope, the earth is usually moved downhill. Consequently, this is the steepest terracing type, requiring less soil for platforms than others.

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Step alignment depends on the soil type and slope steepness. However, it is particularly unsuitable when lands are prone to sliding.

Step Farming Systems

The commonly used terracing systems are contour, bench, and parallel steps. 

Bench Step Farming

Bench farming resembles benches or steps across the slope, with flat or flat farmed platforms arranged at regular intervals. However, such regular arrangement is labor intensive and presents intensive soil disturbance. The slopes may be earth proper, covered with perennial vegetation, or fortified with stones.

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Bench farming in agriculture is most common for growing rice since bench steps allow for retaining water. For this reason, such a farming layout is not suitable in the cases where:

  • The crops are sensitive to waterlogging like potatoes;
  • The land is prone to sliding;
  • You have frequent rains as characteristic weather patterns in the area.

Contour Step Farming

Like in contour farming, these terracing systems follow the relief contour. Steps comprise grassed waterways and point rows. Even though such platforms require little input to arrange them, they are difficult for farming due to irregularities in space.

Parallel Step Farming

Parallel constructions are considered the easiest for farming activities, so they should be kept as parallel as possible. They are built through land-leveling operations if the slope does not allow that. It facilitates machinery movement, yet it is labor intensive, cost-intensive, and time-consuming.

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Consequently, sometimes it will make sense not to treat those parts but leave them under perennial cover or as grass waterways. Modern monitoring systems can manage your fields with high-resolution satellite images for the most accurate and timely change detection.

Advantages of Step Farming

The technique of terrace farming is credited to the ancient Inca civilization, who developed the farming method of farming in the mountains of the Andes. Today, step farming is typical for mountainous rice paddies in Asia. Yet, this farming advantages make it a beneficial experience in any hilly terrain, both paddies or drylands, with various crops to grow. The benefits of terracing are numerous, proving its importance for humans and nature. 

The following benefits are associated with step farming.

  • Increase in farm ability and productivity land of field slopes.
  • Water conservation reduces and slows down water runoffs and improves rainwater harvesting.
  • It prevents soil erosion by decreasing rill formations.
  • It boosts soil conservation.
  • There is a substantial reduction in water pollution and sedimentation. Water stays long enough for heavy particles to settle down but short enough not to harm crops. This prevents downstream sedimentation and pollution of water bodies. 
  • Such farming adds to ecosystem diversity.
  • Increases food production by using hilly land for farming.

Disadvantages of Step farming 

There are some challenges in such type of farming which include:

  • The requirement of specific machinery to push and level the soil;
  • High labor cost inputs;
  • The land disturbance that often requires additional treatment;
  • Hiring of trained staff to arrange Steps;
  • Preliminary soil testing as slipping soils is not suitable.

What Is The Purpose Of Step Farming?

All terrace farming techniques allow farmers to retain or remove water and reduce the hill’s steepness. This type of farming aims to intercept water in a designated channel and remove it via constructed erosion-resistant ditches or subsurface pipe outlets. This proves the efficiency of terracing in stopping erosion and contributing to soil conservation.

How Does Step Farming Help In Conserving Soil?

Such farming helps retain soil cover and fertility since water flows do not wash off the topsoil and nutrients. The slope is no longer as steep as it was initially. Consequently, water runoffs are slower due to leveled areas.

Water streams do not flow on the earth’s surface as they usually do on hilly lands. Subsequently, water is either collected in channels or runs under the surface via outlets and pipes. 

Step Farming Prevent and Reduce Soil Erosion

Since water comes down through designated outlets, this farming prevents the formation of soil-eroding rills. Steps break the slope, splitting one significant slope into several smaller ones. Consequently, the slope becomes less steep, and the force of water due to gravity is less destructive.

However, this is not the only way of such farming to prevent soil erosion. Additionally, vegetation on the back and front slopes reduces the risk of destruction by wind and water. If a farmer sees visible signs of erosion or has decreased yields season by season, and the field elevation is uneven (sloped), it is worth opting for terracing to stop erosion and boost yields.

With modern monitoring systems, farmers can get data on field elevation and how the productivity of the field has changed over time. It shows how the vegetation develops over a selected period. With this information, a farmer can decide on productivity zones of the field and treat each zone differently (depending on the needs).

The functionality of modern crop monitoring systems is quite comprehensive. Consequently, post implementation of a terracing system will help monitor the state of crops with its soil moisture data, vegetation indices analytics, weather forecasts, historical insights, and more.

Crops Grown in Step Farming

The choice of species depends on their productivity in highlands and sensitivity to waterlogging since Steps tend to accumulate moisture. For example, rice grows in paddies, but its productivity drops at elevations higher than 375 m.

Nonetheless, such farming crops are rather diverse. These are grains, legumes, medicinal and culinary herbs, berries, nuts, fruits, vegetables, etc. In particular, examples of common crops farmed by step farming include:

  • wheat,
  • buckwheat,
  • corn,
  • rice,
  • millets,
  • saffron,
  • black cumin,
  • pulses,
  • Apples

Is Step Farming Sustainable?

Reduction or prevention of soil erosion and conservation by such farming allows the use of step farmlands in the long run. It attests to the essential role of such farming in sustainable agriculture.

Even though the Step layout demands specific inputs and efforts, the advantages of terracing make it a promising practice. Modern terrace farming becomes easier to implement with satellite monitoring and online agricultural tools. 

Bottom Line

Step farming is an efficient soil conservation practice. However, it requires regular maintenance and inspection at the same time. Thus, inefficient Step farming must check the ridges and grass cover, improving them where necessary. Another issue of the step farming practice is the sedimentation of channels, which is resolved by cleaning and planting buffer strips. The outlets and pipes should also be clean and free from vegetation residue and particles that may block them.

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