A System for Every Soil

03:51PM Nov 04, 2019
A System For Every Soil
Varying production methods complete your transition into precision farming.
( Lindsey Benne and Darrell Smith )

You manage the weakness of each field or soil type by choosing the best hybrids, varying plant population and fertilizer rates and selecting the appropriate herbicides and disease-control measures. That’s precision farming, and it’s profitable and sustainable. But there’s one more link in the precision-farming chain, one that can enhance stewardship and profitability and make planting season go more smoothly.

That link, says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie, is applying a production system that can overcome each field’s weakness. He calls it multi-disciplinary farming or systems management — the art of implementing two or more production systems in one farm operation.

Know Your Options

The first step to choosing the ideal production systems for your farm is to understand the various systems. The list on the next three pages is not all-inclusive, but they are the most common systems among Ferrie’s clients.

There are pros and cons of each system. “Take moldboard plowing,” Ferrie says. “No winter annual weeds to contend with, no carbon penalty to pay in the spring and faster planting. But, on the other hand, there’s no surface cover to protect the soil from wind and water erosion. In May, 2017, parts of central Illinois looked very much like the Dust Bowl. Blowing soil caused auto accidents and highway closures.”

Mix and Match

”Your systems must be compatible, Ferrie says. “A good match would be no-tilling soybeans and using strip-till, vertical tillage or conventional vertical tillage to plant corn into soybean residue,” he says. “Both of those systems are designed to keep soil in a vertical format, with no changes in density. In a vertical format, you have more options — you can strip-till, vertical-till or plant cover crops. For example, you can run a strip-till bar or row warmer to dry the row for no-till planting.

“But no-tilling soybeans into corn and then making one horizontal tillage pass before planting corn into soybean stubble is a mismatch. You’re combining a vertical system, no-till, with a horizontal tillage system that puts a density layer back into the soil. If a field is in a horizontal tillage system it is better to mix and match with other horizontal systems,” Ferrie adds.

Multiple Systems Come With A Cost

To estimate the cost to adopt a new system, Ferrie turned to custom rates listed on Iowa State University’s (ISU) Ag Decision Maker website. He averaged the cost of the tools used in each pass for each system. He also used the ISU calculator to determine hours of labor required by each system, from combining until harvest the next year, based on 1,000 acres farmed by one person.

Conventional Horizontal Tillage

Some primary tillage with moldboard plow, disk ripper, chisel, in-line ripper or a heavy offset disk, in spring or fall, followed in spring by one or more horizontal leveling passes by a soil finisher or field cultivator, finishing disk or vertical harrow with gang angles; this is the most widely used system.

Pros:

  • Cheaper weed control.
  • Easier to get a uniform seedbed.
  • Creates a warmer seedbed for faster emergence.
  • Allows earlier planting.
  • Less disease because residue is buried.
  • No residue management attachments required for planter.

Cons:

  • Leaves soil subject to erosion and crusting.
  • Puts in a horizontal layer that might cause water problems during the growing season.
  • Causes loss of soil carbon and structure.
  • More machinery and fuel expense; more labor.

Implementation cost: $44 per acre

Man-hours of labor: 419 per year

One Pass and Plant

One pass (or sometimes two) on untouched soybean stubble or corn stalks with horizontal tillage tool (disk, soil finisher, field cultivator or vertical harrow with gang angles) before planting.

Pros:

  • Cheaper weed control.
  • Easier to get a uniform seedbed.
  • Provides a warmer seedbed for faster emergence.
  • Facilitates earlier planting.
  • Less disease.
  • Requires no planter attachments to manage residue.

Cons:

  • Leaves soil subject to
  • erosion and crusting.
  • Creates a horizontal layer that might cause water problems during the growing season.
  • Destroys soil structure.

Implementation cost: $23.25 per acre    

Man-hours of labor: 285 per year

Conventional Vertical Tillage

Primary tillage in spring or fall with a disk ripper, chisel plow or in-line ripper, leveled in fall or spring with vertical harrow with slight or no angle to gangs.

