The 2019 planting season wasn’t kind to growers in North America. Overly wet conditions plagued them at every turn, which for many created tough working conditions in their fields. A wet fall followed a wet spring, keeping many growers from getting out to do secondary tillage and prepare their seedbed for the spring.
And as the winter comes to an end, many growers are left to address their missed fall tillage shortly before planting, creating a need for spring tillage to be as quick and efficient as possible.
A key problem is that a large amount of residue remains in fields, requiring growers to plan ahead for incorporating it into their soils before being ready to plant. Some growers had to forego harvest all together and left their crops in the field to deal with in the spring. Hal Carnago, sales manager at Schulte Mfg., says the situation extends even into Canada. “North of Edmonton in Alberta, there’s still reports of around 26-30% of the crop still out in the field,” he says. “There were reports of several million acres of canola that will have to come out in the spring before any clean up can be done.”
Another potential problem growers will need to address is compaction. According to Dr. Gary Schnitkey, ag economist at the University of Illinois, last year’s unprecedented high moisture forced growers out in too wet conditions, creating shear layers in their soil structure and forcing a need for speed in planting.
Tillage missed in the fall will need to happen this spring.
Farmers are looking to get in fields fast to create their seedbed and level out ruts.
Vertical tillage, high-speed discs and adjustable gang angles will be popular this spring.
Be ready for no-till farmers to ask for some light tillage options.
“We did not get a lot of fall tillage done last year,” says Schnitkey. “There’s a lot of problems that have been introduced. A lot of farmland was worked too wet, so I expect we’ll see more tillage to get the compaction out of the land. If we have a nice spring, I think we’ll see more tillage than usual. But if we get another spring like last year, we’re going to go fast and with less tillage.”
With other problems more immediately pressing, general consensus is that growers will opt out of trying to crack any compaction layers this spring to prioritize getting their crop in. While that may work in the short term, Jamie Meier, farm equipment sales manager at Landoll, makes a point to mention that missing fall tillage has consequences.
While he doesn’t believe growers will be focusing on addressing compaction layers this spring, it’s definitely a task that can’t be put off forever. “We’ve seen a little less interest in deep tillage, and I think that’s something that will come back to haunt us,” he says. “Growers have forgotten about resetting soil density. We definitely had conditions last year that helped compact the soils and create ruts. We feel there will be an opportunity in the future, when we have a nice fall, for a lot of fall tillage that needs to happen.”
“If we get another spring like last year, we’re going to go fast and with less tillage…” – Gary Schnitkey, University of Illinois
The choice to hold off on deep tillage may be the right move, though, as growers may see a repeat of the wetness in early 2019. According to a recent report from Bloomberg, growers may be facing a continuation of the winter’s moisture into the planting season, with risk of flooding.
“For the second year in a row, much of the U.S. is primed to suffer multi-billion dollar flood losses, with farmers already steeling themselves for planting delays,” says Brian Sullivan, writer for Bloomberg. “Relentless storms that have marched across the Midwest and into the South this winter have already filled rivers to the brim and are threatening to make farm fields too soggy to plant as spring arrives.”
A report from Farm Policy News quotes the North Central River Forecast Center (NCRFC) as saying, “There continues to be a significantly elevated chance of flooding in the Upper Mississippi River drainage area and the Hudson Bay drainage, particularly the Red River of the North basin. Overall, 103 forecast points show a 50% or greater chance of moderate to major flooding within the next 3 months, a slight increase from the initial outlook.”
With a large amount of work left to be done in the field and signs of more difficult conditions on the way, dealers and manufacturers are in a good position to offer growers alternate tillage practices as solutions. But there’s some disagreement among manufacturers as to what options dealers should look at to best serve their customers. Though answers vary across the board, 3 main themes are clear: speed, efficiency and flexibility.
Bruce Johnson, director of strategic innovation and business development at Summers Manufacturing, stresses the importance of dealers being able to tackle the multiple challenges that growers will bring to the table this year. When balancing customers who may want to simply manage their residue with shallow, vertical tillage and those looking to do some more aggressive seedbed preparation, having a tool that can do both is the key, he says.
The VRT Renegade from Summers Manufacturing was born out of the idea that growers want greater flexibility in their tillage tools to deal with the diverse field conditions they face. Photo Courtesy of Summers Manufacturing
Johnson highlights a growing interest in vertical tillage, particularly when it comes to adjustable gang angles. He says the flexibility of these tools gives growers the ability to mix and match what issues they tackle and when, including weed management, dealing with sprayer or combine ruts and managing residue.
“In places with heavier residue mattes, we’re starting to see people that want to do a bit more than true vertical tillage,” says Johnson. “In their words, they want to move a little dirt. In a northern climate, they might want to help warm the soil up faster in the spring, or it might be that they want to get dirt on their residue to help start breaking it down. That’s the kind of thing we were hearing, and it’s what drove us toward variable rate tillage with our VRT Renegade. The whole idea is to not make the decision as the manufacturer on what’s the right way to till the ground: we need to put that in the hands of the farmer or their agronomist.”
