Minnesota Farmer

30 days: Fall tillage after the Harvest

So there it is, harvest is done, fertilizer is on and that field of stubble now needs attention.  What happens next is a factor of crop harvested, crop to be planted, climate and tradition.  It’s time to look at fall tillage after the harvest on day 9 of the 30 day challenge.

Here in southwestern Minnesota most farmers do some kind of tillage in the fall after harvest is over.  There are a lot of different kinds of tillage practices and tools and farmers around here seem to use them all.  First off, why do fall tillage?  Some crops, like corn, leave a lot of plant material on the ground after harvest.  That “trash” or “residue” is a combination of fuel for the next crop, livestock bedding or feed, soil protector and soil insulator.

Many cattle producers will bale up the corn leaves, husks and stalks and use them in their cattle yards as bedding and feed.  The left overs after the residue has been through the cows is spread onto fields and tilled into the soil as fertilizer.

Here in Minnesota our cold winters and short summers mean that crop residue is slow to decay.  It is one reason we have black soils and soils further south are reddish.  If you put the crop residue underground it will decay faster.  The problem is that bare ground is prone to blow or wash away, thus some of the residue needs to be left on the surface.  The type of fall tillage tool used will determine how much of that residue is buried.

Leaving the remains of the harvest on the surface will make planting next spring harder.  It will also keep the ground colder and mean we cannot plant as soon as we need to in the spring.  There may be areas of a field that are mostly sand, or sloped too steeply where you may leave all of the stubble on the field to protect the soil.  As I said earlier, there are many factors to be considered.

Our tool of choice for fall tillage of corn stalks is the deep tillage disk.100_2502We think it has just the right  amount of soil movement to bury the trash, and yet leaves enough on the surface to protect the soil for the winter.

On soybeans stubble we prefer strip till.2510S_454174_642x462Strip till only works the ground where the rows of next years crops are going to be planted.  Due to the more fragile nature of soybean stubble, this allows more residue to remain on the surface, and yet tills the ground where the next years corn crop is going to be planted.  Strip till also allows you to place fertilizer directly under where the seed is to be planted.  This allows for lower fertilizer rates and saves us money on inputs.  We don’t own a strip till rig and must hire a neighbor to do our fields.

Many of you, when you think fall tillage think of the moldboard plow.  100_2347We still actually have one, although they are becoming more rare in this area.  Ours is an antique and is used mostly at gatherings of old time tractors.  The one pictured above is a 3 bottom plow and would have difficulty plowing under today’s high residue crops.  Modern fall tillage tools have to be built to handle the farming practices of today.

Doing the tillage after the harvest can take as long as harvest.  Days are spent watching the birds diving for worms and insects and following the edge of your last pass.  It’s a much more boring job than harvest, but not as hard on the nerves.  If snow is in the forecast, or freeze up is nearing, long hours will be spent in the tractor seat.  It’s all just part of the job that must be done after the harvest is over.


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