As the combines roll across fields, it’s not hard to spot the wheel tracks, ruts and pinch rows. At planting and sidedressing, it came to the point that causing field damage was better than having little to no crop at all. Now it’s time to reckon with the damage. Take advantage of a dry harvest to fix the issues stemming from excessive rainfall this past spring and summer.
“Breaking up compaction in wheel tracks this fall will gain more benefit from the freezing and thawing cycle,” says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. “The best option is to follow the combine as close as possible with your tillage regimen to ensure you’re working in drier soil and have time on your side.”
To determine how to fix ruts, pinch rows and wheel tracks, consider your standard fall routine and crop rotation.
“There is a big difference between preparing a seedbed for corn versus soybeans,” Ferrie says. “You can get away with tougher conditions ahead of soybeans compared to corn.”
For each of the following tillage practices, Ferrie outlines a plan of attack to eliminate wheel tracks, pinch rows and ruts.
Conventional-till: To eliminate ruts in conventional-till, use a chisel plow or disk ripper on cornstalks, then follow with a leveling pass next spring. Run a chisel plow at a slight angle across the wheel tracks to break up
In bean stubble with 4" ruts, use a soil finisher and level in the spring. If ruts are 6" to 8", use a chisel plow to fill them in first. If possible, spot chisel to fix only the areas in the field with ruts. Follow with a soil finisher pass next spring. Use aerial imagery from the growing season to help determine whether you can patch the field or if it all needs to be worked.
Vertical-till: In a corn-to-soybean rotation with ruts or severe pinch rows, use a chisel plow in the cornstalks followed by a vertical-till leveling pass next spring. When using a chisel plow, make sure you achieve full width shatter from shank to shank for optimum results, Ferrie says.
In a soybean-to-corn rotation, use an in-line ripper in bean stubble when dealing with pinch rows and 4" ruts. An in-line ripper picks up dirt and drops it. Run the in-line ripper at an angle to make sure you cross the ruts or pinch rows. If you run with the rows, it might not bust wheel tracks apart; it will only pick them up and set them back down. In these scenarios, it will likely take two passes with a vertical-till leveling tool next spring to eliminate the tracks.
In 6" to 8" ruts, don’t use an in-line ripper. Instead, Ferrie suggests a chisel plow. If ruts are spotty, chisel them in first and then in-line rip the entire field, leaving a large portion of the field covered in residue. If deep ruts appear across the entire field, run the chisel plow across it all. Be sure to respect land contour to eliminate erosion.
Deep ruts usually aren’t an issue in strip-till and no-till fields because the soil is more firm. However, take action to fix tracks and 2" to 4" ruts, as the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Strip-till: Use a fall strip-till machine for tracks and small ruts (2" to 4"). However, a strip-till tool can’t handle 6" to 8" ruts. Ferrie recommends using a chisel plow to patch areas in the field with deep ruts. Then, in the same spots, use a leveling pass and strip the whole field in the fall. If ruts are consistently deep across the field, chisel plow the entire field and then level it using a vertical-tillage tool. Once you fix ruts, return to your strip-till system in future years.
No-till: Ruts usually aren’t too big of an issue in no-till fields because the soil is firm. However, don’t let a 4" rut or pinch rows fool you. Both can be hard on ear counts the following year.
If you’re dealing with wheel tracks in a no-till soybean scenario, there’s a good chance freezing and thawing paired with a vertical-harrow tool will do the trick. If fixed, you can return to no-till the following year.
With 4" to 6" ruts in cornstalks followed by soybeans, plan to shallow chisel the field to achieve full width shatter and then level with a vertical harrow. Once fixed, the field can return to no-till the following year.
“This year, we saw significant pinch rows and ruts from the planter but also from the sidedress applicators and herbicide applications,” Ferrie says. “Planting no-till corn into the previous year’s pinch rows or ruts will lead to uneven emergence and growth.”
In soybean stubble with ruts in small portions of the field, patch it with tillage and continue to no-till the rest of the field. If pinch rows or ruts are present across the entire field, use vertical tillage to address the problem and then return to no-till in future years.
“Ultimately, in order to avoid long-term yield effects, fields might have to come out of no-till or strip-till to fix ruts and compaction issues,” Ferrie says. “Ruts often show up in aerial imagery for two to three years. As soon as the problems are fixed, the field can return to no-till or strip-till.”
If next spring is your only option to tackle the previous year’s ruts, your main goal should be to prepare an adequate seedbed. Use a chisel to manage ruts, then follow within hours with a leveling pass. Level soil maintains a homogeneous water front that keeps the soil from drying out. Creating a cloddy mess to plant into isn’t a good idea, especially for corn. In soybeans, disk in ruts and then come back next fall to manage compaction.