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Got rocks? Try rolling

The next time you’re silently (or loudly) cursing a rock that snaps a section on your soybean head’s sickle bar, think about farmers like Keith Van Kleek.

Soon after planting, the Terril, Iowa, farmer exacts revenge against rocks and corn root-balls that hatch soybean harvest havoc. He rolls soybeans with a large roller that smooths fields by pushing these obstacles down into the soil. This creates a smooth field nearly free of rocks and root-balls that can damage guards, sickle sections, or internal combine parts at harvest.

“You get a little bit of satisfaction hearing it banging away, giving those rocks a good headache,” Van Kleek jests.

Rolling rolls rocks

Farmers have rolled alfalfa and grass seed for decades as a way to boost germination and to manage rocks. It’s fairly new to row crops, though, and is practiced mainly in rocky areas of the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa.

“We have quite a few rocks up here in certain fields,” says Van Kleek. He first rolled a field eight years ago with a roller he rented from a neighbor. This made rolling fans out of him, his brother, and his father at harvest after combining a rolled field nearly free of rocks.

“We thought this was wonderful,” says Van Kleek. “Rolling made it a lot easier to combine. We used to be replacing sickle sections all the time. We used to be under pressure at harvest all the time, worrying about all the rocks.”

No more.

Meanwhile, rolling has become so popular that the farmers Van Kleek used to do custom work for now have their own units. He has expanded custom work to other areas, like rolling corn-on-corn ground prior to planting. The leveling and smoothing effect from rolling can create better planting conditions, he says.

“Rolling isn’t an absolute cure-all,” he says. “There are some bigger rocks that still have to be picked up.”

Rolling can enable you to lower your combine’s soybean head and to harvest pods that otherwise would not be combined due to concerns about striking rocks or root-balls. In rocky or rootball-infested fields, rolling has boosted yields up to 2.5 bushels, says Van Kleek. However, yield increases may not occur on smoother fields, he adds.


Roller costs can run $17,000 for a 20-foot unit; $32,000 for a 45-foot unit; $65,000 for the 85-foot model. Custom land-rolling rates can range from $3 per acre to $10 per acre, with a $6.55 per-acre average. That’s according to Iowa State University’s 2010 Iowa Farm Custom Rate Survey.

In some cases, the cost can be erased by lower harvest costs on rocky soils, points out Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota (U of M) Extension educator.

“Custom combiners will charge $5 more per acre if you don’t roll,” she says. “They’ll also come to your field faster than for fields that are not rolled.”

Rolling can also benefit soybean seed producers by nixing corn root-balls, says DeJong-Hughes. Root-balls picked up by the combine carry dirt that can attach to soybean seeds. This attached dirt can cause seed companies to dock or to reject seed soybeans. Rolling also cracks root-balls and opens them to microbial decomposition.



Agronomically, though, the benefits aren’t as clear-cut. A multiple-location 2008 to 2010 U of M trial showed no stand, yield, or seed-quality differences between rolled and unrolled soybeans up to V3 (third trifoliate). Rolling can also increase soil-surface compaction, destroy soil-surface aggregates, and increase erosion potential.

“Soil sealing can happen if you get a pounding rain, especially if plants have not emerged,” says DeJong-Hughes. “The pounding rain can hurt emergence.”

Meanwhile, the resulting washing can also lead to potential phosphorous and nitrogen loss.

Residue can flatten out and blow like a kite into neighboring fields. The resulting pile not only can inhibit growing plants and create harvesting problems in those but also cause long-term nutrient loss in the original field.

“That residue contains lots of carbon, which helps build organic matter,” says DeJong-Hughes.

Prescription Basis

Use rolling selectively, advises Seth Naeve, U of M Extension agronomist.

“It’s another practice that will work best when done on a prescriptive basis,” he points out.

Below are recommendations on how rolling can best fit your situation. » Aim for high-residue fields. Rolling can crush cornstalks and even the field for planting and harvest. “Conversely, rolling is risky under low-residue situations,” says DeJong-Hughes.

  • Avoid rolling on hills. “The steeper the hill, the faster the water will run,” says DeJong-Hughes.

  • Match roller type to specific situations. Coil packers break up root-balls. They leave a rougher soil surface, but they do not push down rocks. Notched rollers push down rocks, break up corn root-balls, and leave a rough soil surface. Smooth rollers break up corn rootballs, push down rocks, and leave a smooth soil surface. The U of M tests showed no yield differences between roller types.

  • Do not roll beyond the V3 soybean stage. “We got up to 16% damage on the third trifoliate, but it didn’t go to yield,” DeJong-Hughes says. “Beans compensate well.”

    Van Kleek targets the V1 stage. “You want to wait until after they get out of the cotyledon stage to the first trifoliate,” he says. “They are more flexible then, especially if you roll them on a nice warm day.”

    Stem cracking is a drawback that increases the longer you wait to roll. “A cracked stem is an entry point,” DeJong-Hughes says. In a wet year, this can lead to a disease level increase.

  • Do not roll standing corn. “There have been some catastrophic emergence issues on corn,” says DeJong-Hughes. If you do roll a cornfield, do so before planting, she advises.


Remember that pushing rocks into the field is a short-term solution, particularly if you till and bring them up again. There are other ways to manage residue, such as strip-tilling and using residue cleaners on planters.

“Everything you do has a trade-off,” says Van Kleek. “In our case, the good outweighs the bad.”

Editor's note: This story was created by Successful Farming magazine Crops Technology Editor Gil Gullickson.

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