Fall tillage in the upper Midwest

Why is fall tillage so common in the upper Midwest? The reasons I am familiar with are the following: (1) the soil warms up faster in the spring, (2) it’s convenient to be able to pull into the field in the spring and plant rather than having to do any tillage, (3) tillage incorporates the corn stubble into the soil, (4) tillage “fluffs up” the soil and breaks up compaction, and (5) it looks good to “button-up” all the field work in the fall and go in to the winter with all work done.

What has made it possible to get all this work done in the fall? Fifty years ago, farmers might be lucky to get the harvest in, much less finish with tillage. The reason is that today with larger, faster equipment we can tear through the acres much faster. For example, my neighbor chisel plows corn stalks with a Steiger-Case IH quadratrack that packs somewhere between 370-620 horsepower.

moldboardwellsmn_10202016

Moldboard plowing corn stalks on October 19, 2016 near Wells, Minnesota. This John Deere is about a 400 horsepower tractor.

So what could be wrong with fall tillage? Well, the scientists tell us the following: (1) fall tillage allows nitrate and phosphorus to flow into the watersheds (nitrate flows with tile water and phosphorus adheres to soil particles and flows with surface erosion, and (2) tillage increases soil erosion, both by wind and water, since it leaves the topsoil exposed to the elements for approximately six months.

 

brownmustard34days_10182016

This brown mustard cover crop was seeded September 14, 2016 by plane. After 34 days we have 3 inch root growth on this mustard plant. The mustard will winter kill and the cereal rye that was seeded in the same mix, will continue to grow until planting time. In this way we have living roots in the soil for 12 months a year.

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