Farmers still want to be zero tillers, but high residue, excess moisture and weeds are putting tillage tools back in the field.
Necessity is the mother of invention, but weather appears to be the mother of necessity, these days. That seems to fit as producers talk about the need for tillage in this October Farmer Panel.
Zero-till and direct seeding are still foremost on producers’ minds when they look at overall cropping practices, but with several or frequent growing seasons with often excessive moisture, getting some type of tillage tool on the land to open the soil and deal with heavy residue, presents as a practical management option.
While producers are well beyond the “recreational tillage” days, under the current cropping systems some degree of tillage actually has a fit for a number of reasons. Residue management is a leading factor, followed by opening the soil a bit so it can breathe and dry out, vertical tillage to fracture the soil profile helps to manage compaction, blackening the soil so it warms faster during cooler springs, a cultivator pass to smooth sprayer and combine ruts in the field, and using tillage to incorporate some of the older but new-again herbicides that help deal with herbicide-tolerant crops, all factor into tillage decisions.
A return to hot and somewhat drier growing seasons may see tillage tools parked in the machinery row, but in the meantime cultivator bearings are being kept greased. Here is what this Farmer Panel had to say about tillage:
Dustin Williams was committed to zero till until the high-moisture growing seasons of 2011 and 2012 hit his southwest Manitoba farm. And with excessive moisture now every couple years or so, some fall tillage where and when needed is making a difference.
Williams has brought two different tillage tools onto his farm in recent years. He has a newer Smart-Till vertical tillage tool, which fractures the soil profile down about eight inches, and he also uses a Horsch Anderson Joker discer to work down heavy crop residue.
“We had moved all the way to a zero-till system until those first couple years of excessive moisture,” he says. “In an ideal world we’d like to use more cover crops and have a minimum till system with more mulching. But we also seem to have an endless debate here on the farm about the best way to get the soil opened up and tillage seems the best option.”
Williams plans to treat the whole farm with the Smart-Till rotary tiller once every four years. While it loosens the soil profile, he doesn’t want to over use it either. And the 30-foot wide tool requires a fair bit of horsepower to pull, so cost is a factor as well.
“We have already seen benefits on the land we have treated,” he says. “Crop roots are penetrating deeper and I believe some of those deep-down nutrients are moving up through the soil. We’ve seen a yield bump on fields that have been loosened up.” He isn’t concerned about soil erosion as the Smart-Till still leaves 70 to 80 per cent of crop residue on the soil.
The Horsch Anderson Joker high-speed discer is effective for working down heavy crop residue. Williams says it works well, for example, to work in heavy oat crop residue in preparation for seeding soybeans the following spring.
He also plans to use tillage to bring an “old” herbicide like Edge back into his weed control program. He’s had good success growing non-GMO Nexera Clearfield canola so he wants to keep that in rotation. But he needs another herbicide to deal with Group 2-resistant kochia. Edge has a fit. He won’t be using it over all his canola acres, just areas where kochia is a problem.
And along with managing kochia, tillage also can be used to treat areas of the farm where “zero-till weeds” such as field horsetail, foxtail barley and other creeping weeds are difficult to control.
“As we moved to zero till the weed spectrum changed so we ended up with weeds that are otherwise difficult to control,” he says. “I don’t see us using it every year on every acre, but there are certainly problem areas were tillage appears to be the only option.”
Donaro Farms, Tisdale, Sask.
Often excessive moisture during the most of the past 10 growing seasons has Larry Spratt looking at where some tillage fits on his northeast Saskatchewan farm.
“When I was a kid everyone was summerfallowing and then everything moved to zero-till farming,” says Spratt, who runs a mixed farming operation with family members near Melfort. “And now with successive years of often too much moisture more guys are bringing some tillage back into their operations. I know some people are cultivating every acre. Some years are wet at either seeding or harvest or both, and it seems like you just can’t get ahead of it.”
While Spratt has tried vertical tillage tool demonstrations on his farm, he isn’t convinced that investment is necessary, for equipment he isn’t going to use every year. They have a heavy harrow, and a couple of older cultivators in their machinery lineup and those tools appear to do the job they need to get done.
The cultivators with one-inch spikes are used to work in heavy crop residue following an oat crop, for example, and also to “just crack the soil” where moisture is a particular concern. They are also be used to smooth out wheel ruts left in the field after a season of spraying and harvesting. Finding time for fall field treatments is a factor too. With a purebed cow herd as well, they really have “two crops”.
“We had a good harvest with very good yields, but we no sooner get that done, and then we have to turn to tend to the cattle, to get them onto to fall pasture and ready for winter feeding,” he says. “There isn’t a lot of time.”
Spratt does make a spring pass with a heavy harrow just ahead of the air drill, to work in residue, smooth out the field and help blacken the soil a bit.
“With this excessive moisture it has been a changing environment,” he says. “We are still committed to direct seeding, but a bit of tillage is working it’s way back in to deal with new conditions related to the wet conditions. And from the no-till practices we’re also seeing different weed problems like barnyard grass, field horsetail, foxtail barley and even some scentless chamomile — they are moisture-loving weeds and tillage seems to be about the only effective way to deal with them.”
Over the past three to four years of excessive growing season moisture, Craig Shaw says he has adopted two cropping systems on his farm — some of it is tilled and some of it is direct-seeded.
“Pretty well anything we plan to seed to canola is worked in the fall,” he says. “And canola is usually seeded onto cereal stubble, so we will work those fields in the fall. We don’t do any tillage on our canola stubble.”
Shaw, who farms at Lacombe, just north of Red Deer, has been a long-time zero till farmer. But now he says about one-third of his acres are tilled each year. He has a disc as well as vertical tillage tool used to manage high residue levels, soil compaction and to open the soil so it gets some air and dries out.
He uses the vertical tillage tool to loosen the soil profile. It is also used in the fall to incorporate fertilizer and any herbicides that need to be worked in. Once the fall pass is completed, the field is ready for seeding the next spring.
“We’ve not only had late spring, but they’ve also been cold springs too,” he says. “And canola is a heat-loving crop, so getting some black in those fields also helps get the crop off to a better start.”
Three Hills, Alta.
As a committed zero-tiller most of his farming life, now semi-retired, Don Boles says he doesn’t have to make decisions about tillage these days, but the young farmers renting his south-central Alberta farm are cultivating some of the fields.
Largely in response to high residue levels, he says in some areas they are using a tandem disc and in others a vertical tillage tool.
“Tillage seems to be what a lot are looking at these days,” says Boles. “There is a bit of a craze going on to use some tillage. It’s all related to moisture in this area too. It was dry for many of the past 15 years, but since about 2010 we have had wetter seasons.” That contributed to excess moisture for seeding and harvest and big crops with plenty of residue.
“There’s more residue and some of these newer seeding systems have plenty of features, but some have trouble working through residue, as well,” he says. “So I think part of this movement toward tillage, has to do with limitations of seeding equipment.”