Pros:

  • Easier to get a uniform seedbed.
  • Warmer seedbed facilitates faster emergence.
  • Permits earlier planting.
  • Creates no horizontal layers, which promotes deeper roots.

Cons:

  • More expensive weed control.
  • Need residue cleaners on planter.
  • More horsepower for full soil shatter across width of tool.
  • Loss of soil carbon and structure.
  • Must manage pinch rows.

Implementation cost: $47.50 per acre    

Man-hours of labor: 419 per year

Vertical Tillage

One pass in fall or spring by vertical harrow with straight or no gang angle.

Pros:

  • Easier to get a uniform seedbed.
  • Warmer seedbed promotes faster emergence.
  • Facilitates earlier planting.
  • Absence of horizontal layers leads to deeper rooting.
  • Lower cost of tillage.

Cons:

  • Higher cost for weed control.
  • Must equip planter with residue cleaners and down pressure control.
  • Residue on surface might float off-site (creating a “bathtub ring” around ponded areas).

Implementation cost: $46.50 per acre

Man-hours of labor: 317 per year

Strip-Till or Zone-Tillage

Fall or early spring pass with zone- or strip-builder tool; can apply fertilizer and build strip for planting; might run row warmer in spring to freshen strip.

Pros:

  • Facilitates timely planting.
  • Leaves less old-crop residue in row.
  • Promotes faster emergence.
  • Soil retains more carbon, so it leads to better soil health.
  • Pinch rows not an issue.

Cons:

  • Higher cost for weed control.
  • Wet weather in fall or spring might delay operations.
  • Creates a rougher seedbed.
  • More disease pressure.
  • Strips on hills might erode.
  • Higher equipment cost.

Implementation cost: $47 to $59 per acre    

Man-hours of labor: 379 per year
(Depends on if a row-warming tool is used, a fall or spring burndown herbicide is applied, etc.)

No-Till

Plant directly into old-crop residue with no primary or secondary tillage.

Pros:

  • Lower cost for equipment.
  • Requires less labor and fuel.
  • Less soil erosion.
  • Fewer crusting issues.
  • Better soil health.
  • Easier to retain organic matter.
  • No pinch rows.

Cons:

  • Must equip planter for residue.
  • Higher weed control cost.
  • Cooler seedbed.
  • More pest pressure.
  • Later planting.    
  • Possible yield drag in corn-on-corn.

Implementation cost: $21 per acre    

Man-hours of labor: 258 per year
($12 per acre more than conventional planting and $9 per acre for a spring burndown herbicide application.)

No-Till with Cover Crops

Plant directly into old-crop residue and a cover crop with no other passes.

Pros:

  • Lower labor, fuel and equipment costs.
  • Less erosion and crusting.
  • Better soil health.
  • Maintains organic matter levels.
  • No pinch rows.

Cons:

  • Must equip planter for residue.
  • Cost of cover crop seed.
  • Higher weed control cost.
  • Slower emergence.
  • More pressure from pests.
  • Potential for delayed planting.
  • Possible yield drag in corn.

Implementation cost: $51 per acre    

Man-hours of labor: 368 per year
(includes the cost of cover crop seed, planting the cover and a spring burndown herbicide.)


Why Run Multiple Tillage Systems?

Significant time and management is required to select tillage systems and learn to operate each one, not to mention added costs. Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie ticks off these reasons for multiple systems:

  • Manage around each soil’s weakness.
  • Call audibles at the line of scrimmage when wet weather throws a monkey wrench into your plans and jeopardizes timely planting.
  • Reduce cost when possible.
  • Facilitate timely planting.
  • Transition fields to a more profitable, more sustainable system.
  • Meet the requirements of landowners (who might want no-till on highly erodible land, for example) and government (who might require you to plant covers to qualify for a farm program).

Systems for Success

Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie helps you zero in on the best production systems for your farm to close the last link in your precision-farming chain at AgWeb.com/systems-for-success