If a Martian farmer parked his spaceship in the middle of the Corn Belt this spring, he'd likely think every farmer had gone to no-till from all the untouched crop residue. Of course, what really happened in many areas was a wet spring in 2009 followed by a cool wet summer and fall and a harvest that dragged on until Christmas or even later.
"Last fall we did more tillage with combines and grain carts than we did with tillage tools,” says Ken Ferrie, Farm Journal Field Agronomist. "What we have out there is a big mess.”
What to do now? This spring, you'll need to cope with a variety of problems, maintain yields as much as possible and work soil back into shape as time permits—a process that could take several years.
Your spring decisions will include what to do about ruts and wheel tracks; what kind of tillage, if any, is needed; how to manage residue with your planter; and how to pay the carbon penalty caused by undecomposed residue.
"If we don't take care of these issues as we come out of the gate, we're going to see some of the toughest corn we've seen in a long time,” Ferrie warns.
Ruts and wheel tracks. "Anything deeper than 3" is a rut, and this year we are seeing ruts 2' or more,” Ferrie says. "In most years, farmers can plant through wheel tracks, but when the lug marks are 3" deep that makes it tough to plant into. This is especially true when planting corn 1½" deep into a
3" wheel track. Wheel tracks in the field must be managed.
"I have had a number of farmers call and say they are glad they're no-till because their neighbors who do tillage are sinking. But 3" deep wheel tracks in no-till can be just as big of a problem as ruts that are 1' deep in conventional tillage.”
Depending on where the ruts are, how deep they are and how many of them there are, you probably will have to do some tillage. If ruts are in highly erodible ground, be sure to check with your county Farm Service Agency.
"Before you till,” Ferrie adds, "map those ruts. It will take up to three or four years to fix some of the compaction we created, so you must remember where they are.”
Look for chances to do shallow vertical tillage yet this winter, but for many the time window may be gone.