Farmers in this panel say no-till systems have limits for managing crop residue and excess moisture. Vertical tillage chops up heavy residue and helps dry wet fields

Soil conservation specialists are not convinced that vertical tillage has widespread application across Western Canada, but three producers contacted for this issue’s Farmer Panel say the tillage system works for them.

For one farmer, vertical tillage fits in better with a one-man farming system, for another it helps manage crop residue and warm up the soil, and for another it helps bring a relatively high tillage farming system to more of a minimum till operation. And, farming in an area where excess moisture is often an issue, he also can get on the land sooner.

While no-till farming is a great concept, these producers say it doesn’t work in every situation, in every year, so they find some tillage treatment makes sense.

Here is what this issue’s Farmer Panel had to say:

DAVE MITCHELL EAGLESHAM, ALTA .

Dave Mitchell crops about 3,000 acres of wheat and canola and has used a 41-foot Salford RTS vertical tillage tool for two seasons. He plans to use it again in 2010.

A long-time practice on his central Peace Region farm had been to knife in anhydrous ammonia on 12-inch spacings in the fall, followed by a heavy harrow treatment in the spring, just before seeding. After his brother died three years ago, and he was managing the fieldwork by himself, he moved to a one-pass seeding system. But he likes at least one tillage pass to help manage crop residue and also to warm up the soil. So for the past two years he has made one pass with the Salford RTS in the fall. That pass helps to distribute crop residue, improves soil and residue contact so soil microbes can break down residue faster, and it creates some black dirt that helps the soil warm faster.

In the spring, with a Bourgault 5710 air drill with mid-row banders, he seeds the crop and applies granular fertilizer all in one pass.

“The vertical tillage still leaves about 70 per cent of residue on the soil surface, but it distributes the residue so bunching isn’t an issue when it comes to seeding, and breaks up any lumps in the field,” says Mitchell.

While 2009 was a dry year, in 2008 it rained just at seeding time. While he could have used a heavy harrow to help dry the soil, he made a pass with the vertical tillage tool, set very shallow. “I had it running at about one-quarter inch deep, just touching the ground,” says Mitchell. “It was enough that I could go in the next day with the Challenger tractor and air drill and seed. There were barely any wheel marks in the field. If I have wetter conditions it allows me to get on the field earlier.”

DUSTIN WILLIAMS SOURIS, MAN.

As past president of the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association, Dustin Williams of Souris, Man., says it may seem like a contradiction to be applying a vertical tillage treatment to their land, but he says in their particular situation, no-till has limitations. He has to manage heavy

residue from 120-bushel oat crops and from sunflowers.

“My argument is that in southern latitudes, where it is warmer, they have very aggressive soil biology, so they need that compost layer on the soil to slow the breakdown of residue,” he says. “But in our northern climate, where we may have four or five months of microbial activity in the soil in a year, with the cold we experience, it just doesn’t allow this residue to break down fast enough.”

Williams says over many years of zero till and conservation farming on their land, they occasionally need some type of tillage to help manage the residue. “With no-till, I can go into a field and see the layers of crop residue from different years, I can see three or four years of sunflower residue in the field,” says Williams. “It just doesn’t break down fast enough.”

Depending on the conditions, they have had to manage residue with a Phoenix rotary harrow, a medium tined/weight Bergen harrow or “on the odd occasion” even the tandem disk.

Although he just treated a few acres of oat and sunflower stubble with a vertical tillage tool in 2009, Williams says his strategy is to find a middle ground between straight zero till and conventional tillage.

As part of a trial demonstration with several other area farmers, he tried a 40-foot Summers Supercoulter vertical tillage tool last fall. It has two bars of wavy coulters on 10-inch spacing mounted on a heavy C-shank. This particular unit had no harrow tools following the coulters.

With sunflowers, managing residue so it breaks down faster is important for following seeding operations and also helps to reduce disease that can build up in the stalks.

Williams says he is impressed with the performance of the vertical tillage tool on trial acres. It breaks up and distributes crop residue and still leaves good residue on the soil surface.

“It is probably not something that I need to use on every acre, every year, and I certainly wouldn’t use it in a dry year,” he says. “But it may give us that bit of tillage we need to manage residue and still conserve soil and soil moisture.”

GRANT DYCK NIVERVILLE, MAN.

Grant Dyck farms in Eastern Manitoba where excess moisture and heavy crop residue are common. He needs tillage operations to help dry out the ground and work the residue back into the soil.

On his 7,000-acre Artel Farms, just south of Winnipeg, he has used a 42-foot Salford RTS on just about every acre for the past two years. Depending on the crop and amount of residue, he makes two passes with the implement — once in the fall and once in the sprin. Overall it has replaced the cultivator, harrow, deep tiller and disc on his farm.

“We have a wide range of practices on the farm depending on the crop and amount of residue,” he says. “On winter wheat, we practice zero till, but on corn land we have used maximum tillage. The Salford is allowing us to develop more of a minimum till operation.”

Dyck is still learning how to manage the Salford RTS, but he describes it as an “operator’s machine” as it has to be adjusted properly for the varying conditions. The unit has three components: the wavy coulters at the front, the narrow tine harrows in the middle, and the rolling harrows at the back — which can all be adjusted for varying degrees of tillage aggression.

It is important to maintain a proper ground speed to maximize the effectiveness of the tool, he says. Because it has high draft and high power requirements, it is better to pull a narrower tool bar for faster field travel, than pull a wider implement and slow down. He pulls a 42-foot Salford with a 500-hp track tractor to travel at 12 mph.

Dyck says the vertical tillage tool does a good job of managing heavy crop residue and although he hasn’t found compaction or hard pan to be an issue on his land, the action of the wavy coulters does help loosen the soil profile so water infiltration is improved. In wetter conditions that is important as it allows him seed days earlier.

Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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