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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.”
Dealing with challenges
Yet, his machine isn't foolproof – he's had issues along the way.
“It works good in the fall, and I want to do more in the fall in soybean stubble. But once in a while, the rotary hoe wheels do plug up,” he admits. “I can't use it in cornstalks at all in the fall because they are too green and the wheels fill right up.”
To alleviate the problem, he recently purchased a 14-foot Krause Excelerator.
“What I will do is use the Krause in the fall, and then if I want to do a warming or a light tillage in spring, I will use my homemade one. I'll do a second pass if the conditions aren't quite what I want for planting,” says Mahoney.
“For instance, if there are small weeds coming up or if it is a cold spring and I want to warm the soil a little more, that's where I would use that,” he says.
While there is a variety of manufacturers making vertical-tillage tools today, Mahoney says he went with Krause because it offered a lot of flexibility.
“The disk blade gangs can adjust to different angles,” he says. “If I want less aggressiveness, like my homemade one, I can use it at a 1° angle. If I want to move some soil or fill in some combine ruts, I can adjust the gang to a 5° angle.
“The down pressure on the tedder wheels in the back can be adjusted to make it more or less aggressive, as well,” he adds. “I can also change the depth of the entire tool.”
If it arrives in time, his hopes are to till this spring with the unit in the cornfields that he couldn't get to last fall.
“Then when fall comes, I'll do everything with the Krause tool,” he notes.
Investing in a tool
There is a variety of vertical-tillage tools available today. Thelen says the device you choose will depend on your objectives.
“Tools can be aggressive, burying a lot of residue and exposing a lot of soil. Or they can be less aggressive where cornstalks are sized, with minimal soil disturbance,” she explains.
If your primary objective is to size residue, Thelen says vertical coulters will work well.
“More aggressive fluted coulters will size residue and provide more soil action,” she continues. “If both sizing and some shallow seedbed conditioning are important, there are tools available that provide more horizontal movement and soil mixing. In most cases, rolling harrows, spike-tooth harrows, or tine-tooth harrows are available to level and to firm the seedbed, and also to anchor residue.”
Vertical tillage can be used in the fall after corn or soybeans to incorporate manure and establish a cover crop (see story at right).
“This practice allows the growing cover crop to hold the soil that was loosened by the vertical-tillage pass,” she says.
Greg Mahoney | 989/280-2127
Marilyn Thelen | 989/224-5240 msue.anr.msu.edu
Vertical till Injector
Cornstalk residue has become the nemesis of a growing number of farmers, including Phil Reed. The Washington, Iowa, no-tiller has been injecting manure into soils with heavy cornstalk residue for decades, but he was frustrated with the technology on the market.
“We had plugging issues in cornstalks, and the shank-style units we ran pulled very hard,” he recalls. “We needed to be able to haul manure in conditions that other injectors could not.”
Reed custom-feeds 33,000 hogs a year, grows corn and soybeans, and runs a custom manure-hauling business. He knew he had to take matters into his own hands. The result was his patent-pending Vertical Till Injector, which slices through heavy crop residue, yet it doesn't compromise the no-till practices that are important to him.
“I designed a coulter blade unit that runs in the soil 6 to 8 inches deep and injects the manure directly behind the blade,” he explains. “Adjustable 18- or 20-inch containment wheels at the back of each row unit catch the displaced soil and residue to lay it back over the top of the furrow.”
Designed for commercial-duty use and up to 15,000 gallons per acre, this unit can run at speeds of up to 14 mph.
“It will go through any kind of residue or soil conditions, and it pulls 50% easier than other units,” he says. “It will also reduce fuel costs by 25%.”
Reed's injector attaches to a toolbar mounted to the back of a liquid manure wagon. Each row unit has a 22-inch, eight-wave notched blade to cut through residue, lift the soil, and spread it apart.
The unit sells for around $1,500 per row, and it is adaptable to different bar sizes and drag-hose systems. Other blade choices are also available to accommodate different soil types.
“Common feedback I receive is about the no- to very low-maintenance this unit requires,” Reed says.
Learn more by calling 319/653-8950 or by visiting vtillc.com.