How'd you like a tillage system that allows for earlier planting, improves soil conditions, cuts costs and posts top yields?

Maybe it's time to reconsider ridge-till, as some growers are doing. According to Conservation Technology Information Center data, ridge-till was increased by 400,000 acres in 1997 after plateauing in 1995 and '96.

Ridge-till advocates say their system has all the above benefits - and university research and farmer experience back them up.

"In most years you will be able to plant one to two weeks earlier and have more days available for planting with ridge-till," says Ohio State University ag engineer Randall Reeder. "That's because the ridges dry out and warm up faster than tilled ground and certainly faster than no-till fields.

"Let's say you can plant soybeans on May 1 with ridges, but can't no-till drill them until May 15," says Reeder. "That two-week-earlier planting may offset any yield advantage from drilling over rows."

Professional farm manager Larry Neppl of Iowa Farms Associates, Ft. Dodge, IA, points out that, while ridges warm earlier in spring, the valleys between ridges stay cool, discouraging weed growth. And starter fertilizer, virtually always used in ridge-till, gives an added boost to seedlings.

Ohio State's Reeder points out that there's a controlled traffic pattern with ridge-till. That results in a compaction-free zone under each ridge, which is an improved soil environment for plant growth.

"Over several years the soil will increase in organic matter, water-holding capacity and earthworms," says Reeder.

Equipment, repair and labor costs are lower with ridge-till than with full-width tillage, and herbicide costs are less than for no-till, points out Andy Wujek, a Mendota, IL, farmer who has been ridging since 1984. He handles a sizable acreage with just two tractors, two cultivators and a sprayer.

There also are fertilizer savings, says farm manager Neppl. "Fertilizer is banded, which means less is needed because it's more efficient." What's more, banded fertilizer feeds the seeds and not the weeds.

What about yields? In Ohio State University research on silty clay soil in a corn-soybean rotation, ridge-till brought 8-15% higher corn yields than did moldboard plowing. Soybean yields were about the same with both systems.

In a Purdue University study involving five soil types, yields ranged from 2% lower to 10% higher with ridge-till than with moldboard plowing. Purdue researchers concluded that ridge-till seems to offer the highest returns on most soils, while no-till is best on highly erodible soils.

University of Minnesota soil scientist George Rehm says ridge-till yields are comparable to, or better than, those of other systems.

"And," he adds, "based on actual farmer records, ridge-till is the highest net-return system we have in both Minnesota and Iowa."

Ditto in Illinois, where Neppl's firm's records show that ridge-till's lower costs translate into higher net returns compared to other systems.

Ridge-tiller Wujek says ridge-till is probably most profitable in a one-person operation (where full-time hired labor isn't required), especially if the operator doesn't mind cultivating.

Wujek believes that full-width tillage is more competitive with ridge-till than it once was, because most farmers are making fewer field trips. But it still doesn't produce as good a bottom line.

He makes four spring trips over ridge-till cornfields: to plant and band phosphorus and potassium, band herbicides, cultivate-band liquid nitrogen, and cultivate-reridge.

"We see nearly every plant every 10 days during the early growth period and therefore can monitor for uniformity of stand, areas of fast and slow emergence, cutworm activity and weed control," Wujek reports. "If some action is needed on weeds or insects, we often can take it at that time. In addition, those early season observations help us when we analyze yield maps after harvest."

Minnesota's George Rehm says there seems to be a perception that big equipment can't be used in ridge-till.

"However, we see ridge-tillers today using 16- and 24-row equipment," says Rehm. "I know of one ridge-till farmer with 24-row equipment who farms over 2,000 acres by himself. We also have ridge-till farmers with 20" rows. One Minnesota ridge-tiller is going to 16" rows this spring."

Some farmers might be interested in ridge-till corn but don't want to give up no-till drilled soybeans. Ag engineer Reeder says it's possible to have both in the same rotation. Beans can be drilled in a ridged field, and the ridges will still be usable for the following corn crop. Wheat also can be grown in ridged fields.