Planning for Spring Tillage
By Josh Seemann | Total Crop Management
Planning for spring tillage is very important. We only get one opportunity each year to prepare the soil for planting, so we need to put our best foot forward each time we pull into a field drive.
Let’s start with why we do spring tillage. Spring tillage gives growers one last chance to manage residue from the previous crop. Making sure the residue is sized correctly to allow row cleaners on the planter to move it and prevent it from ending up in the furrow is very important. Warming the seed bed is another reason we till in the spring. Having soil that is gaining heat is key in getting the seed out of the ground as quick as possible. Opening the soil up and making it a bit darker allows the sun to aid in the warming process.
In my opinion, the single most important reason for spring tillage is that it allows us to control the soil conditions at planting!
Soil conditions at planting dictate how good of a job our planter will do, which in turn dictates approximately 75% of our yield for the year. If we get in too early and the field is too wet, we can create smear layers or clods, and then have difficulty with closing the furrow. If we till unevenly, our planter will not be consistent, which will give us uneven emergence. If we till too deep and too fast, we will put too much air in the soil, which in turn gives us a shallower final seeding depth then we wanted. These are all conditions we can look for and try to prevent.
Here are two options for executing spring tillage, and a list of pros and cons for each option.
First, let’s look at the old standby Field Cultivator.
The field cultivator has been used by a lot of farmers for a long time. It brings a sense of trust because of its history. It does a good job of mixing the soil, like incorporating fertilizer. Depending how it is set up and operated it can do a great job of breaking up clods. When run deep and fast it adds a great amount of oxygen to the soil. Field cultivators usually have some size to them and allow growers to cover acres in a timely fashion.
It does a good job of mixing soil. I know I have this listed as a “Pro” but mixing the soil in front of the planter allows for residue to be buried, which prevents the row cleaners from moving it out of the furrow. If run in moist conditions, shovels can create a smear layer at the depth they are run. Field Cultivators create fluffy planting conditions, while most modern planters like to run in almost firm conditions.
The second option I will talk about is a Vertical Tillage tool (Krause, Great Plains). Vertical tillage is relatively new in some areas of the Corn Belt, so there might be some skepticism or uncertainty surrounding them. If you have questions about vertical tillage, feel free to reach out to me or your AgVenture Yield Specialist.
The vertical tillage tool does a good job of managing residue while leaving it so the row cleaners on the planter can move it out of the way. It warms the soil without putting air into it, leaving it somewhat firm. Acres can be covered quickly because it is run at such a high speed. In my opinion, it allows growers to get out in fields sooner than field cultivators because there is no smearing effect.
Vertical tillage takes a lot of horse power. There are a lot of points of ground contact. There is a lot of upkeep with all the rolling parts. It does not “move” soil, so it is not good for filling in cuts and washouts. Its relatively new and with the tight commodity prices, there are fewer growers willing to try something new.
I have talked about WHY we till in the spring and two options to look at for spring tillage. Now it is up to each grower to look at their own operation and decide what is best for them: what tillage piece will cover the widest range of conditions and leave the soil in the best conditions for planting? If you have questions about spring tillage practices or creating a plan for your operation, please contact me or your AYS.