V-till debate rages

In the ag world, vertical tillage is hot. If it were Hollywood, this up-and-coming hunk of iron would be akin to gossip on the latest power couple’s forbidden romance. And Pennsylvania’s Carl Shaffer points out, not everyone greets it with open arms.

Key Points

Farmers are turning to vertical tillage for different reasons.

Seedbed preparation and residue incorporation are just two VT goals.

VT’s price point leaves many still standing on the sidelines.


Even so, VT is alluring for several reasons. First, more producers are growing a higher percentage of corn on corn and at higher populations, building residues faster than ever. Second, a tool promising to incorporate manure and warm spring soils a little quicker is enticing — even to no-tillers.

Differing purposes, uses

Listen to two people discussing VT and you may wonder if they’re talking about the same concept.

“Nobody’s written an actual definition for vertical tillage,” remarks John McGillicuddy, an eastern Iowa agronomic consultant. Different VT machines are set up differently. And they can be run differently, depending on the farm’s goals.

“Where you have a lot of residue, a lot of folks will use vertical tillage to cut and size residue in the fall,” adds Bill Preller, Case IH director of sales and marketing. A quick, 7- to 10-mph pass in the fall typically provides more soil-to-residue contact and better breakdown over winter.

In the spring, Preller says it’s popular to run a VT implement ahead of the planter, to fluff residue again. In the process, it also helps bring soil to the top, providing good seed-to-soil contact.

VT can warm a soybean seedbed-to-be much earlier, says McGillicuddy. In some cases, a spring VT pass can move planting up by seven to 10 days. And such fields typically have better, more even emergence.

Seedbed leveling action really separates the VT irons. Some do, says Preller, others don’t. “Running only straight coulters won’t level the seedbed,” he adds. “You’ve got to have something that moves soil laterally.”

Face the sticker shock

Do you see VT as an end around residue and/or compaction problems, and a way to warm soils earlier? Looks like it’s the way to go, right?

One more question: Most manufacturers want upwards of $50,000 for these tools. McGillicuddy asks, “Can you solve that problem with a piece of iron that you’ve already paid for?”

If the answer is no, then analyze how many acres you expect to use the VT on. “It’s hard to build a machine that fits all acres, all the time,” he cautions. “It has to solve enough problems on enough acres to justify the cost.”

How Uncle Sam sees it

Natural Resources Conservation Service has established conservation practice standards for no-till and minimum till. You must meet those criteria for your conservation plan to comply, explains Mark Goodson, NRCS Pennsylvania state conservationist.

No-till, strip till and direct seeding come under the 329 practice standard. Mulch till, including aerators, rotary harrows, coulter gangs, chiseling and VT, comes under the 345 standard.

See these standards on the Web at www.pa.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/
329_vs_345_eqmt_photos.pdf
. They’re the minimum that must be practiced to gain its conservation benefits, adds Goodson. “When you sign up for a program such as EQIP [Environmental Quality Incentives Program], you commit to a contract to do whatever is in your plan in exchange for financial [benefit].”

“Mulch tillage may be good agronomy. Many farmers like these tools because they can help with manure incorporation.” But, Goodson points out, “No-till specifically forbids full-width tillage of any kind.”

Don’t let VT disqualify your HEL ground

The Natural Resources Conservation Service doesn’t approve or disapprove of any tillage equipment. It just sets the standards for whether that equipment qualifies as practice 329 (no-till, strip till and direct seeding) or practice 345 (mulch till).

So, if you hear an iron salesperson say NRCS approves of Brand X’s vertical tillage implement, red flags should go up.

Brett Roberts, an Illinois NRCS conservation agronomist, has caught wind of salespeople saying VT can be used in any highly erodible land, or HEL, situation — even when the conservation plan calls for no-till.

Yes, it could be used there. But “running a VT implement on HEL ground also could disqualify you for USDA subsidies,” he warns.

Have your local NRCS assess the specific situation.


This article published in the November, 2010 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.