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Vertical tillage takes a little analysis

Curiosity and frustration came together at the summer field day near Regina.

November 21, 2011  By John Dietz

Curiosity and frustration came together at the summer field day near Regina. The 43 farmers wanted to know more about vertical tillage. Tri Star Farm Services Ltd., a short-line equipment retailer, had the idea that a few hours with real equipment in the field might answer some of the curiosity about tillage options.


Soil disturbance slots from summers Supercoulter Plus with straight blades in front and waved blades in back. Straight blades disturb a two-inch slot (red pins), waved blades disturb a three-inch slot (yellow pins). This pattern repeats.
Photo courtesy of Kevan Klingberg.



“We’re in the beginning of a real big transition here with no-till seeding and continuous cropping,” says Kellen Huber, owner-manager of Tri Star. “We’re having to go back to some type of tillage. I had guys come to my tillage day from Brooks, Alberta, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and Alexander, Manitoba.”

Tri Star retails for five companies and had three soil-stirring tools on hand for the demo that were made by Lemken, Salford and Smart-Till. Only one is a “true” vertical tillage tool.

“We did the field day to give guys time to think. Nobody’s going to spend five figures on a piece of equipment without doing their due diligence,” says Huber.

At a special crops symposium in Winnipeg in February 2011, University of Wisconsin – Discovery Farms outreach specialist Kevan Klingberg reviewed a study with several soil-disturbing implements and outlined some performance differences. He estimates at least 10 manufacturers now are building the new generation of tillage implements.

Some of these implements have a good fit for farms that struggle with accumulated residue issues after a few years of no-till or reduced-tillage. Others cause enough soil and residue disturbance to defeat the purpose of reduced tillage.“

They have a place for the no-till farm that’s challenged with planting and establishing a new crop into large amounts of residue from previous years,” he says.

Many farmers have been successful with no-till – cutting back on field trips and fuel expenses, saving moisture reserves and more – but now some are frustrated by too much surface residue and are struggling with its impact on planting and early crop emergence.

Whether it’s in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, or Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Klingberg says, “Farmers who are trying to establish the next crop with no tillage are finding it would be nice if some of this residue could be managed into smaller pieces and moved around a little.”

In response, main line manufacturers and lesser-known, sometimes-local implement makers have started to build tillage devices that might help. If their tools can get a little dirt onto the surface trash, if they can “open” the field without actually turning over the top two or three inches, it might lead to better crop emergence, faster residue decay, earlier warming and perhaps earlier planting.

Low disturbance for lighter soils
Discovery Farms worked with five producers in western Wisconsin to evaluate machines in 2010, on 14 crop fields. Most of the land was hilly or sloping, susceptible to wind and water erosion. The soils were mostly silt loam, with pockets of sand.

“They were farmers who really have perfected no-till on their landscapes. Yet, this need to manage the residue has grown into a challenge they seek answers for.”

Three farms used a Great Plains Turbo-Till equipped with a rolling spike harrow and reel rear attachment. The other two used a Summers Supercoulter Plus. One was equipped with a rolling spike and reel; the other was equipped with a rolling chopper.

The implements had two gangs of forward-facing blades. The blades were either straight or waved, but not concave. They were spaced at 10 inches, with the back gang offset by five inches. After one pass through, soil disturbance was measured.

“A conservative, shallow single-pass use of these implements on silt loam soil can be equivalent to 40 percent of the field area being coulter tilled to a two-inch depth, while 60 percent remains untouched by coulters and disturbed only by rear attachments,” observed Klingberg.

As soon as producers made a second pass prior to planting, the soil and residue disturbance increased dramatically. Using concave disc blades or angled gangs, even at shallow depths, produces significant soil disturbance – taking the soil management back towards conventional tillage.

For these situations, fields with corn-on-corn and one single-pass vertical tillage operation, the producers improved their situation. After the tillage pass, with 75 to 80 percent of the prior year’s corn residue still in place and 80 percent of the corn roots still anchored, the residue was sized smaller and redistributed so it would not hinder planting.  

Klingberg’s initial report concludes: “In cropping scenarios where the desired crop rotation depends on very limited or no tillage in order to maintain conservation compliance, conservative one-pass shallow vertical tillage might be an option, on a site specific basis. Conservative and shallow are key phrases when considering using these implements on cropland landscapes that have high soil loss potential.”

More aggressive disturbance for heavier soils
On the eastern side of the dairy state, Klingberg says, some farms with heavy red clay soil also are benefiting from vertical tillage. They have switched from traditional chisel plowing to vertical tillage. For them, like some areas on the Canadian Prairies, the key piece of the puzzle is less water ponding.

Vertical tillage tools do not create the large ridge-trough configurations formed by chisel plows. Producers tell of their fields drying more quickly in spring, allowing for earlier planting.

“After corn harvest, they’ve been very happy with fall vertical tillage,” he says. “They appreciate the limited soil disturbance, and another vertical tillage pass in the spring breaks up that top crust, allowing infiltration to occur as well as opening the soil and residue layer up for aeration and sun warmth.”

There’s much to learn yet about this middle ground between tillage and no-till, Klingberg told the Winnipeg meeting. Field research is still needed to determine the impact of vertical tillage tools on infiltration of water and nutrients and effects in tile-drained fields. 

Some of the companies now building true vertical till drills, with gangs running straight and blades that are not dished or concave, include: Case, John Deere, Great Plains, Green Line, Landoll, McFarlane, Salford, Smart-Till, Summers, Sunflower (AGCO), Till-Tech and Yetter.

Doing his own comparisons, Huber says, “Vertical tillage requires 180-degree straight-line blades. Salford has a true entry. Smart-Till has a little curve on the blade, so it pushes the ground left-to-right and flips it up. It fits with minimum till. Our third is the Lemken high-speed compact disk. They bury the most residue, so I don’t classify them as vertical tillage tools.”

Vertical till basics
Implement designs form a spectrum of choices for growers to consider for their soil and landscape conditions. Look around and shop. The first vertical tillage implement you see may not be the right one for your farm.

For growers who are starting to think seriously about a vertical tillage tool, University of Wisconsin – Discovery Farms outreach specialist Kevan Klingberg Klingberg suggests the following considerations.

Some are built to conduct a completely vertical interaction with soil. Everything is completely downward. Some have springs to emphasize that downward impact.

Some focus on cutting residue and moving soil with concave blades. The more aggressive machines also have gangs that are set at sharper angles. As soon as you do see concaved blades and sharper angled gangs, expect to see more soil and residue disturbance.

If soil and water conservation is a primary focus that you want to maintain, then look at vertical tillage tools with straight blades on gangs that run straight ahead at the direction of travel. 

This machine configuration will move less soil than concave blades on angled gangs.  
If a straight blade is also designed with ripples, the tillage will still be non-inversion slots through the field, and the width of each slot will be influenced by how aggressive the blade ripples are.

Behind the blades, look for a rolling mechanism such as a rolling basket or rolling fingers. It helps redistribute the residue and causes some soil manipulation.

Vertical till implements are relatively easy to pull. Wisconsin farmers operate them at six to eight mph on corn land. Small grains farmers are operating some of these machines at more than 10 mph.

You can cover a lot of ground in a day, but faster operation results in more soil and residue disturbance. Pick a speed that matches the mix of soil disturbance and residue cutting that’s appropriate to how you want your field to end up looking.

At 6 to 8 mph, there’s enough movement to open the soil a little bit between each slot. There’s nothing wrong with 10 or 12 mph in some places. It’s relative to the horsepower you’ve got and to the kind of tillage you want. Everybody needs to figure out their own best speed.


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