As growers pursue the proven benefits of conservation tillage, they're also turning to new tools to make it even more effective.
Despite its proven benefits, some equipment dealers have feared the practice of conservation tillage because they believed that it would reduce their overall sales of farm machinery.
While conservation tillage can take soil quality and the resulting yield benefits a long way, pre-existing compaction layers and less-than-ideal seedbeds can put a ceiling - or in terms of root growth, a floor - on progress. This is where vertical tillage can play a helpful role.
"Vertical tillage is any tillage system that does not create a horizontal density layer, but instead forms cracking patterns in the soil profile," says Napolean, Ohio, equipment dealer Paul Martin of Paul Martin & Sons.
Conventional "horizontal" tillage implements may create horizontal compaction or density change layers in the soil. These density changes inhibit root growth, impacting crop standability and yields.
While no-till can help mellow the soil, no-till acres aren't immune to compaction layers or density changes in the soil profile.
"I have one producer who has a 10-year-old no-till field that, when we tested it with a soil probe, it had 5 inches of soil that was like a rock and then the best ground you'd ever find below that," says Tom Evans of Great Plains Manufacturing. "There was great soil underneath, but his crop wasn't getting through to it.
"Vertical tillage can help no-tillers overcome that stumbling block."
The main goal with vertical tillage is to create uniform density throughout the soil profile and to create a good seedbed for ideal seed placement.
The reasons producers are turning to vertical soil management systems vary almost as much as the implements they use to do the job. Crop rotations, soil conditions, compaction concerns, tillage programs and many other factors determine the timing of tillage, equipment used and goals of the farmer.
Of the dealers and producers interviewed by Farm Equipment, one common benefit noted was that the vertical system of soil management helped them get the benefits of no-till or minimum-till practices in unforgiving, heavy soil conditions where utilizing reduced-tillage practices is a challenge.
Water Infiltration. Vertical tillage tools working deeper than the crust of the soil can help improve water infiltration.
"I use vertical tillage on my corn stalks in the fall to fracture the ground so that water can penetrate and the freeze-and-thaw cycle can help mellow the ground," says Charles Rice, a grower from Mapleton, Ill., who practices minimum- and strip-tillage.
He uses vertical tillage to fracture the soil profile down to an 8-inch depth, while leaving crop residue in place and creating minimal surface disturbance.
"We don't want erosion. We do want rain to percolate into the ground," Rice adds. "By breaking the soil profile vertically, we get water into the ground and prevent erosion."
Bill Meeker, a North Henderson, Ill., no-till corn and soybean producer who uses vertical tillage in the fall, has raised no-till corn and soybeans for 15 years, 10 of which he has used vertical tillage.
He covers all of his crop acres in the fall and is no-tilling into fields that are third and fourth year corn-on-corn.
"It leaves millions of pockets for water to get down into the soil profile," Meeker says. "We have a lot of soil types and no-tilling has helped us with the tighter soils.
"But with the vertical tillage and no-tilling combined, our fields absorb even heavy rains without runoff or erosion."
Moisture Management. "Fields can and will dry out to the depth you dig, which can get pretty deep with cultivators or chisel plows. We can't afford that," explains Portland, N.D., farmer and custom seeder Merle Strand. "With a vertical finish, you can go into heavy residue, even during a wet spring, and dry out just the top couple inches of soil for planting.
"It creates a good firm, warm seedbed and conserves moisture."
Strand has been experimenting with vertical finishing on his own and his clients' fields for the last 3 years for residue management in the fall and seedbed preparation in the spring.
"Our biggest challenge with no-till is that we have heavy soils that need to be disturbed a bit and dried out on top so we can get seed placed properly. Vertical tillage allows us to do that," Strand says. "Running a vertical finisher in the spring prior to planting can loosen warm and dry soil for better, earlier planting."
Room to Grow. Conventional tillage can create multiple compaction layers that limit root growth. And limiting the roots limits crop performance, especially yields.
Lakefield, Minn., producer Brad Murphy combined vertical tillage with an in-line ripper and vertical finish in the spring for 5 years. He decided to go back to conventional tillage as he transitioned to corn-on-corn and results proved the old maxim, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it."
"We were getting terrible roots. Corn was tipping over, we saw drops in yields and the shallow-rooted crops weren't very weather resistant," Murphy says. "We didn't realize how much damage we could do by running horizontal tillage.
"We decided we needed to go back to vertical tillage and make a bigger flower pot for our plants to grow in."
And Murphy isn't alone in his experience. In one manufacturer study, fields were vertically tilled for 5 years. Then, in the sixth year, they ran a field cultivator over half the acres just once. Depending on soil type, yield losses compared to the acres with only vertical tillage ranged from 6.5 to 26.5 bushels of corn per acre.
Earlier Planting. "You can get a jump on the planting season by a day or two by running a vertical finish in the spring vs. no-till, and in a wet spring you can get in the field much sooner than when running a disc or cultivator," says Schilling Brothers equipment dealer Troy Latch of Mattoon, Ill. He sells McFarlane Reel Disks among other vertical tillage equipment. "We see a lot of farmers who are using a vertical finisher before planting no-till or minimum-till soybeans into corn stalks.
"It gives them good seed-to-soil contact and improves the seedbed."
Time, Energy Savings. An uncertain economy has everyone looking for ways to eliminate unnecessary expense. As is the case with no-till, vertical tillage saves time and money when compared to conventional tillage.
"Fuel is a big savings for me," says Larry Stinson, a producer from Syracuse, N.Y., who uses a 40-foot tool. "My yields are comparable with my neighbors, but input costs are less.