Even though compaction isn’t at the top of growers’ list of concerns for Johnson, he says awareness of compaction layers is growing and still influencing grower decisions.
One thing he notes is that he sees some growers moving away from European-style high-speed discs for fear of creating compaction, even though he agrees that speed is high on growers’ priorities this spring. “We hear a fair amount of concern about running certain tillage practices in wet conditions, giving a smearing layer and compaction,” says Johnson. “With some of the high-speed discs, people have had issues. One problem is with compound angle blades, you can get a smearing result in wet conditions.
“The whole idea is to not make the decision as the manufacturer on what’s the right way to till the ground: we need to put that in the hands of the farmer…” – Bruce Johnson, Summers Mfg.
“The other thing is it’s a heavier machine, and they’re carrying the weight on the rear attachment and can get a lot of packing in wet conditions. We’ve heard that for a number of years and right now especially.”
Johnson mentions that in some areas, interest is moving away from high-speed discs in general in favor of other disc styles. “With our DT discs, which are shallower concave blades rather than traditional discs, we do have renewed interest, though it seems to vary by geography. I think some of the interest that went to high-speed discs has started to come back, particularly when you have a lot of residue to manage and a wet year.”
Great Plains Manufacturing
For Rye DeGarmo, engineering vice president at Great Plains Manufacturing, the place growers and dealers should focus is weed control, a place where Great Plains can offer both disc harrows and vertical tillage to get fields in fighting shape for planting. Prevented plant acres will require unique solutions compared to those acres devastated by wet planting and harvesting, something he says Great Plains is situated provide.
“I think weed cover is going to be a bigger topic this year than it has been in the past,” says DeGarmo. “In prevented plant areas there’s going to be a lot more weed control needed. I see the traditional disc harrows like our 7000 Series being used to kill the weeds, but the challenge then is going to be getting the needed finish. With vertical tillage, we can loosen that soil and clean up some of the ruts. But if it’s infested with weeds, vertical tillage alone won’t cut it.”
DeGarmo sees grower interest centered around vertical and minimum tillage, particularly when it comes to reducing fuel input costs. “With vertical tillage, you’re able to cover more ground, faster and typically wider than a traditional disc harrow.”
For DeGarmo, adjustable gang angles has been a selling point that dealers should keep in mind, particularly in a spring that will require more seedbed preparation than normal for farmers who opted not to take prevented plant acres.
“The Turbo-Max is one of our most popular tools when we talk about vertical tillage,” he says. “It has the ability to go up to 6 degrees of gang angle, which is one of the most unique parts of that tool. We can do 0 degrees, true vertical tillage, or we can really move some soil and get after those ruts.”
At Kuhn Krause, Curt Davis, marketing director, talks about how dealers should note that vertical tillage has been a big focus for the company’s customers as one of the few tillage practices that will hold up to the wet conditions that are looking more and more likely for spring.
“Some customers have gravitated to high-speed vertical tillage,” says Davis. “They’ve had some of the same problems with wet conditions, late planting, not being able to get into the field. Vertical tillage has really been one of the only methods that has worked well in these wet conditions. Vertical tillage doesn’t engage the ground like a field cultivator would or a soil finisher that just couldn’t run in wet conditions. But it can still cut residue and warm the seedbed up. That’s where customers are finding a benefit, warming the soil up so they can plant.”
Davis mentions that it wasn’t just the fall of 2019 that saw a reduction in fall tillage: it’s been a trend for several years. “As an industry, we’ve seen from the retail sales volume that growers haven’t been able to do secondary fall tillage,” he says. “Customers are trending toward not being able to use those machines and toward vertical tillage that has a little more flexibility in its operation and still be able to help get that crop in. I think customers want to use field cultivators or soil finishers; it’s just that mother nature hasn’t allowed them to.”
“Vertical tillage has really been one of the only methods that has worked well in these wet conditions…” – Curt Davis, Kuhn Krause
“For vertical tillage, we have the Kuhn Krause Excelerator,” says Davis. “It’s proven itself over the last 10 years as a premium vertical tillage tool that’s been able to do exactly what customers are looking for in preparing that vertical tillage seedbed with no smearing or sheer planes in the soil profile. It’s also able to cut and anchor residue with the starwheel attachment and mix it with soil.
At the 2020 National Farm Machinery Show, we introduced a new version, the Excelerator XT, which can provide up to 8 degrees of gang angle. We still provide that vertical tillage from 1-5 degrees, but we can also provide an extended tillage range from 6-8 degrees. That gives customers a little soil mixing, a little more weed kill ability and better soil breakout to get better mixing of residue for a good seedbed.”
