Make Site-Specific Tillage Choices

You need a conservation plan if you want to make the right tillage choices in your fields this spring. Compiled by staff

Published on: Apr 5, 2004
  1. Making the right call in site-specific tillage this spring requires that farmers have a conservation plan says Mahdi Al-Kaisi, an Iowa State University Extension soils specialist. "A critical part of a conservation plan," says Al-Kaisi, "is that before making tillage choices in the field, producers consider their overall approach to tillage management."

If your goal is a conservation tillage program that leaves at least 30% of the previous year's crop residue remaining on the field surface after planting, then options like no-till, strip-till, ridge-till and minimum tillage all provide a way to hit the target.

Mark Hanna, ISU Extension engineer, says that once a farmer has made a management commitment to implement a new tillage system, there are several steps they need to take in getting there.

"Lining up the right equipment is one of the first things most producers do, especially the planter," notes Hanna. "Most questions about conservation tillage and the planter relate to new attachments that may be needed, such as row cleaners, stronger down-pressure springs and so forth."

Adjusting equipment to save soil

Hanna says farmers should compare replacement equipment costs, factoring in the wear and tear on existing equipment and its expected lifespan, to the cost of adding attachments to existing equipment. "Simply adding a row cleaner and/or coulter attachment to most existing planters may cost $200 to $400 per row, depending on the attachment. Also, equipment operators should be able to adjust and operate the new equipment."

Once in the field, weather and soil considerations come first. "Because cold, wet soils can be challenging for producers looking to move to no-till or reduced tillage systems, the key to success often lies in monitoring soil conditions and deciding when they are right," says Al-Kaisi.

"Soil temperature is also a critical consideration," he points out. "Since conservation tillage management systems leave residue on the soil's surface, spring warming and crop germination can be slower. Some producers who've made a commitment to conservation tillage have looked at strip-tillage to address the issue of cold and wet soils."

Know each field's drainage characteristics

Compounding the problem is Iowa's capricious spring weather, where conditions can change abruptly. Therefore, knowing the field's internal drainage is an important factor in making site-specific decisions. Al-Kaisi says now is a good time to identify and check drainage systems and terraces for potential problems, such as misaligned, collapsed, or broken tile.

Giving the 'go-ahead' for doing tillage requires a reason, including breaking up soil compaction, providing for the next crop in an extended crop rotation sequence or to redistribute bunched or heaped crop residue. "But no matter what the reason," says Al-Kaisi, "when making the decision to go ahead with tillage, there has to be a valid reason with specific and measurable benefits to do so."