One of the most common questions we hear is "should I (still) be tilling my fields?" Like most questions in agriculture, the answer depends heavily on your goals and expectations.
Reducing bulk density
Improving aggregate stability
Increasing organic matter
Limiting soil erosion
Optimizing soil fertility
Enhancing water infiltration
Increasing microbial activity
Expanding available water
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.
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, however, that surface compaction can occur even when the soils are not saturated.
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. 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.
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.
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