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Still have fall tillage to take care of? Keep these strategies in mind

It may seem like fall harvest might never end in some parts of the country.

But, even when you do pull that combine into the machine shed for the winter, that may not be the end of the to-do list before you batten down the hatches for winter. Those fall tillage chores you weren't able to get done on time are still waiting for you. But, even though it's late, you can still get the job done right by keeping a few things on top of mind, specialists say.

Agronomists Jodi DeJong-Hughes and Jeff Coulter of the University of Minnesota said in a report this week that there are 4 strategies to put into motion when you go to tackle that fall tillage in what will likely still be damp fields. Those are:

  • Fill in ruts
  • Keep tillage shallow
  • Properly prepare equipment
  • Plan ahead for spring

"Soil compaction and smearing is a distinct concern when pulling implements through or driving on wet soil. Residue management is another concern," according to DeJong-Hughes and Coulter. "We want the fields to dry out quickly next spring for quick planting."

When it comes to filling in ruts, don't follow what's typically your first instinct: To fill them in completely. Instead, remember the destructive tendency of tillage and take a lighter approach to those ruts, even if it takes an extra pass or 2 in the field.

"Soil structure is your soil's number one defense against future soil compaction, and tillage destroys structure. To maintain the structure your soil has, just fill in the ruts with light tillage by running equipment at an angle," the Minnesota agronomists say. "You may need 2-3 passes to accomplish this. These areas will not yield as well as the non-rutted area, but there is not much you can do to change this."

And, don't go too deep with your weather-delayed fall tillage. That can create clods and leave the soil in rough condition for when you return to the field for spring planting. Run shallow or switch to narrower points if you're using a chisel plow or disk ripper, DeJong-Hughes and Coulter advise.

"Clods in themselves are not bad going into winter. Next spring they will leave more surface area for water infiltration," they say. "However, fields with clods will likely need an extra tillage pass in the spring to create an adequate seedbed for good seed-to-soil contact."

Since cool and damp conditions foster additional compaction, keep your iron kept up and do what you can to limit compaction. That includes limiting axle loads to under 10 tons each and keeping tires filled with adequate pressure.

"Not only does this help the soil, but it will help your tractor run more efficiently and with less slippage. On wet soils, use the lightest tractor that can still get the job done," according to DeJong-Hughes and Coulter. "There isn't much you can do to reduce the weight of combines. If possible, unload before the grain hopper is full to limit axle loads. Control the wheel traffic from grain carts by running in the previous combine tracks and don't cross the field at a diagonal. Eighty percent of the compaction happens on the first pass; use it to your advantage."

Finally, the tough circumstances surrounding this fall's harvest may end up translating to management changes for the '10 crop. Take field conditions into consideration when making your 2010 planting decisions, both in terms of soil compaction and the amount of residue left in the field.

"Planting soybeans may be the best option in fields with heavy residue. They are very adaptive to higher residue levels, are not as soil temperature sensitive as corn, and grow well in no-till situations. If trying no-till beans, set the corn header of the combine as high as possible to reduce the amount of residue matted onto the soil surface," add DeJong-Hughes and Coulter. "Corn on corn has more residue to manage and needs additional nitrogen fertilizer than corn following soybean. Row cleaners are a must for corn following corn in order to obtain uniform seeding depth and facilitate warming of the soil over the seed. For corn following corn where high quantities of surface residue are present, consider a starter fertilizer."

It may seem like fall harvest might never end in some parts of the country.

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