Is Scratching Soil Surface to Dry It Out the Answer?

Jury seems to be out on this practice.

Published on: Mar 16, 2010

If this turns out to be another wet spring, you're likely to hear more talk about hitting no-till stalk fields with some sort of vertical tillage tool to open the soil and help dry it out. Most say they wouldn't want to use a regular disk because if you run very deep, you will bring up wet soil. Most of the newer vertical tillage tools n the market can be run at 8 to 10 miles per hour, and at depths as shallow as about one inch.

The whole idea if you're doing this is to disturb enough residue and loosen enough soil to let it dry out and warm up faster, notes Barry Fisher, Indiana state agronomist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. More and more vertical tillage tools are popping up, mostly amongst no-tillers looking for an edge on wet soil, but also amongst some who are more inclined to do minimum tillage. The tools can be run in the fall to start stalk breakdown. Since they leave most of the surface still covered with residue if run correctly, they can be used on most fields.

The big questions is this: If it's too wet to plant or too wet to run deep enough to disk, are you causing soil compaction underneath the soil, in deeper reaches, by running over it to make this pass. Larry Huffmeyer, a farmer and chemical rep in southeast Indiana, says the jury is out. He understands the argument, but hasn't seen data from anyone anywhere to prove whether such a pass would cause deep soil compaction or not.

Fisher agrees. "We just don't know," he says. "I guess it comes down to this in some cases. There is a bigger penalty for later planting in most seasons than for planting too early. Obviously that wasn't the case in 2009, but it holds true most years. If running the tool will get you in to plant a day sooner than you feel you could plant otherwise, and helps you lessen the risk of planting late, it's worth thinking about."

Two things about vertical tillage tools still raise questions, Fisher says. One is the cost. Most run in the neighborhood of $2,500 per foot, he says. Second, some newer models joining the offering from various companies are starting to use blades with some curve. Once you do that, Fisher begins to wonder what difference you have between the vertical tillage tool and a disk.

"The idea of the vertical tillage tool is to do what tilling is done vertically," he says. "That's the direction you want roots to go. Once you start curving blades and offsetting disk gangs at various angles, I think it's fair to question what the difference is between that tool and a disk."