A flurry of new tools with 'vertical tillage' in most of their names have added to the phenomenon that has made vertical tillage a hot button amongst farmers, especially those interested in some form of reduced tillage. Once you talk to the people who make the tools, however, or even to those who use the tools, it's not as clear as to what vertical tillage actually means.
To most people today, it conjures up an image of a tool that resembles a disk, but with straighter blades, and likely one or more harrows or rolling baskets of some sort slung on behind, that you can pull 7 to 9 miles per hour and only run a couple inches deep. It still leaves residue on the surface. But the pieces are smaller than if you're planting no-till soybeans, into true no-till where cornstalks haven't been disturbed.
Vertical tillage seems to fill the gap for the person who doesn't want to do full tillage, but who isn't comfortable with not doing anything at all, especially following corn. When run in the fall, it mixes in enough soil with stalk pieces to begin breakdown of corn residue. Common wisdom holds that Bt corn stalks are tougher to break down, although at least one researcher holds that's not the case.
Perhaps its biggest fit for many people is as a tool to run in the spring ahead of planting to level up and dry out the soil. If that's why you want one, then how well the tool levels the soil may become the most important factor in your decision-making process.
But according to Stan McFarlane, with McFarlane Manufacturing, what's vertical tillage and what's not isn't quite that easy to define. He notes that he and his company invented one of the first machines. The idea was to fracture the soil, but not move it horizontally. That eliminates sweeps. Anything with a sweep is not vertical tillage in his book.
His machine that currently leads their line, actually called a Reel Disk, has one of the widest spacing between disks in the industry, he notes. It helps cut the residue without disturbing a lot of soil.
To the folks at Unverferth, vertical tillage is deep ripping, with a tool called the Zone Builder they introduced many years ago. It's still a valuable option. The Zone Builder was developed to fit the needs of Ray Rawson, a popular Michigan no-tiller who keeps searching for ways to improve reduced tillage on his heavy soils in Michigan.
The secret is probably whatever name you use, is the tool doing what you want done in your tillage system? There are several variations on the theme, likely enough that you should be able to find a tool that lets you build a system of residue management for your farm.