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Time for fall tillage? Not so fast

Jeff Caldwell 09/12/2011 @ 10:34am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

A lot of signs point to a relatively quick, painless harvest season this fall. If that quick timeframe is realized on your farm, you'll likely have time to get your soil ready for next year -- namely through tillage -- before winter sets in.

But, the tillage decision needs to take into account a handful of factors. In other words, just because you have time to work your fields doesn't necessarily mean you should, says Iowa State University Extension agronomist Mahdi Al-Kaisi.

"It will be very tempting to do tillage for variety of reasons, especially when there is plenty of time after harvest before winter arrives," Al-Kaisi says. "However, the decision to till in the fall will be dictated by many factors that are not easy to control."

Consider these factors not just before but during any potential tillage or soil preparation after harvest this fall:

  • Soil condition
    This includes soil drainage, topsoil depth, soil texture and organic matter. "These factors can have significant effect on the success of tillage systems (no-till or conventional)," says Al-Kaisi.

  • Soil moisture
    This is a big one. "The main factor for tillage in the fall or spring is soil moisture condition. Soil moisture content has significant impact on soil fracturing, tillage depth, clod size and level of soil compaction," Al-Kaisi says. "Therefore, soil moisture can influence tillage practices, and ultimately yield and soil quality performance in the following season.

  • Future crop management
    Consider management practices you'll employ for next year's crop, Al-Kaisi says. This includes things like residue management, crop rotation, equipment availability and calibration, tile drainage, fertilizer, soil testing and hybrid selection. "These considerations are critically important before attempting to do any tillage operation this fall," he says.

  • Cost
    "One thing farmers need to consider before attempting any tillage is whether they need to do any -- considering the input cost and potential damage to soil quality and productivity," Al-Kaisi adds.

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