I previously wrote about no-till systems to prepare the soil for planting. No-till certainly has a lot of benefits and has become much more possible for farmers with the introduction of herbicide-resistant crops. However, I also mentioned that there are still reasons farmers employ other methods of tillage.
Here, I’ll describe those other methods, the reasons farmers might choose them, some other relevant factors, and what we do on our own farm.
Traditional tillage is what most people think about when it comes to preparing fields for planting. With conventional tillage, fields are usually plowed in the fall to bury the crop residue, finished (read: to level and freshen up the seedbed) in the spring, and then planted. The benefit here is that the seedbed is clean, the root profile is reset, and (possibly) warmer soil temperatures.
Conservation tillage is somewhat of a subset of conventional tillage. Instead of plowing a field in the fall, we wait until right before planting to plow the field and then finish it. In addition to the benefits of conventional tillage, conservation tillage helps reduce erosion and runoff. By leaving the previous year’s crop residue in the field over the winter, the soil is covered until just before planting. We then plow or disk, finish, and plant in relatively quick order, hopefully within days depending on weather. The goal is to reduce the time between when the crop residue protecting the field and when the new crop emerges.
Vertical tillage is a form of minimal tillage that is used to reduce the size of crop residue and cover the residue with some soil. Depending on the implement, it may also reduce soil compaction. The benefits here are closer to no-till, but also potentially makes it easier to plant with reducing the size of the residue.
Strip tillage is another form of minimum tillage. Only the strip of soil where the seed will be planted is disturbed. The majority of the field and crop residue is undisturbed. This method combines the benefits of conventional tillage and no-till. Strip till has become more accessible for farmers with the advent of auto-steer and GPS, because it ensures the seed is planted right into the tilled strip.
Other Factors Determining Tillage Methods
As you can imagine, farmers have a lot to consider when it comes to choosing the best tillage method for their farms. Many likely use a combination of different methods, as do we. However sometimes the tillage method is decided on other factors. While the list is probably endless, here are at least a few factors that we encounter.
- Landlord Preference. Like most farmers, we don’t own all of the land we farm and have to rely on renting farmland from surrounding landowners. While most landlords defer to us for determining tillage methods, others have preferences. For example, some landlords like the look of a clean seedbed and ask that we do not employ no-till practices. Others may be adherents to the no-till model and request that we use it. We always try to honor those preferences.
- Fix Rutted Fields. Another reality we face is that the weather may force our hand. Our harvest season might be cut short with early snowfall. Our planting season might be particularly wet and mucky. Equipment can get stuck. When that happens, the field can get ruts and become incredibly uneven. Therefore, sometimes we have to do something more akin to conventional tillage to fix the fields and make them smooth again, which allows our equipment to work at its best.
- Residue Breakdown. As described above, some forms of tillage are used to breakdown the size of residue and help it decompose. If the crop residue left in the field is particularly large for whatever reason, we may choose a different type of tillage to make it easier on the planter.
- Continuous Corn. We normally rotate our fields between corn and soybeans. Unfortunately, there are some circumstances that dictate we only plant corn. For example, one of our landlords grows ornamental plants and has to be very careful about the presence of certain soybean pests. In other cases, the field conditions are just not conducive to soybean harvest. In those cases, we use conventional or conservation tillage because it helps reset the root profile and clean up the fields with the prior year’s corn residue.
On Our Farm
For the most part, we have adopted conservation tillage because it provides a nice seed bed for planting and helps protect against erosion and runoff over the winter. As I mentioned before, we also use no-till on many of our acres. But sometimes we take advantage of vertical tillage as well. Of course, we have also run into those other factors that can sometimes dictate the method of tillage used on the farm. The key here is that we are usually making decisions based on what is best for our farm and what makes the most sense for us, which includes employing a number of tillage systems.
A cautionary message here: this is meant to be an introduction to different tillage methods. In reality, this stuff gets super complicated and there are a ton of variables to consider. I already know this article does not cover everything and we could, quite literally, write several volumes of books about it.