Controlled Traffic Farming

Controlled Traffic Farming

Controlled traffic farming (CTF) is a management tool which is used to reduce the damage to soils caused by heavy or repeated agricultural machinery passes on the land. This damage and its negative consequences have been well documented and include increased fuel use, poor seedbeds[1], reduced crop yields and poor soil function in terms of water infiltration, drainage and greenhouse gas mitigation.[2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

Controlled Traffic Farming is a system which confines all machinery loads to the least possible area of permanent traffic lanes. Present farming systems allow machines to run at random over the land, compacting around 75% of the area within one season and at least the whole area by the second season. And soils don’t recover quickly, they take many years. A well designed CTF system on the other hand can reduce tracking to just 15% and this is always in the same place. CTF is a tool; it does not include a prescription for tillage although most growers adopting CTF use little or none because soil structure does not need to be repaired. The permanent traffic lanes are normally parallel to each other and this is the most efficient way of achieving CTF, but the definition does not preclude tracking at an angle. The permanent traffic lanes may be cropped or non-cropped depending on a wide range of variables and local constraints.


Achieving Controlled Traffic Farming

CTF can be achieved on any scale but to get tracked areas to the minimum possible, there are three main requirements:

  • To match implement widths so that adjacent passes are in the same place for all machines working in the field.
  • To match the track widths (the distance between wheel centres on the same axle) of all field machinery.
  • To keep machines in exactly the same place year in year out.

Matching implement widths is a case of forward planning – making sure that if anything doesn’t match now, its replacement will. It’s also the case that the wider the implements are, the less will be the tracked area. Growers often find they can use wider machines because without soil damage, they are easier to pull and in the case of cultivators, probably don’t need to work anywhere near as deep.

Matching track widths is more difficult because grain harvesters often come with a track of 3 m or more and matching to these would make all machines very wide and often impractical to use on a daily basis. Matching to the harvester track works well in Australia where properties are often remote, there is plenty of space and road travel may not be too extensive. In other parts to the world, including most of Europe, alternatives have been found. These may not be quite as efficient in minimising the tracked area, but achieving less than 20% is still perfectly feasible.

In CTF systems for vegetable cropping, track widths vary between 1.83 m (the 72” imperial standard) to customised systems of perhaps 3.2 m or more. Road transport with these wide systems can be difficult but their use in the Netherlands and Denmark is increasing and growers accept the constraints because of the advantages that the systems bring.

Keeping machines in exactly the same place is most easily achieved with a satellite guidance system based on an RTK correction signal and auto-steer. Only the RTK system can guarantee to keep vehicles in the same place year in year out and it also achieves the highest pass to pass accuracy of around ± 2 cm. Guidance systems have many other advantages and once a system of this nature has been adopted, the natural progression is to move to CTF.

The generic advantages of guidance include much reduced overlap between passes of machines, particularly of wide cultivators which may overlap by around 10%. Although planters and drills use physical markers to match up between one pass and the next, cumulative errors can be large and non-cropped tracks created by these machines (tramlines) for chemical applications can often have an overlap of 5%. The implications of this are significant because tramlines are used for all chemical applications. A 5% overlap wastes the equivalent in increasingly expensive materials and through overdosing, damages crops and could lead to extra run-off and diffuse pollution.

Advantages of CTF

These are manifest and new benefits are regularly being reported, but the main advantages are:

  • improved crop yields, particularly in seasons with extreme dry or wet
  • lower inputs for crop establishment, which:
    • reduce fuel use
    • reduce power demand meaning smaller tractors to do the same job
    • improve timeliness of operations
  • better soil health and function, which:
    • improves soil porosity meaning there is more space for water and air;
    • improves water infiltration which reduces the potential for soil erosion and increases water availability to the crop;
    • improves drainage which avoids waterlogging and the potential for nitrous oxide and methane emissions and methane oxidation.[9]
    • improves crop rooting and the efficiency of nutrient uptake, leading to less waste and potential for environmental pollution.[10][11]
  • improves field access, particularly when soil moisture is high. Field operations are often needed in less than ideal conditions and when carried out, can cause extensive damage. CTF provides a firmer base for these operations (the permanent tracks) and constrains the damage to narrow strips.

