Vertical Tillage: A New Trend

A clear-cut discussion

Published online: Nov 17, 2010 Feature Dan Davidson
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When it comes to tilling, it doesn't make any difference whether growers are producing sugarbeets, potatoes, corn, soybeans, wheat or cotton because it all comes down to managing the soil in fields post-harvest. What does make a difference is what type of tillage technique growers decide to use and what they are trying to accomplish.

Most growers tend to stick with the traditional or horizontal tillage techniques. Horizontal tillage equipment uses tools such as discs, cultivators, chisels or disc rippers to flow through and move soil horizontally while stirring and turning it.
However, most recently, growers have begun to use a different type of tillage technique: vertical tillage.

What is vertical tillage?

Vertical tillage is a relatively new trend and can be challenging to define because not all machines naturally fit the overall description.
Essentially, vertical tillage involves rolling across the top of the soil to move it vertically. Vertical tillage is able to level the soil surface because it moves only a small amount of soil laterally and is shallow while performing vertical cuts with no sliding or smearing. The main objective of using vertical tillage is to cut and size residue, break up surface soil compaction, or smooth out areas in a field with shallow rills from water erosion, ruts or tire tracks.

Vertical tillage also can be used to help improve rainfall penetration by breaking up crusts and lightly tilling the soil while cutting up residue, mixing and anchoring some residue with soil while still leaving large amounts on the surface to protect the soil and moreover, improve aeration.
After harvest, farmers need to evaluate whether to use vertical versus horizontal tillage depending on their needs.

If growers need to stir up the soil from four to eight inches, incorporate residue to manage surface compaction, and help it warm and dry faster in the spring, they may opt for horizontal tillage. On the other hand, if growers want to simply fluff the soil at the surface, manage the residue and vertically work the top two inches of soil, they would opt for vertical tillage.

Where to start

First and foremost, growers need to set an objective or a goal to manage their expectations and understand what they need in a machine. Growers need to decide what they want to accomplish and get the machine that will perform that task. Is the goal to process residue, blacken the soil and prepare a seedbed? Or is the goal to process the residue, stir the soil surface and prepare a seedbed?

Or is the farmer striving to loosen and aerate the soil while partially processing residue and leveling the soil?
Once growers decide what their main objective is, it is important to beware of how vertical tillage tools differ in both set-up and operation. Set-up differs between brands, which is why growers must research vertical tillage equipment before buying and learn the role of each component.

Speed is also critical but so is horsepower to sustain that speed in different terrains and soil conditions. A good rule of thumb is to remember that a depth of two inches is usually enough to get the job done.

Deciding on a machine

Conventional vertical tillage tools are built by Case IH, Great Plains, Landoll, McFarland, Salford, Summers and a few other brands. While they are all vertical tillage tools, they are built differently and growers need to be aware of the design differences and how that affects their action in the field. Aeration machines include the Aerway, Gen-Till, Smart-Till, and Curse-Buster.

When testing a machine, evaluate performance. Look at how the residue is processed and anchored; how much soil is turned; if rootballs remain untouched, split and flipped out; if it is solving a compaction problem, and whether it prepared a seedbed that you easily plant into and will guarantee better plant emergence then you would get otherwise.
Take a broom and sweep away the residue and loose soil to a depth of one or two inches and look at your potential seedbed-ask yourself if you like what the machine is doing.

When purchasing vertical tillage equipment, continue to evaluate performance and make necessary depth, weight and angle adjustments to make sure the machine is doing the job you bought it to do. Don't hesitate to discuss your needs with the dealer if the machine isn't meeting your expectations.

Most importantly, get out in the field and look at emergence. Is it faster and more even resulting in better plant stands with even emergence? If so, mission accomplished.
All in all, it is important to understand that each grower has special needs, which are unique to their objectives and what they need to accomplish. When deciding if vertical tillage is the right avenue, growers must take into account a number of functions.

Once the decision is made on whether vertical tillage is the right tool to use, growers must take time to research the various machines and tools available. While vertical tillage can perform several options, not every machine does them equally well. Therefore, growers need to decide their end-goal and why vertical tillage might be an improvement over conventional tillage tools.

Editor's note: Davidson is a Telvent DTN Ph.D. Agronomist and can be contacted through email at