For Davis, the priority as a manufacturer is to focus on doing one thing extremely well (vertical tillage), as opposed to working on multiple solutions for growers. “Variable intensity tillage is a term getting thrown around a lot,” he says. “It’s a play on the idea of having a machine that can do everything. While we can push the boundaries, I’m not sure we’ll be satisfied with a machine that tries to do everything. If you focus on one thing and do it very well, I think that’s what customers are really looking for. We know with vertical tillage blades that we have on the market, if they’re pushed too far on the gang angle, they’ll start to dull prematurely and give a poor performance in residue cutting.”
Not all manufacturers see their dealers as needing to focus just on vertical tillage. Carnago, sales manager at Schulte, talked about how their disc harrows have seen a rise in interest in Western Canada when it comes to seedbed prep.
“We came out with our DHX-600 60 foot disc harrow,” says Carnago, “It’s primarily 2 sets of 18-inch 8 wave coulters set up in front of a 5 bar heavy harrow. A lot of producers in Western Canada are looking at using that type of tool to get their fields ready for the spring. This tool is great for fall straw management, and it’s starting to take off for us.”
Carnago mentions not having as much luck with their high-speed discs. “We haven’t had a lot of traction with our high-speed disc, because it was so wet in most areas that we weren’t able to get out to producers to even try it,” he says. “We’re hoping in the spring to get our demos going.”
When discussing minimum tillage practices being used in Western Canada, Carnago describes a hardpan layer that’s been built up from 15-20 years of continuous minimum tillage. Growers in that area, he explains, will often go in every 4-5 years with high-speed discs to reset their soil layers.
“Our VTX 300 High Speed Disc is one of the first units out there with hydraulically adjustable gang angles on the go, from 0-22 degrees,” he says.
Carnago explains that setting the gang angle to 6-12 degrees while using 24 inch Soil Razor 2.125 inch concave discs is optimal for working more soil and straw, while going 0-6 degrees with 22 inch, 13 wave straight discs is best suited for conservation tillage and less soil disruption at the top.
“With 1,150 pounds per foot of down pressure, this unit can get a lot done,” says Carnago. “It can also vary depth from 1-8 inches with the additional weight of the frame.”
Other manufacturers are seeing interest among their dealers’ customers go back to the basics. That’s what McFarlane Sales Manager Norm Burgeson says when he talks about seeing a decline in tillage interest and a rise in harrow sales. “There wasn’t a lot of tillage going on,” says Burgeson. “We could have sold all the harrows that we could get our hands on. Growers were looking to do something to dry out the field, so we had a spike in demand for harrows. It was mostly the harrow carts, the HDLs, which we typically sell in a 32-50 foot range.
The McFarlane Reel Disk is designed for seedbed prep at depths of 1-2 inches. Photo Courtesy of McFarlane
“Nothing smooths the field better than a harrow. And that’s what growers did late in last year’s spring; they ran their harrow to dry the field out and get some last-minute seedbed prep in the same pass.”
For many, Burgeson describes it as a return to previous methods. “I think a lot of people got re-acquainted with their harrows who hadn’t used them in years,” he says. “They’re easy to use, and you get great results without getting too involved with intricate setups, disc blades, sweeps and other things.”
For growers looking at vertical tillage options in the spring, Burgeson directs them to 2 different implements, the Reel Disk and the Incite. “Nothing does a better job at seedbed prep when you need to go more than 1 or 2 inches deep than the Reel Disk,” he says. “By upgrading that Reel Disk to the Cobra model with the aggressive Cobra disc blades, we’ve got a lot of farmers using these implements again. Our universal tillage tool, the Incite, can be run like a vertical tillage tool, or if they need something more done, can go deeper like a cultivator or a disc.”
In Canada, Versatile’s Tillage Product Manager Erron Leafloor mentions that in the Peace River area in Western Alberta, more than 30% of crops weren’t harvested last fall and will need to be dealt with this spring. Much of what he sees in growers in the region is a desire for speed, particularly in machines that will reach speeds in the double-digit miles per hour. For this spring, he pushes dealers and growers to look at their vertical tillage and high-speed tools.
“We’ve got some customers who have our standard VTs, our Viking product,” he says. “Some are planning to do custom work in the spring to help growers who didn’t get their fall tillage done. The Versatile Viking can go up to 10 mph and cover as many acres for their neighbors as possible. There’s also a lot of interest in our region in high-speed discs, like our Fury model, and that’s also because of the ability to go 10-12 mph.”
“For conventional tillers, especially those in corn, I push the high-speed disc. That machine will take any field issue and turn it black. It can fix any problem in one pass so growers aren’t eating up a whole bunch of time in the spring when they should be out with their drills.”
