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What to Do With Fields Not Yet Tilled?

What to Do With Fields Not Yet Tilled?
Some options better than others.

If you've got soybean stubble that you didn't touch last fall but normally do, that's probably not a big dilemma. Many people don't till it in the fall anyway, wanting to save soil over the winter and cut tillage trips at the same time. This spring you've got either the option of no-tilling or working it with a field cultivator. However, corn stalks are a different story, especially if nothing was done last fall.

Barry Fisher, state agronomist for the Natural Resources Conservation service in Indiana, urges you to think carefully before deciding your best option. It partly depends upon what you're planting this spring in that field. If you're going back with corn, it may mean a whole different set of variables are in play than if you're rotating to soybeans. It also matters whether or not you have ruts, he says. Obviously, ruts will need attention.

Many people in central Illinois and central to north-central Indiana on wet soils where some sort of tillage is still the norm didn't get tillage done last fall either. Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension specialist, has fielded many questions from people wanting to know what options they might consider to handle stalk residue in those fields where they didn't get anything done before winter set in.

"Without an early period of warm, dry weather in 2010, it remains unlikely soils will be dry enough to allow effective tillage before planting starts," Nafziger says. The heavier the soil, normally the worse a candidate it is for any kind of deep spring tillage. Soil pulled up from several inches below the surface will likely still be wet, unless it's a prolonged dry period.

In the meantime, Nafziger says, it may be helpful to find ways to disturb the surface and cut and move, and perhaps bury, some residue. This will help dry the surface soil to allow earlier and more uniform planting.

"Chisel plows are unlikely to work," Nafziger says. "And field cultivators will probably not go through standing corn stalks. Lighter disk harrows might work better than most alternatives to perform shallow tillage of corn stalks. Disk-rippers might be adjustable enough to work, but implement weight should be as light as possible to avoid causing more soil compaction."

Nafziger points to vertical tillage tools as a possibility. The problem, as noted by Fisher this week, is that they are expensive if you don't already have one or have somebody else to partner on buying one, plus it's not clear what may happen deep in the soil in terms of additional soil compaction.

"If it's not dry or if there are ruts, these implements might not work well," the agronomist adds.

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