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Overview of Tillage Systems


There are few systems in crop production that are as deeply rooted in tradition as tillage. Fall tillage is used in many areas to breakup residue in order to help speed up its deterioration, while spring tillage is often used to prepare the surface for level, low residue planting in order to enhance uniform emergence. To ensure soil management needs and goals are being met, it’s important to keep in mind the tillage options that are available. Below are some important aspects to consider in a tillage system.  

Conventional Tillage Systems

Disk/Field Cultivate

Disk plows consist of circular blades 20 - 36 inches in diameter that cut anywhere from 2 - 12 inches into the soil and are historically one of the most widely used tillage implements across the Corn Belt. The movement of the disk harrow slightly inverts the soil, while leaving behind 40 - 70% of the initial residue. Previously applied pesticides, fertilizers, and other inputs are effectively incorporated below the soil surface. A field cultivator pass typically follows disking for adequate preparation of the seed bed for planting.     

  • Helps size-down residue to allow quicker breakdown.
  • Adequately incorporates around 30 - 60% of total residue.
  • Good for well-drained soils (sands and loams).
  • Soil temperature warming for spring planting.
  • Repeated use quickly forms a compaction layer just below tillage depth, restricting root growth.
  • Prone to leaving cloddy, uneven planting surfaces, especially when done on wetter soils.
  • May disperse weed vegetative structures (rhizomes and stolons) and/or bring weed seedbank to the surface.
  • Greater risk of erosion with repeated passes.
Typically performed in the fall and followed by 1 or 2 field cultivator passes, chisel plows vary in how they till based on the type and width of chisel point used, spacing of shanks, depth, and speed. Straight points cause very little soil inversion and leave the most residue behind, while twisted points incorporate more of it into the soil. A distinct bumpy, “roughened up” surface is characteristic of chiseling. In comparison to a disk system, chisel plows offer a lower risk of soil erosion and notably less soil disturbance per pass, especially when using points of narrower width (~ 2 inches). About 50 - 70% of the original residue can be expected to remain on the soil surface. 

  • Good for poorly drained soils (clays and silts).
  • Reduces winter soil wind erosion.
  • Very customizable to individual tillage needs.
  • High loss in soil moisture.
  • Moderate amount of labor and fuel use required.
  • Potential for residue clogging in plow and soil compaction.
Moldboard plows offer a thorough and almost complete inversion of the soil, leaving very minimal residue behind. Weed seeds, surface residue, and previously applied pesticides and fertilizers are pulverized and buried as deep as 10 - 14 inches below the soil surface for a full “overhaul” of the field. Plowing may need to be followed by disking or field cultivation to smooth out the seedbed, but not always.
  • Good for poorly drained soils, especially low spots.
  • Extremely thorough incorporation and seedbed preparation. 
  • Speeds up spring warming and drying of soils, reducing planting delays.
  • High soil erosion and compaction risk.
  • High moisture loss.
  • Highest amount of labor and fuel use required.
  • Repeated use known to build a plow pan just below running depth.
Conservation Tillage Systems 

Ridge Plant (Till)

Ridge tilling is performed before, and in some areas after, emergence for the purpose of promoting plant growth and soil warming, mixing in fertilizer, applying herbicide bands and postemergence for gravity irrigation. One of the biggest benefits is that the elevated soil ridge dries and warms up quickly in the spring which helps on poorly drained soils. Crop cultivation in ridges is also often used as a form of weed control and erosion prevention on sloped surfaces. Per NRCS guidelines, ridges must be 3 - 5 inches taller than their neighboring furrows and rounded or flattened on top to effectively shed water in the correct direction (towards the furrows). It is important that they are also tilled along the contour if on a sloped surface to minimize water runoff. 

  • Great for poorly drained soils (quick dry-out and warm-up of ridges).
  • Complementary to furrow irrigation systems.
  • Excellent practice for organic production systems.
  • Labor intensive (creation and upkeep of ridges).
  • Machinery modifications likely needed.
  • Little to no incorporation of residue.
Strip Till
Strip tilling is an integrative method of tillage that leaves residue behind while simultaneously preparing the seedbed for planting. Residue on the soil surface is left mostly untouched, aside from the narrow strip in each row where it is removed (less than one third of the total row area). Tillage passes are typically done in the fall along with incorporation of fertilizers into the cleared strips. In the spring, an adequate seedbed is prepared in each strip, which is subsequently warmed quicker than the surrounding residue. 

  • Works for poorly drained soils.
  • Creates optimal seedbed and germination conditions.
  • Optimal “compromise” in no-till vs. traditional tillage decision-making.
  • Strips at risk of erosion, crusting, or over-drying.
  • Expensive to operate.
  • Difficult to complete in wet fall seasons.
No Till 
A no-till system eliminates all forms of residue incorporation into the soil and is the most conservative method of tillage management. Although the added layer of organic material may seem like an added obstacle, most planters can be adapted to this system through the use of coulters, stronger down pressure springs, or even through additional weight to ensure the seed can effectively penetrate through the thick residue.

  • Excellent erosion control.
  • High moisture retention, infiltration, and soil structure optimization.
  • Low labor and fuel use.
  • Reduced soil compaction layers.
  • Longer time necessary for soil warming to occur.
  • Minimal weed control, thus increased herbicide usage.
  • No residue incorporation.

Contact your Golden Harvest Seed Advisor or agronomist for more information and insights regarding tillage practices.

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