Winter weather loosened soil; no-till a viable option

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Cold winter temperatures and increased precipitation have helped loosen soils enough that spring tillage might not be necessary in Indiana farm fields, a Purdue Extension agronomist says.

Multiple freeze-thaw cycles, plus numerous wetting and drying cycles brought on by the arrival of enough snow and rain have made no-till an even more viable and attractive option for corn and soybean growers than it was last spring.

“We’ve seen more frost activity, and that’s been really beneficial in terms of accomplishing some deeper soil loosening,” Tony Vyn said. “The fact is that we’re having more rain, and if that continues this spring there’s a greater danger of compaction when doing spring tillage prematurely in fields that are too wet for those operations.”

When making spring tillage decisions, Vyn said farmers should gauge operation timing, soil history and soil moisture.

“Spring tillage decisions need to be made by first considering the crop to be grown, the previous crop and the individual field situation,” he said. “And it’s extremely important to be careful on the timing of any spring tillage operation.”

Vyn recommended that farmers do minimum tillage in order to leave as much crop residue as possible on fields. Leaving crop residue reduces soil erosion and can lead to better water-use efficiency.

Beyond traditional tillage and no-till, growers have some intermediate options, such as strip tillage, shallow vertical tillage systems and single-pass cultivator systems when primary fall tillage was not done.

If tillage is necessary and once the right system is chosen, farmers should check the soil moisture at the depth of the tillage implement and an inch or two below to ensure the soil is sufficiently dry before completing operations.

“Avoid being out in the fields too early,” Vyn said. “It’s crucial to look at the timing and depth of tillage operations to make sure we’re accomplishing an improvement in soil structure rather than contributing to a poorer soil structure.”

According to Vyn, no tillage is necessary in fields where soybeans follow soybeans and most fields where corn follows soybeans. But in high-residue situations, such as when corn follows corn, tillage might be needed.

High commodity prices in the past few years have encouraged farmers to install field drainage systems to help soils dry earlier in spring or following heavy rainfall. That extra drainage also helps with no-till and strip-till practices.

“As we learned from the drought last year, there is a huge benefit in keeping topsoil in place to help maintain root-zone soil moisture in dry weather periods, particularly in sloping fields,” Vyn said.

Last year’s drought in Indiana started early in the season, and Vyn said farmers didn’t see as much growth benefit from no-till as they normally might have. But this year, fields are already more loosened from winter weather.

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