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Opinions differ on spring vertical tillage

If you attended the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Ky., you likely noticed that vertical tillage tools are a hot commodity. How can the tool that at first glance looks like a highly over-priced disk help you do a more effective job of getting planting off to a good start this spring?

Key Points

Agronomists believe vertical tillage tools can get you in the field faster.

However, they’re not an excuse for working ground that’s too wet.

Shallow operating depth and high speed are keys to using vertical tillage correctly.


The secret is that the blades run primarily up and down, supplying vertical cutting action, experts say. They’re also designed to run very shallow. That keeps them in drier, more workable soil. Some no-tillers believe that once they run the tool, they can start planting sooner than they would have otherwise.

A doubting Thomas

The question always comes from a doubting Thomas: If you’re out there driving a heavy tool on wet soil, aren’t you creating soil compaction?

“If you’re truly running a vertical tillage tool, then you should not be creating a layer of soil compaction,” says Greg Kneubuhler, of G & K Concepts, Harlan, a certified crop adviser. “There are several quality vertical tillage tools available that do a phenomenal job of sizing residue and opening soil up to plant earlier.

“We’ve seen no soil compaction issues with them. In most cases they help the farmer to maintain soil structure to keep a no-till environment intact.”

What tools do

Some people suggest running them 1 to 2 inches or slightly more than 2 inches deep in the soil. It will take some adjustment if you’re used to full tillage. The idea is to leave more residue, not bury most of it as you would with a disk. The secret also is to run at least 7 to 9 miles per hour,

“They consist of straight coulters, harrows and rolling baskets, which will till up the top 3 inches of the soil, and still leave a lot of residue cover while creating a smooth seedbed,” says Darrell Shemwell, an agronomist with the Poseyville
Co-op, and a CCA member.

“By using a vertical tillage tool in a shallow pass, you will help the soil dry out and warm up. It’s especially helpful on poorly drained soils.

“Be aware, however. Even though the tools can help you get started planting sooner, they can also cause soil compaction if soil conditions are too wet, or if they’re not used properly.”

That’s partly because it takes a large tractor to pull them as fast as they should go. The size of the tractor depends upon the size of the tool. Vertical tillage tools in widths from 23 feet to 42 feet are common.

Jesse Grogan, an agronomist with LG Seeds, and also a CCA, Lafayette, adds: “Shallow tillage [including vertical tillage] with vertical harrows or disks and perhaps rolling baskets behind can fluff up the soil and crop residue to allow for effective field drying.

“Soil compaction is reduced in light vertical tillage where the soil is not turned over.”

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Ever so lightly: This farmer was trying to get this wet field to dry out for no-till planting.

This article published in the March, 2011 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.