"You can cover a lot of ground at 7 miles per hour and not strain the tractor like you would when making two or more trips across the field with conventional tillage. It's very fuel-efficient."
Most vertical tillage tools - other than subsoilers - are designed to be pulled at a high rate of speed, which means less time in the field and less overall fuel consumed.
Seedbed Preparation. "I use a vertical finisher as a final-pass tool before planting. I can get out with it in early spring to warm and dry out the seedbed," says Altamont, Ill., grower Wendel Alwardt. "It doesn't move a lot of dirt, but it does a great job.
"We haven't done deep tillage for 5 years and we still get great yields. We can get over a lot of acres quicker and it makes for a perfect seedbed."
Ohio dealer Ron Burkhart of Burkhart Farm Center in Bucyrus, Ohio, uses and sells Case IH tools. He says vertical finishers are great tools for no-tillers, and notes excellent emergence following a vertical finish.
"When our independent agronomist saw nearly 100% emergence on wheat following traditionally no-tilled soybeans, he said we couldn't plant anything again without vertical tillage first," says the dealer, who now advises customers planting winter wheat into bean stubble to follow the combine with vertical tillage.
Deeper-working tools also benefit the seedbed.
"Compaction forms at the level you work, so with no-till, the compaction level moves to the surface. Vertical tillage in the fall helps prevent compaction in the spring," says Kingdom City, Mo., dealer Don Hanson of Hanson Enterprises. "By getting out in the fall, managing residue and loosening up the top 3-8 inches of soil, it allows the soil to dry much faster in the spring.
"And it doesn't leave a ribbon like a coulter might, which can lead to erosion."
Residue Management. A no-tiller since 1988 and a strip-tiller for the last 10 years, Kewanee, Ill., producer Norlyn McCormich looked to a vertical finisher in the fall of 2007 as a way to deal with residue on his corn-on-corn acres.
"Microbial activity from no-tilling helps rid the soil of residue. But when we switched to a guidance system for our strip-till rig last year, we ended up running across a lot of rows, which created more of a residue issue than usual," says McCormich. "Running the Turbo-Till in the fall after a urea application helped slice up the residue and speed up the deterioration process."
Though McCormich says other influences may have helped, he noted that after using the vertical finish tool, his yields hit 250 bushels per acre on fields that had never done more than 210.
Vertical Tillage Challenges
As with anything worth doing right, there are some challenges with vertical tillage, though they are arguably outweighed by the benefits. One is expense.
"If you're going from a straight no-tilling situation to vertical tillage, this will be an extra expense because it's a step you wouldn't normally take," says one dealer. "But when moving away from conventional tillage, you won't need a cultivator or disc, so it actually reduces cost."
Due to the speed and weight needed for maximum benefit, some vertical tillage tools require a lot of horsepower to operate. Most implements are available in a variety of sizes though, so it's recommended that producers take stock of how much horsepower they have available and buy the tool that will work in their operation.
Introducing Vertical Tillage
Dealers that are successfully introducing vertical tillage to their customers say that the most effective way to do it is to let farmers find out for themselves what it can do in their operations. That usually means demonstrating the equipment.
"For most growers, vertical tillage represents a new idea and a change," says Hanson of Hanson Enterprises, who has introduced a leasing program to take the risk out of purchasing a tool that can cost $25,000 or more.
The dealership will demonstrate the tool on 10-15 acres without charge or rent it out for $6.50 per acre with a 200-acre minimum.
Burkhart of Burkhart Farm Center concurs that showing the benefits is the best way to convince skeptical growers. "Our best sales approach has been demonstrations. We got it into the fields of key customers and they've been selling it for us ever since. It's become coffee shop talk."
These sentiments are echoed by Latch of Schilling Brothers. "More than anything, demos and testimonials is what will do it. Let the customer who's curious run it in his conditions or take him to another farmer in his area using it. From there," he says, "neighbors talk."
More or Less Equipment?
In some cases, farmers that are finding success in implementing vertical tillage have reduced their investment in other cultivating equipment.
"It's probably going to eliminate the need for a disc harrow, which can cause compaction," says Latch. "It eliminates deep rippers that tear up residue and rip the soil. And because it reduces trips across the field in spring, field cultivators might be eliminated, too."
"The simple fact is tilling every acre is time consuming. With vertical till, they can move through the field at 10 miles per hour instead of 7 miles per hour with a cultivator. It speeds up the process. I'm still selling conventional tools for corn and vertical for beans," Latch says.
At the same time, Hanson points out that, "They all want as wide a piece of equipment as they can get. There are units available now that are 10-, 15- and 20-feet wide. But vertical tillage works best at 8-9 miles per hour. It takes a lot of power to pull it that fast. A 20-foot tool will need 350 horsepower to pull it."
Good for the Customer
When all is said and done, dealers that have increased sales by adding vertical tillage to their product lineup say sales are growing because it's good for their customers.
"Vertical tillage tools are a pricey machines," say Latch. "But the cost is offset because these tools speed up the process and take less man hours. It's fewer trips, which means less fuel and less time – and time is money. If you can plant more acres per day, it will pay off in the end."
These dealers also believe that vertical tillage has strong potential to increase sales because conservation tillage is growing.
"I believe the market is growing because no-till has created tremendous amount of savings in soil erosion," adds Hanson.
But Burkhart of Burkhart Farm Center sums it up by saying, "It's taking away from some of the other tillage things here, but it's doing the farmer a good deal in the end and it still complements no-till."