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Going vertical

03/04/2013 @ 11:01am

Over the last few years, the term vertical tillage has slowly crept into many farmers' vocabularies. While some producers made the leap and purchased an implement, others are still trying to understand whether or not vertical tillage is a viable option for their fields.

“Vertical tillage can create conditions that improve the way the system functions,” says Marilyn Thelen, Michigan State University Extension. “It can help size cornstalk residue, increase the soil contact with the residue, and encourage breakdown of the stalks. It also can improve planting conditions for the following crop.”

She says it will fracture and loosen the top 2 to 3 inches of the soil. “This can alleviate shallow soil compaction, assuming the soil moisture is right for tillage. As a result, it can improve infiltration and reduce runoff, dry and warm the soil in the seedbed, and create more uniform planting conditions across the field,” she notes. “This can be particularly helpful where there are wide variations in soils across the field.”

While these tools help manage residue, loosen compaction, and prepare the seedbed, it's the system's ability to aerate soils that caught Greg Mahoney's attention.

“I was no-till for 20 years, but my ground was drying out too slowly where there was heavy residue,” says the St. Charles, Michigan, farmer. “Doing vertical tillage eliminates wet surface spots in the field because I've incorporated that residue in those areas where stalks are smashed down to the row, which took more time to dry out.”

Because the implement fluffs up the residue, it incorporates the residue into the soil so Mahoney gets a more even seedbed with quicker drying in the spring.

“With vertical tillage, the seedbed is more uniform, which means I get a more uniform emergence,” he says. “A more uniform emergence equates to higher yields.”

Creating his own

When Mahoney began investigating the concept, he didn't want to spend the money many manufacturers were asking for a vertical-tillage tool.

At first, he used an old United Farm Tools no-till drill.

“It didn't do a very good job planting, but when I went through the field with it, it really did a nice job with the residue,” he says. “It chopped it up and incorporated it. So I used that a couple of seasons in the fall and spring.”

But he wanted something more uniform across the full width of the seedbed. Because the no-till drill had an opening every 8 inches all the way across, he felt it didn't do a complete, full-width vertical till. It also left the seedbed a little rough.

The trial-and-error process with the no-till drill gave him an idea of what he wanted. He decided to build his own, which cost about $6,000. Mahoney's version is a lot lighter than others on the market, and it can be pulled with a 90-hp. tractor.

“When I went to build mine, I bought a 16-foot-wide Glencoe Soil Saver that has the coulters on the front – just a straight, smooth blade in the front – and the chisel plow legs in the back,” he explains. “I took off all of the chisel plow legs and left the coulters on the front. Then I bought a Case IH 181 minimum-till rotary hoe. I took that off the frame and bolted the rotary hoe gangs onto the frame of the Glencoe Soil Saver. So the coulter is cutting the residue, and the rotary hoe is fluffing and incorporating the residue.”

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