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Using vertical tillage is like cutting a pie

“Vertical tillage is like cutting a pie,” explains Boak. “You draw the knife through the pie perpendicular and in a straight line so it makes a clean slice from side to side.”

An unclear definition has plagued the understanding of vertical tillage’s usefulness on the farm.

Fitting somewhere between no-till and conventional tillage practices, this technique has carved out a role that is nearly synonymous with versatility and minimal disturbance. However, vertical-tillage implements can easily cause more harm than good when used incorrectly.

Anson Boak, marketing manager for Salford Group, an agricultural equipment company, says the majority of implements that are dubbed “vertical tillage” seek to manage residue and prepare seedbeds. After one pass, it leaves 60% to 80% residue coverage.

Vertical-tillage implements work the ground via knives, coulters, or other pieces that run in the same direction of travel as the tractor. Ground-engaging blades like these cause less disturbance than shanks since the blades roll through the soil as they cut. Shanks, on the other hand, must be pulled or dragged through the soil, which can cause more soil disturbance.

“Vertical tillage is like cutting a pie,” explains Boak. “You draw the knife through the pie perpendicular and in a straight line so it makes a clean slice from side to side. If you were to cut the pie while twisting your wrist so the knife was tipped under and pulling that knife through sideways, the pie would be a mess. No one wants a piece of pie like that.”

Managing vertical tillage correctly

Even planters and air drills have attachments for managing soil and residue. 

Just like any ground-engaging implement, vertical-tillage equipment will blow out soil if moving too fast through the fields, but it is designed to be more forgiving at higher speeds.

“Think of the pie,” Boak says. “Other types of tillage tools tend to push the soil out of level and then have finishing systems to try and put it back or require a level pass with a secondary tillage tool afterward.”

Vertical-tillage machines are intended to throw some soil on the surface to help mix soil and residue and improve residue decomposition.

The variety of features added onto implements has caused some of the confusion over what vertical tillage is and how it performs. While some manufacturers label machines as vertical tillage, the machines aren’t all created equal.

Some have the ability to change the blade angle for tillage intensity, others have attachments for fertilizer application, and some have attachments for cover
crop seeding.

Choosing the right implement, evaluating its performance over time, and understanding how it works for you is key.

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all tillage machine, vertical-tillage units have a lower angle of operation in the soil so they may not be as good at fixing problems like ruts caused by combines and sprayers.

“We once had a producer buy a unit and run it in the fall,” Boak recalls. “After running it on part of his acres, he returned the machine to the dealer because he didn’t think it did enough work. The next spring, he noticed the snow melted first where he ran vertical tillage, and the ground was warming quicker than in other areas of the farm. When the snow melted, there was less residue on the vertical-tillage acres, and it was easier to plant into. He bought another machine the following year.”

Mark Muench, who farms near Ogden, Iowa, has seen similar benefits. Muench started using a combination of vertical-and strip-tillage practices in 2009.

“At that time, I was strip-tilling in corn-on-corn and had issues handling all of the leftover residue, so I searched for a tool that would help me manage,” Muench says.

Muench has adopted many soil health practices, including vertical tillage, to secure yields and ensure the longevity of his farm. 

“With vertical tillage, I do some tillage but not so much that the soil is susceptible is to erosion,” Muench says. “The other thing I really like about it is you don’t do damage while you’re out in the fields. I never cared for field cultivators because you put a smear zone where the sweeps run and field-cultivated lands are very susceptible to crusting over after rain. With vertical tillage, those two issues are gone.”

While running vertical tillage through the fields too quickly can be a risk, Muench finds the high-speed machines that clock 8 to 10 mph are advantageous. At this speed, he can cover a lot of ground with low fuel, and get through the fields efficiently in wet conditions.

And, he doesn’t sacrifice yield. 

“I think there’s a misconception that if you try to take care of the soil, your yields are going to suffer. That’s just not true,” Muench says. “Last year our total farm average on corn was 230 bushels. That proves it doesn’t take a lot of tillage to have pretty tremendous yields.”

Driven by versatility

In his fourth year with cover crops, Muench has found they go hand-in-hand with vertical tillage.

“I plant rye in late summer to early fall and will vertical-till them. The following spring, I’m able to plant into a stale seed bed in some of those fields,” Muench says. “This past spring, I compared a field that has never had cover crops with one that has. I could tell it wasn’t as healthy, particularly because of the soil texture.”

Even though cover crops take extra effort, he sees the difference they make in his soil. He can manage it much easier with vertical tillage.

Boak advises farmers to make a fall pass: Run slower but dig deeper into the soil to help loosen the soil more for spring.

“That lets you get the maximum operating depth out of the machine. If you run slowly, there won’t be as much soil thrown,” Boak explains. “Then come back in the spring and run shallow and quickly just to freshen up the seedbed and dry the top layer of soil.”

Other producers will only make passes in the spring to prepare that residue before planting. “Even when you zero in on the tool you like the best, the way you go about using it varies too,” Boak says.

No matter what your operation looks like, thanks to the versatility and design of vertical tillage tools, you can define the role it has on your farm. 

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