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Firsthand look at vertical tillage

The hot term in tillage is vertical tillage. Ironically, those who buy vertical tillage tools are generally practicing no-till or reduced tillage.

A vertical tillage tool typically has relatively straight blades designed to cut residue at up to 9 mph. Most machinery gurus recommend running 1 to 2 inches deep. The idea is to do just enough chopping and movement of residue to begin breakdown in the fall, or help soils dry out in the spring.

Tony Vyn has experimented with vertical tillage. So far, the best application the Purdue University tillage specialist has found is running it in the spring.

Key Points

• Vertical tillage tools are designed to run fast and shallow.

• The goal is to cut residue and begin the breakdown process.

• Farmers have their own preferences for machines.


Most tools on the market feature a leveling device. John Kretzmeier, Fowler, says that if the field isn’t level after running the machine, it likely wasn’t set up properly. He runs a Case vertical tillage tool, featuring relatively aggressive blades. He farms heavy soils.

Nearly everyone has their favorite brand. Most also have ones they don’t like. And it may be the one you like best! Soil differences and variations in goals contribute to mixed opinions.

Personal experience

Here’s what I found planting after vertical tillage. I planted soybeans with a Kinze split-row planter. Many fields were no-tilled directly into cornstalks.

First, I planted into a stale seedbed where Kevin Thompson, Morgantown, tried a vertical tillage tool on stalks last fall. He ran it according to recommendations. By spring it didn’t look level. It was rougher than no-tilling into stalks. The field looked as if it was fall-disked.

Still, I didn’t have to adjust planting depth, and emergence was comparable to
no-till.

Second try

This spring Thompson rented a Landoll vertical tillage tool, hoping to smooth up the seedbed after a wet harvest. He also ran it on slow-drying fields.

I no-tilled into cornstalks one evening, then later ran where Thompson operated the 23-foot Landoll at 9 mph. He started out at least 2 inches deep, then shallowed it up. He pulled up less moist dirt where he ran it shallow. The tool did a great job of leveling in one pass, even though fields were covered with winter annuals.

My biggest problem was finding my mark after dark. I no longer had stalks to guide me and the field was smooth. Better eyesight or a GPS with mapping capability would fix that problem.

08103542a.tif

Fast and light: Kevin Thompson puts the Landoll vertical tillage tool to the test in stalks this spring.

08103542b.tif

Ran too deep? Note the seedbed on the left hit with a vertical tillage tool last fall. It looks more like disked ground — apparently the vertical tillage tool was set deeper than necessary.

08103542e.tif
08103542f.tif

Equal emergence: Stand counts roughly two weeks after planting came out identical in both no-till (top) and vertical-tilled fields (bottom).

08103542d.tif
08103542c.tif

Good cover: Residue cover in the no-till field after planting (bottom) was only 12% greater than after vertical tillage.

Vertical tillage leaves lots of residue behind

After no-tilling soybeans into stalks on one corner of the intersection, and planting behind vertical tillage on the other, I expected a 40% to 50% difference in residue cover. What I found was much less.

Checking three spots at random in the no-till field, I found 74%, 86% and 84% cover, for an average of 81%. I used a yardstick marked at 6-inch intervals, determining if the mark touched residue or soil. For the vertical-tilled field, the numbers were 68%, 70% and 74%, for an average of 71%.

Amazingly, that’s only a 12% drop in residue cover. The difference was in size of residue pieces. Vertical-tilled pieces were smaller and shorter.

Another surprise

Two weeks later I returned with a 27-inch hula-hoop and the Purdue University Corn and Soybean Field Guide to determine population. Naturally, I expected to find a higher population after vertical tillage.

Counts within the hoop in the no-till field were 12, 11, 13 and 15, for an average of 12.75. Counts after vertical tillage were 12, 13, 14 and 12, for an average of … 12.75! Converted to population, that’s 139,750 plants per acre in each field — a virtual tie.

Tony Vyn wasn’t surprised. He notes that although common sense would anticipate a better stand after vertical tillage, that’s not what he usually finds in plots.

Tom J. Bechman


This article published in the August, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.