Retrofit kit saves a bundle on vertical tillage system

Four years ago, Neil Skiles noticed he had a problem. The Industry farmer was running a ripper in the fall, followed by a field cultivator in the spring.

“That field cultivator would run 2 to 3 inches deep,” Skiles explains. “Those shovels were compacting the soil. That’s when I started looking at vertical tillage as a way to solve my compaction problem.”

When he went to corn on corn for all of his acres, he was even more intrigued by the residue management offered by a VT system. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to shell out $50,000 for a new implement.

Key Points

• Neil Skiles went to vertical tillage to solve compaction issues.

• He didn’t feel like paying $50,000 to get into the VT game.

• Instead, he retrofitted his field cultivator with straight coulters.


When Yetter came out with a rolling coulter that can be retrofitted on a field cultivator, Skiles felt more comfortable with the reduced price point. He bought the rolling coulters for about $280 a piece and swapped them in for the shovels on his Landoll Tilloll.

“It only cost me about $8,000 to set up the Tilloll as a vertical tillage implement,” Skiles notes. “Plus, it’s only a matter of removing two bolts per shovel to replace it with a rolling coulter.” He estimates it took about an hour to replace 26 shovels on his Tilloll.

Instead of running 3 inches deep, his new setup only cuts 1.5 inches deep. He runs about 8 mph. “It brings up enough dirt to seal your corn in when you come back with the planter,” he says.

Skiles also noticed the stalk chopping action allows him to warm soil a little earlier in the spring.

“It gives you a really even seedbed, and I don’t have compacted soil,” he adds.

Is VT a solution?

In the past few years, a lot of John McGillicuddy’s customers have been asking him if they need to invest in vertical tillage.

The eastern Iowa agronomist takes an analytical approach to answering their question. As he works through the reasoning with the farmer, he has a few simple, yet telling questions.

First and foremost, he asks, “What are your biggest yield-limiting factors?” If you’re planting the wrong hybrid or are limited by phosphorus and potassium values, vertical tillage probably won’t provide the most bang for your buck, McGillicuddy notes.

Once you’ve analyzed the basics, then start to move onto the finer points, such as tweaking the tillage program. Still, before you decide tillage is to blame, McGillicuddy asks you to verify that assertion. “What do your roots look like?” he asks.

“The way you make tillage decisions is you dig up root systems and look at them,” he explains. If they look perfect, look elsewhere to add yield. You’re not going to do it with tillage.

Sticker shock

So, you’ve got some sort of compaction problem, and straight coulters seem to be the only answer. Or, maybe roots look good, but you’d like to warm things up a bit earlier for your soybean fields. Looks like VT is the way to go, right?

Just a minute, McGillicuddy has one more question. Since most manufacturers want upward of $50,000 for these implements, he asks you to assess the value of that price. “Can you solve that problem with a piece of iron you’ve already paid for?”

If the answer is no, he reminds farmers that the VT implement has to solve enough problems on enough acres to justify the cost.

Don’t let VT use disqualify HEL

According to Brett Roberts, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service does not approve or disapprove of any tillage equipment. Thus, if you hear an iron salesperson say NRCS approves of Brand X’s vertical tillage implement, red flags should go up.

Roberts, an Illinois NRCS conservation agronomist, has heard of sales reps using the NRCS name to sell folks on VT as a type of conservation tillage. Like a lot of things with VT, it all depends. “If it leaves a lot of residue, then it may qualify as conservation tillage,” Roberts says.

He’s also caught wind of salespeople saying VT can be used in any Highly Erodible Land situation — even when the conservation plan calls for no-till. Again, it just depends.

“Running a VT implement on HEL ground could disqualify you for USDA subsidies,” Roberts adds. “Don’t let an equipment dealer talk you into this. You need to contact NRCS and have them assess the situation.”


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SAVING MONEY: Industry farmer Neil Skiles created his own vertical tillage implement by swapping in these Yetter coulters for the shovels on his Landoll Tilloll. He says the $8,000 upgrade beats paying $50,000 for a VT implement. Plus, it only took him about an hour to swap in the coulters.

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

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.