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Got ruts in your fields? Here are some tillage ideas

Jeff Caldwell 07/08/2010 @ 11:00pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

It's hard to think about doing much of anything in the field right now in most of the blizzard-invaded Midwest.

But, one issue that won't go away no matter how much snow piles up between now and spring is soil conditions that this fall's tough harvest created, namely ruts and compaction.

So, if you had a long, rain-delayed harvest that has left your fields a rutted mess, what can you do? There are several options for conditioning the soil, but much depends on your tillage and management systems, farmers say.

"All I have to use are a disc and inline ripper, both of which are not favorable for current conditions," says Agriculture.com Crop Talk member RichILL.

No matter what iron you use, smoothing over ruts can't be done effectively until the soil is either good and dry or frozen up, says Iowa State University Extension ag engineer Mark Hanna.

"Using tillage to loosen the soil and relieve compaction requires soil to be dry enough so that soil shattering is effective. Because soil moisture has refilled the top 12 to 24 inches of the soil profile, deep tillage with a chisel plow or subsoiler this fall or next spring will use fuel and time -- but is unlikely to loosen soil effectively between tillage shanks," Hanna says. "However, the full soil moisture profile in upper layers will freeze and thaw over the winter and help loosen soil, depending on air temperatures and snow cover.

"Entering the field this fall in wet moisture conditions for deep tilling or any type of tillage will be counter productive by creating much deeper soil compaction," he adds.


Deep rut concerns

If you have deep ruts -- like RichILL, who says some of his are more than 8 inches deep -- you may need to take a different tact, Hanna says. One possibility is waiting until a couple weeks before planting next spring, then performing light tillage only to the rutted ground (if it's not field-wide). There are definite advantages to waiting until spring.

"A good strategy may be to wait until a week or 2 before planting next spring and use a light tillage pass, such as with a field cultivator, light disk, harrow, or soil finisher," Hanna says. "If only a portion of the field is rutted, consider tilling only that area to avoid recompacting subsoil in other parts of the field. Waiting until warmer weather next spring allows for some potential drying of the top two or three inches of soil and avoids further compaction of wet, plastic soil on the surface -- which will happen with a tillage pass this fall."

Farmers largely agree. "On our ground, the best remedy has been to wait for the last moment before planting beans and disc...Maybe if we had some real dry weather early next spring, I could see ripping or disc chiseling," says Crop Talk member jdmcfarm.

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