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Investing in vertical tillage tools

Soil Management: When it comes to vertical tillage, there is no "one size fits all" for every job

Farmers struggling with excess residue, moisture, or compaction are experimenting with various forms of tillage. But many questions remain about how to best use the equipment on the market today.

In the fall of 2014, the Buiten­huis and Baillargeon families ran a tillage demo at their farm near Edam, Sask. They ran seven different tillage units, plus used a Sumo Subsoiler on a compacted field. This winter brothers-in-law Camile Baillargeon and Bryan Buitenhuis sat down for an on-farm interview about those trials and what they saw the following crop year.

Marla Riekman also spoke to Grainews about vertical tillage. Riekman is a land management specialist with Manitoba Agri­culture, Food and Rural Development.

Here are their thoughts on what farmers should think about before investing in and using tillage equipment.

Is it truly vertical tillage?

Both Riekman and Baillargeon cautioned that not all equipment advertised as vertical tillage is truly vertical tillage.

The coulter, whether it’s waved or straight, should go straight up and down in a vertical tillage implement, Riekman noted. There should be no shearing, and no angle on the gang. The same goes for a deep tiller or subsoiler — it should be straight up and down, with no curve to the bottom, she said.

“You’re not flipping soil. You’re just slicing soil,” said Riekman.

Slicing instead of flipping means there’s less risk of damaging soil structure. Riekman recommended farmers in no-till or minimum-tillage systems look for less aggressive units to avoid damaging soil and stubble standability.

Are you trying to manage residue?

Buitenhuis said the biggest thing is figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish with the machine first. Baillargeon concurred, noting that certain units perform better under certain conditions.

One reason a farmer may use vertical tillage is to manage residue. But Baillargeon said he’s heard from other farmers of problems when vertical tillers bury residue in dirt. During seeding, some new precision drills will pull up that wet residue. It builds on the shank until the shank plugs, creating “beaver huts” in the field, he said. He noted it could partly be a problem with settings.

Bigger combine headers also make it tough to get an even spread, Baillargeon said. The solution might be retrofitting the combine or updating the parts in the back to get an even spread, he added.

“If residue is your problem…maybe instead of investing a bunch of money in tillage equipment, maybe you just need to be investing money in your combine.”

Are you dealing with compaction?

Baillargeon and Buitenhuis had a compacted field, where the water pooled and created anaerobic conditions. In the fall of 2014, they ran the Sumo Subsoiler through the field.

In the spring of 2015, they seeded canola into that field. 2015 was a “tough year” to measure results from the subsoiler because it was dry early on, Baillargeon noted. But Buiten­huis said once they got rain, the water infiltrated areas where they’d used the subsoiler. And Baillargeon adds the penetrometer showed the Sumo broke the hardpan.

“But sometimes that’s not the best thing because what happens when you drive on it?” Baillargeon asked. Managing traf­fic isn’t easy on his farm, as wet areas pop up in different spots year to year.

“You have to start changing your traffic because you can’t wait for it to dry out forever,” Baillargeon said.

Last year there was no yield difference between the check and treatment in the Sumo-treated field. Baillargeon’s wife, Carol, also dug up roots to monitor their growth.

“And we were finding, in those dry conditions, those roots are still finding their way down,” said Baillargeon. But he thinks they would have seen more benefit to the subsoiler if it had been a wet year.

As for the other treatments, they didn’t take them to yield. They didn’t see any significant differences either, but it was a strange year, Baillargeon noted. For example, the late spring frosts negated any potential benefits of blackening the soil.

Timing is important

Baillargeon said they also demoed a different unit in the spring of 2014. That May, they’d had about seven inches of rain, and they were antsy to get on the field. Baillargeon said it looked like the tiller was doing a nice job. But it was like “fluffing a pillow,” Buitenhuis said. The soil quickly returned to its compacted state.

The shearing action of the disc also created a hard pan. Baillargeon was reluctant to name the implement because other machines would have caused the same problem, he said. Besides, it was too wet to be tilling, he added.

A disc with shearing action, combined with moist conditions, is a recipe for compaction. If the gang has an angle, it can “scrape underneath,” and bring a compacted layer to the surface, Riekman explained. Moist soil, near field capacity, is at the highest risk of compaction. Riekman suggested farmers wait until the soil is dry before using vertical tillers or other tillers.

But working the soil when it’s too dry also boosts erosion risk, she cautioned. Farmers should also keep in mind that speed has more to do with tillage erosion than depth, Riekman said. “And so going shallow but going at high speed is going to throw soil farther.”

That puts tillers into “a little bit of a catch-22” because the equipment needs to go fast to work properly, she said.

Know what lies beneath

Baillargeon pointed out that in some areas “hard pan’s not the worst thing in the world.” Subsoiling a spot can “open something up that you don’t want opened up.” One of Baillargeon’s friend’s broke a hard pan only to have water seep up and create more problems.

Riekman said if a hard pan is holding a high water table in check, breaking it will allow the water to seep up. It’s more likely to happen with a deep ripper or a subsoiler, as they’ll run 18 or 20 inches deep, she added.

A naturally occurring hard pan is likely to show up in soil surveys, Riekman said. It will be listed under the agricultural capability of the soil, as a “D” rating, she added. That rating refers to a dense layer that may or may not have water underneath. Often the soil survey report will also note a high water table, she said.

Water’s not the only thing that might be hiding in your soil. Farmers in northwestern Saskatchewan are well acquainted with rocks.

“The rocks you dig out with a subsoiler, you don’t just pick them up and toss them in the back,” said Baillargeon. They were the size of a table, he added. That meant picking them up, one at a time, with a rock picker, potentially causing more compaction, he added.

The Baillargeon and Buitenhuis families plan to keep monitoring the treated areas to see if differences develop with the years.

Meanwhile, despite the potential drawbacks, Riekman’s not completely against vertical tillage. It “definitely has a place in people’s tool kits” for managing soil, she said.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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