Tillage Tips to Fix a Mess

“Anything deeper than 3" is a rut,” says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. ( B&M Crop Consulting )

This spring, you’ll likely need to cope with ruts and wheel tracks and determine what kind of tillage, if any, is needed to work soil back into shape. It all depends on where, how deep and how many ruts there are.

“Anything deeper than 3" is a rut,” says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. “Most years, farmers can plant through wheel tracks, but due to a wet harvest in 2018, farmers aren’t dealing with ‘average’ wheel tracks.”

The goal is to grow the best crop you can this year while setting the stage to get back to your normal program as quickly as possible, whether that is conventional tillage, vertical tillage, no-till or strip-till.

Ferrie Shares These Considerations for Spring Fieldwork:

1. Before you till, map the ruts. It will take up to three to four years to fix some of the compaction, so you must remember where the ruts are.

2. Try to avoid doing tillage 14" or 15" deep because it can dry out the soil too much, or, if you get rain, it will turn the soil into a sponge.

3. Use a chisel plow with shanks on 14" centers, 6" or 7" deep, to fill in ruts. If you did shallow chiseling this past fall, check for columns of unworked soil extending to the surface. If you find them, shear them off with a soil finisher or similar horizontal-tillage tool to create a seedbed. Trying to create a seedbed with a vertical-tillage tool won’t work.

4. You want to run a chisel as far ahead of planting as possible—but only in dry conditions. It will be toughest in corn-on-corn, so don’t rule out the moldboard plow if soil is not erodible.

5. In most cases, you must level within three or four hours to prevent clods from forming. Have a leveling crew running right behind your chisel.

6. Remove fluid from tires and reduce tractor weight to avoid adding to wheel track compaction.

7. If you normally no-till corn into soybean stubble but your fields are crisscrossed by wheel tracks, resist the temptation to “fix” them by disking 2" or so deep. You risk creating a dense layer just under the surface, which will stop corn roots this year and for years to come. The shallower the density layer, the more cost.

8. If you typically no-till or strip-till but are resorting to moldboard plowing or horizontal tillage, remember those tools create a density layer you’ll have to fix later. For now, you want to create a seedbed. In your worst rutted fields, plant a shorter-season hybrid or soybeans so you can harvest earlier and do corrective deep tillage in the fall to get back to a no-till, vertical format.

9. Spring strip-till is an option to take out wheel tracks and create a seedbed. Be careful with anhydrous ammonia on the strip-till pass because you don’t want to smoke corn that’s planted over the strip. It’s OK to apply phosphate, potash and 28% nitrogen solution, but not too much because it can burn corn, too.

10. When spring strip-tilling with a mole knife, build the strip as early as possible before planting. It would be ideal if a 1½" rain came to settle the strip.

11. For conventional-till farmers who didn’t get fall tillage done, consider no-till or strip-till because there’s less risk than with spring chiseling. You could aerate the soil with a harrow to make no-till planting easier.