Should I (Still) Be Tilling My Fields?

LeRoy Toohey

Oct 04, 2019

Every year we see manufacturers rolling out new implements, universities releasing studies and smart neighbors making suggestions for your operation. 

So it should come as no surprise that every year, we hear this question: Should I (still) be tilling my fields? Like most questions in agriculture, the answer depends on your goals and expectations.

Understanding the role of soil structure

Basic soil structure is critical when considering tillage practices. Over time, good soil structure can provide numerous benefits to your fields1, including:

  • Reduce bulk density

  • Improve aggregate stability

  • Increase organic matter

  • Lower soil erosion

  • Improve soil fertility

  • Improve water infiltration

  • Increase microbial activity

  • Resist compaction

  • Increase available water

The impact of compaction on soil structure

Compaction is a principal reason growers till. Aggressive primary tillage implements -- such as in-line subsoil rippers, disk rippers and moldboard plows -- can destroy soil structure, but they can also help alleviate compaction issues. 

Fieldwide compaction develops from multiple trips across your soil throughout the growing season -- especially during harvest. Heavy grain carts and combines can cause compaction, the potential for which increases on wet, saturated soils. Consider reducing the weight on your combine and grain carts by unloading more often.

Also, driving the tractor/grain cart in a track previously created by the combine can help minimize field wide compaction concerns. The majority of compaction occurs after the first pass by the combine, so you can lower the footprint of your equipment by following the same path. 

How to offset compaction with tillage

If you decide to limit tillage this fall, focus on the double-tracked areas of the field, leaving the rest to a less aggressive tillage plan or even no-till. Keep in mind, even when the soils are not saturated, surface compaction can occur.2

The key to removing compaction with tillage is understanding the depth of the compaction pan. Don’t grab the deepest tillage implement you own; rather, till only a couple of inches below the pan. Trench compaction caused by a tractor or combine should be handled through multiple light tillage passes with a less aggressive implement at an angle to fill in the trench.3 If the compaction zone is excessively deep, consider filling the trench and leave the rest to Mother Nature. Field tile may be beneficial if you find your equipment making deep, compacting trenches.

Remember, the best way to combat soil compaction is prevention. Once compaction occurs, it can take years for the land to become highly productive again. 

There isn’t one tillage system that works for every situation.

Understanding your goals and expectations will help you decide whether to till or not to till. Whatever you decide, do your best to protect the soil for future generations.

Read this next:No-Till, Reduced and Conventional Tillage: A Cheat Sheet for Farmers (3-minute read)


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LeRoy Toohey

Oct 04, 2019