Disadvantages of CTF

Nothing in this world is perfect and although there are few if any negative outcomes from CTF, there are a number of constraints, which include:

  • more discipline is required in the field and can increase journey times when removing large volumes of material, such as sugar beet or potatoes;
  • there is greater reliance on sophisticated technology in the form of satellite guidance and auto-steer;
  • if a machine breaks down, an exact replacement with a matching track or implement width may not be available;
  • not everything fits together – yet! The cutting width of grain harvesters for example, seldom match up to cultivator or drill widths, but more demand and time should solve this problem;
  • once a field has been laid out with a CTF system, it is not advantageous to change it. However, it is not impossible because only around 20% of the field may be compacted and the position of these strips is known.

Future of CTF

Although CTF is still in its infancy as far as adoption is concerned (partly because the enabling technology of satellite guidance is still relatively new), there is a better engineering solution that would reduce tracked areas to less than 10%. This is not a new idea, having been pioneered by Alexander Halkett in the 1850s[12] and David Dowler in the 1970s[13], but the concept of a wide span vehicle is becoming increasingly attractive because of the other advantages it brings.[14]

The concept is described in detail at CTF Europe's wide span page[15] and achieves the low tracked area by virtue of using one of the same wheel tracks on adjacent passes. The system also reduces reliance on satellite technology because a guiding wheel track for the next pass is automatically laid down. With implements mostly contained within its wheel track, part width operations, for example ploughing or root crop harvesting, are perfectly feasible, whereas with existing tractor systems they are not.

It is to be hoped that once the widespread advantages of CTF have been realised, the constraints of existing machines will lead to development of this far more sophisticated, efficient and appropriate technology. As David Dowler often pronounced, “it just needs to be engineered”!


  1. ^
  2. ^ Soane, B.D.; Dickson, J.W.; Campbell, D.J. (1982). "Compaction by agricultural vehicles: a review. III. Incidence and control of compaction in crop production". Soil & Tillage Research (2): 3–36. 
  3. ^ Canarache, A.; Colibas, J.; Colibas, M.; Horobeanu, I., Patru, V., Simota, H. & Trandafirescu, T. (1984). "Effect of induced soil compaction by wheel traffic on soil physical properties and yield of maize in Romania". Soil & Tillage Research (4): 199–213. 
  4. ^ Tullberg, J.N. (2000). "Wheel traffic effects on tillage draught". Journal of Agricultural Engineering Research 75 (4): 375–382. 
  5. ^ Tullberg, J.N.; Ziebarth, P.J.; Li, Y. (2001). "Tillage and traffic effects on runoff". Australian Journal of Soil Research (39): 249–257. 
  6. ^ Jones, R.J.A.; Spoor, G.; Thomasson, A.J. (2003). "Vulnerability of subsoils in Europe to compaction: a preliminary analysis". Soil & Tillage Research (73): 131–143. 
  7. ^ Hamza, M.A; Anderson, W.K. (2005). "Soil compaction in cropping systems. A review of the nature, causes and possible solutions". Soil & Tillage Research (82): 121–145. 
  8. ^ Håkansson, I. (2005). "Machinery-induced compaction of arable soils. Incidence – consequences – countermeasures". Reports from the Division of Soil Management (Uppsala: Department of Soil Sciences) (109). ISSN 0348-0976. 
  9. ^ Ball, B.C.; Parker, J.P.; Scott, A. (1999a). "Soil and residue management effects on cropping conditions and nitrous oxide fluxes under controlled traffic in Scotland. 2. Nitrous oxide, soil N status and weather". Soil and Tillage Research 52 (3-4): 191–201. 
  10. ^ Wolkowski, R.P. (1990). "Relationship between wheel-traffic-induced soil compaction, nutrient availability and crop growth: a review". Journal of Production Agriculture 3 (4): 460–469. 
  11. ^ Wolkowski, R.P. (1991). "Corn growth response to K fertilization on three compacted soils". Soil & Tillage Research (21): 287–298. 
  12. ^ Halkett, P.A. (1858). "On guideway agriculture: being a system enabling all the operations of the farm to be performed by steam power". Journal of the Society of Arts (7): 41–53. 
  13. ^ Chamen, W.C.T.; Dowler, D.; Leede, P.R.; Longstaff, D.J. (1994). "Design, operation and performance of a gantry system: experience in arable cropping". Journal of Agricultural Engineering Research (59): 45–60. 
  14. ^ Chamen, W.C.T.; Watts, C.W..; Leede, P.R.; Longstaff, D.J. (1992). "Assessment of a wide span vehicle (gantry), and soil and crop responses to its use in a zero traffic regime". Soil & Tillage Research (24): 359–380. 
  15. ^ CTF Europe's wide span page

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