Cold spring soils are sparking a hot new form of tillage. Shallow vertical tillage tools slice crop residue and loosen the top layer of soil while leaving most of the residue on the surface to protect soil from erosion. The practice speeds up residue breakdown and improves spring planting conditions – without sacrificing the soil conservation benefits of high residue cover.

Shallow vertical tillage is hot these days, says Mike Staton, Michigan State University soybean agronomist. What’s driving it, he says, is the goal to manage an increased amount of corn residue with the least amount of tillage. Higher corn populations and yields, stronger stalks and more years of continuous corn are generating mounds of sturdy stover. All that residue slows soil warming and makes it tougher to achieve good seed-to-soil contact.

Curt Weisenbeck, Agronomic Consulting, Durand, Wis., works with quite a few former no-tillers who now use shallow vertical tillage to handle “quite an accumulation of residue. With our cold soils in the spring, you can have some decline in yield potential.” For preparing the seedbed, “it’s as good a tool as you will find for a one-pass system,” he says. “It helps tremendously with warming cold soils.” That can improve yield potential 10%-15%, he estimates. “We’re able to warm up the soil better, we get better fertilizer incorporation, better mineralization of nitrogen and we can do a better job with the planter.”

Jay Furseth used to be all no-till for soybeans at his Stoughton, Wis. grain and dairy farm, but the heavy accumulation of corn stalks interfered with soil warm-up and planting, and soybean harvesting. “All the residue made it hard to keep the combine heads close to the ground.”

Last fall, the Furseths ran a 30-ft. Great Plains Turbo Max shallow vertical-tillage tool over corn stalks. This spring, “the planter pulled easier, versus straight no-till,” Jay says, and less down pressure was needed for good seed placement. The Furseths dropped their soybean population by about 10,000 seeds/acre “because of the better seedbed.”

This fall, the Furseths used the tool to help incorporate dairy manure on harvested corn silage fields. Mixing “top layers of soil with a conservative tillage pass that maintains large amounts of residue” can help reduce phosphorus losses, says Kevan Klingberg, University of Wisconsin Extension outreach specialist.

Shallow vertical tillage is also an option for growers who want to reduce – but not eliminate – tillage, says Trevor Dybevik, Great Plains territory manager for Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Doug Olson raises corn and soybeans on the erodible hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, near Mondovi. He has used shallow vertical tillage for several years to manage crop residue on his sensitive terrain. “I like leaving the residue on top of the soil. That’s how our topsoil is made – not by plowing.” Shallow vertical tillage, at 8-10 mph, “gets my stalks chopped in the fall very quickly,” he says. “I like it on our side hills.” In the spring, the chopped residue flows through the planter better, he says, “so we get good seed placement. He gets good water infiltration, it saves time, and he hasn’t seen any yield loss, he says.