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The future of residue management

In tillage, it’s versatility first.

As crop genetics improve and the push for conservation tillage practices grow, so does the need to reevaluate how to manage and slice through residue across seasons.

The gold standard of conservation tillage has long been no-till. But Justin Render, farmer and product specialist with Kinze Manufacturing, has seen staunch no-till and vertical-till farmers switch their practices and take advantage of hybrid tillage equipment. 

“These farmers often use hybrid tillage machines as a kind of rotational piece. It comes down to the way our genetics are changing and making plant material more difficult to break down,” Render explains.

Render, who calls himself a “dirt nerd,” says strategically utilizing tillage helps break residue into smaller pieces. Smaller pieces have more points of entry for the soil microbes to break down and incorporate the material faster. This improves nutrient cycling and soil density, and also helps reduce the risk of erosion, particularly following cover crops.

A holisitc view of tillage

“When we start looking at tillage as a whole, management styles are changing,” Render says. “A hybrid horizontal machine keeps coming to the top of the list because of its versatility.”

Hybrid horizontal equipment can run through fields quickly, between 8 and 12 mph – one characteristic it shares with vertical tillage. Speed is a major advantage for large or small operations with limited labor and time.

Yet, as Render says, one disadvantage to vertical tilling is an inability to mix in residue, which can lead to bigger issues with fertilizer. Loose residue will blow or drift away in wind and rain events, taking the nutrients along and out of the fields.

Hybrid horizontal machines instead incorporate about 60% of residue into the soil. The other 40% becomes a top mulch layer held firmly in contact with the soil.

The deeper you go, the more residue will be buried, resulting in a shallower mulch layer – and vice versa. The machine does this while leveling the soil and reducing the risk of compaction.

“We use the geometry of the blade entering and exiting the soil at high speed to avoid smearing a layer of the soil,” Render says.

A front row of discs fractures, lifts, and passes soil to a second row. The second row helps to turn over and incorporate residue into soil. A rubber roller follows to consolidate, smooth, and finish the soil profile. The roller leaves peaks and valleys for water infiltration and air exchange.

Trading in tillage equipment

As a high-speed machine, hybrid horizontal equipment can cover more acres per hour than conventional tillage, allowing farmers to balance cost of ownership over acres. Added into the equation is its usefulness from spring to fall and the agronomic advantages over other tillage practices.

Jason Steinbach has experienced just that. On his conventional corn and soybean farm near Valley, Nebraska, he searched for a value-added solution to improve depth control and manage compaction. Steinbach, who for years got by with a field cultivator and tandem disc, gave hybrid horizontal a shot in 2018.

“Our ground is diverse where we farm. We vary from sand to a fine heavy soil and everything in between. We’ve been impressed by how hybrid horizontal works across the wide array of soil types,” Steinbach says.

In the spring of 2018, Steinbach first used a Kinze Mach Till machine to prepare the seedbed. In the fall, he ran the Mach Till and tandem disc side by side to compare performance. He says that, hands down, the hybrid machine left the fields smooth.

After seeing the versatility for himself, he eliminated the tandem disc and invested in a second Mach Till.

Future of tillage management

On eastern Nebraska farms like Steinbach’s, extensive flooding and cooler weather patterns have been recorded in recent years. Variable weather events continue to plague the Midwest, leaving farmers to strategize management for a variety of conditions.

While some years are still surprising, Steinbach has observed the benefits of hybrid horizontal tillage in weathering the storms affecting his fields.

One of those benefits – especially compared with conventional tillage – is moisture conservation
before planting.

Water typically isn’t an issue for Steinbach, but drought conditions in 2020 presented unexpected challenges – challenges that were better managed with the new tillage equipment.

“The roller on the Mach Till doesn’t pack the ground, and the ridges allow just the right amount of water infiltration,” Steinbach explains. “It leaves enough moisture in the ground to be workable in the spring.”

During his first year using the Mach Till, Steinbach had to deal with heavy residue and trash buildup in his fields after flooding.

“I had to do a lot of discing to manage that year, and still the Mach Till seemed to perform better,” Steinbach recalls.

In the same year, he had prevent-plant acres planted to cover crops for fall termination. He did so with a combination of a tandem disc and the Mach Till, which left a tidy seedbed for the following spring. Steinbach could then run one easy pass over the fields in preparation for planting.

“You hear a lot of companies say they have a spring and fall tillage tool, but they don’t really address all of the needs,” Steinbach says. “I actually agree that the hybrid horizontal tool works for both. It’s one we’ve been very satisfied with.”

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