Vertical tillage: Does it fit your operation?

Vertical tillage is being evaluated as a way to improve seedbed conditions and yields in “no-till” soybean systems while maintaining crop residues for conservation benefits.

Over the last 25 years, we have seen a major switch to no-till soybeans with huge benefits in time savings, soil conservation and profitability for producers. Planting in last year’s corn stalks has been the common practice. Higher corn plant populations and tougher, healthier stalks raise concerns about soil wetness and cool temperatures at soybean planting time.

 In recent years numerous companies have begun to market vertical tillage tools with nearly straight discs that cut crop residue and penetrate the soil 2 to 3 inches deep. They break the soil open to allow faster drying and warming with minimal horizontal movement of crop residue, thus maintaining the soil conservation benefits.

In 2009, a vertical tillage tool was used within 24 hours ahead of planting one of our county soybean variety trials. The soil conditions that spring were cool and damp. Most of our soybean trials that year took an extra long time to emerge and canopy. The one trial planted after the vertical tillage seemed to emerge faster and canopy sooner. The yield was among the best sites for that year.

In 2010, five farmers in the mid-Michigan area agreed to evaluate vertical tillage. The trials all started with corn stalks from 2009. Vertical tillage was performed within 24 hours ahead of planting the soybeans.

Each site had 4 or 5 replications of vertical tillage versus no-till soybeans. In four of the evaluations, the yield increase with vertical tillage ranged from 0.4 bushels to 1.6 bushels, which statistically was not a significant difference. The fifth site had a significant yield increase of 3.8 bushels. Three sites also had population counts taken. Two had significantly greater populations with the use of vertical tillage ranging from an increase of 24,088 to 37,456 plants per acre.

The third site also had a population increase but it was not statistically a significant difference. Complete results of these trials are available in the 2010 Mid-Michigan Crop Report and at: http://www.msue.msu.edu/gratiot.

These results many not excite many people to buy vertical tillage tools but 2010 was not a typical year. Spring planting conditions were warm with good soil moisture. The season gave us more growing degree days than normal. Although we have only looked at vertical tillage ahead of planting soybeans, some producers have used it in the summer in wheat stubble, in the fall ahead of wheat planting in soybean stubble, in the fall on corn stalks in preparation of a spring crop and a variety of additional situations. We only looked at two brands of vertical tillage tools. There are many tools on the market and there are differences between. Some may perform better than others.

The cost of the vertical tillage versus the yield enhancement will ultimately make the decision for most producers. An observation from producers that raises some concern is that vertical tillage will cut and unanchor the crop residue. Residue may move and pond more in low areas of the field. Also some have observed more stones and rocks being brought to the surface by the vertical tillage tool. Additional trials over a range of conditions and years will better help us evaluate if vertical tillage will be profitable for us. We will also need to keep a close eye on the research results from other areas and states around us.

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