Leafloor also talks about the prevalence of minimum tillage that exists in Western Canada. He explains that Versatile’s Viking VT can run almost no depth penetration for breaking residue but can also handle a wet 2020 spring with adjustable gang angles for opening up a seedbed.
“For anybody learning toward minimum tillage, I push them toward the Viking VT,” he says. “If they’re really particular, they can go at practically 0 inches and just chop up trash without moving much soil. But if they do need to move some dirt, they can move the gangs to 12 degrees and blacken the surface, which is fairly key up here in a wet spring.”
In a sea of bad news, some parts of North America are doing all right. That’s what Jeremy Hughes, product manager for Horsch, reports from the Red River Valley in North Dakota. “We may see some early planting this year, because there’s been very little snow,” he says. “I was out with a dealer yesterday, and 3 customers came in getting parts for spreading fertilizer in the next week. We’ve also had a lot of harvesting going on too.”
Billed as a “shallow, high-speed tillage concept,” the Horsch Joker RT is a compact disc implement designed for stubble cultivation and seedbed preparation. Photo Courtesy of Horsch
When discussing the issues growers will face this year, Hughes warns that, “In the past, producers have wanted to get these magic bullets, like single-pass tools. I don’t see a lot of easy buttons going into this spring. We may have to consider things like working a field twice, maybe working it early and then again before planting starts. We may need to be working some vertical tillage first then using a compact disc second for seedbed preparation.”
For Hughes, the focus of the spring for dealers and growers should be fast and shallow tillage, which he considers the best way to deal with problems like ruts. He doesn’t, however, subscribe to vertical tillage as the cure-all method for the season. “We need to be concerned about creating a proper soil structure, which sometimes vertical tillage does not do,” he says. “If I’m just working with a wavy coulter, then I’m chopping up cornstalks and residue, but I’m not doing a lot for incorporation. Another problem with vertical tillage is weed control, and we’ve got a lot of weed issues that have carried over, including weed resistance.”
To answer Hughes’ forecast for fast and shallow tillage, Horsch offers the Joker RT. “Joker is our shallow, high-speed tillage concept,” he says. “It goes back to the fundamentals, like eliminating weeds, incorporating fertilizer and creating uniform soil structure. At the end of the day, you want to be able to get that field as uniform and consistent as possible, and that’s where Joker comes in and does a superior job.”
Some manufacturers are pushing completely new tillage hybrids to their dealers’ customers as the solution to the spring. Justin Render, tillage expert at Kinze Mfg., says the Mach Till tillage tool improves upon the weaknesses of both vertical and conventional tillage.
Referred to as a “hybrid horizontal tillage” tool, the Kinze Mach Till is designed to improve upon vertical tillage’s residue incorporation while avoiding the smearing that occurs with conventional tillage. Photo Courtesy of Kinze mfg.
“Our Mach Till is what we’re coining as hybrid horizontal tillage,” says Render. “Vertical tillage has been very popular, but there’s some issues that farmers aren’t liking, specifically being unable to chop up residue and put it firmly back in contact with the ground. Weed takeout is another thing that vertical till doesn’t care for, and it struggles with land-leveling on wet ground with ruts and tracks.”
Render notes that the Mach Till moves at the same high speed as a vertical tillage tool, tapping into growers’ desire for faster seedbed preparation this spring.
“As far as conventional tillage, if you’re taking a disc or a sweep and you’re dragging it through the ground, you’ll create a layer of compaction by pulling sideways,” he says. “But with the Mach Till, we’re using the disc blades to pick and pass the soil, so we’re not smearing it. This machine is made to go 8 mph and up and covers about 40% more acres than a conventional counterpart.”
For Mark Lussier, sales manager at Mandako, versatility in an implement is important in properly equipping dealers to help growers solve a variety of field problems. “It’s all of the above,” he says. “It’s weeds, it’s a crop left on the field. There are ruts across our selling area, which is pretty much North America. There’s lots of different challenging conditions out there.”
To rise to the many challenges growers need to wade through this spring, Lussier points to the Mandako Storm as a flexible option. “Guys are looking for a tool that’s versatile, something that will do vertical tillage but still level ruts, size residue but not bury it,” he says. “We developed the Storm, our new vertical tillage tool/high speed disc; it’s kind of a 2-in-1. You can set it up either with concave blades or straight blades for vertical tillage, and you can adjust the toolbars from 0 to 14 degrees.
If you want to do more sizing, or you’re on a hilltop and you don’t want to make it too black, you can set it up fairly straight. Then if you need to fill in some ruts, you can angle it up, so you can move a lot of dirt. We’ve had the Storm out for a few years now, and it’s really taken off this last fall and over the winter season. We’ve had a lot of early order bookings. We feel that it’s going to be a game changer.”
Lussier mentions that even Mandako’s older vertical tillage model, the Twister, has seen a bump in sales over the last few months, with growers wanting it for the spring.