If you plan to transition to vertical tillage this fall keep in mind it’s not a one-step process or a single tool. It’s a system that takes time to implement and a lot of attention to detail, according to Missy Bauer, Farm Journal Associate Field Agronomist.
“A vertical tillage system involves understanding the soil profile, tackling compaction issues, ensuring that each pass achieves the goal of the system, respecting residue cover and providing a well-prepared seedbed for the planter pass next spring,” she says. “Simply put, this system requires managing the entire soil profile for uniformity.”
While the system requires on-going commitment, the payoff for your time and effort is very tangible, Bauer notes. "With a well-managed uniform soil profile, farmers achieve better water infiltration and drainage, quicker soil warm-up for spring planting, efficient use of nutrients, more drought tolerance, and uniform growth and pollination."
If this sounds like a system you want to adopt—or you want to improve upon what you’re already doing with it—here are five recommendations that can help you in the process.
1. Know what you’re trying to achieve. Bauer says one of the best goals you can set is trying to achieve uniform soil density. Uniformity can help you develop a good-quality seedbed, which is crucial for uniform corn emergence and high ear counts. To achieve uniformity, you need to evaluate whether you have density layers or compaction problems and at what depth.
“At 4" deep, you can go in with a variety of tools to remove a density layer,” Bauer says. “If it’s at 12" deep, though, you will need a more specific tool to accomplish that.”
2. Consider your soil surface residue needs and density layers before purchasing vertical tillage equipment. There is a wide range of tools you can use to accomplish a vertical tillage system; it’s not a one-size-fits-all program. Primary vertical tillage tools include chisel plows, disk rippers and inline rippers. Other tools are better suited to leveling fields, such as harrows, coulters and rolling choppers, which prepare the final seedbed.
Here are some specific ways these tools can fit into a vertical tillage system. In continuous corn, you need to select a tool to get rid of root balls and incorporate residue. If you have deep density layers but don’t need the residue, you can use something such as a disk ripper, which is designed to go deeper than a chisel plow. If you have shallow layers and don’t need much residue, then you can run a chisel plow. If you have deep density layers but need a lot of residue, you can run an inline ripper type of tool.
3. Make sure you run the vertical tillage tool level from front to back. This is a simple fix, but a lot of farmers don’t think about it, Bauer says. An easy way to determine whether you are running level is to have someone walk beside you and watch the tool as you move through the field. Make adjustments until the tool is level.
4. During primary tillage, make sure you get shatter from shank-to-shank. Factors contributing to this include your tool’s design, shank spacing, point type and tillage depth. From time to time, stop and dig behind the tool to see if you have uniform fracture of the soil in-between the shanks with no columns. Check for proper shatter every time you change fields. Be sure the surface of your field is relatively level after primary tillage with small peaks and valleys.
5. Use a vertical tillage leveling tool to prepare the seedbed next spring ahead of planting. This tool should not move soil sideways, and it should run no more than 3" deep. As a result, you will not incorporate as much residue as you would with a horizontal tool. If you’re accustomed to moving a lot of dirt preparing the seedbed, this is going to look weird to you—bear that in mind. You also need to use row cleaners on the planter. Instead of a fixed-position row cleaner, Bauer recommends floating row cleaners to achieve a more uniform, clean surface. At this point, you should see that the seedbed is in good shape and ready for planting.