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Got Ruts in Your Fields? Here Are Some Tillage Ideas

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 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.

"You will have to hit the ruts once to get some dirt in them than another time to level. If you hit them a couple of weeks ahead of planting this will let the dirt settle some before planting," adds Crop Talk member SD455.

But, the wet 2009 season will continue to make light tillage questionable for RichILL. "I could run my field cultivator over next spring but I feel that will only mask the compaction caused from the combine," he says. "The dirt here doesn't dry that fast with this kind of weather, no matter how much tile is under it. I think they are just causing vertical compaction between the chisel shanks. When the chisel is raised it sinks in some on the ends."

So, despite the options at his -- and many farmers whose fields remain waterlogged going into winter -- disposal, RichILL says Mother Nature could provide the key element to making tillage effective in restoring field conditions ahead of next spring.

"According to the Illinois Water Survey, 2009 has been the 3rd wettest year since records have been kept," he says. "We could use a January drought."We could use a January drought."

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