Tillage’s definition of success depends on working the soil at the right moisture level. The ideal moisture level will allow you to work the soil to a fine aggregate with as few passes as possible, while minimizing soil loss to the wind. The specific moisture level that is ideal will vary depending on your soil type and the type of tillage equipment you are using.
If you are new to tillage in your area, it is helpful to talk to experienced local farmers. They can give you advice on the ideal moisture level for your soil type and the best way to achieve it. If you are still unsure about the moisture level, you can do a few trial passes and observe the results. If the soil is too wet, it will be difficult to work and you may end up compacting the soil. If the soil is too dry, it will be difficult to break up and you may not be able to achieve a fine aggregate.
It is better to wait a week if you are not sure about the moisture level. Tillage that is done in the wrong moisture conditions can be more harmful than doing no tillage at all.
Tillage of fallow or virgin fields requires more passes and time than tillage of previously cultivated fields. Depending on the species of vegetation, it may take an additional 3 months for decomposition to be complete before planting. As a rule of thumb, fallow or virgin fields should be thoroughly worked in the fall, cover cropped, and then worked again in the spring before planting.
Here are some specific details about tillage of fallow or virgin fields:
- The number of tillage passes required is typically 2-6 times greater than for previously cultivated fields.
- The time required for decomposition of organic matter is typically 3 months longer than for previously cultivated fields.
- Cover cropping is a beneficial practice that can help to improve soil health and reduce erosion.
- Working the soil in the fall allows time for decomposition to occur before planting.
- Working the soil in the spring helps to break up any clods that have formed over the winter.
Following primary tillage, the next step is the application of fertilizers. Prior to breaking ground, it is customary to apply compost and stable fertilizers such as rock dust, gypsum, or lime. This practice serves two important purposes. Firstly, it reduces compaction by avoiding the need to drive heavy, fully loaded equipment over tilled soil. Secondly, it enhances soil quality and structure, preparing it for optimal crop growth.This promotes conservation tillage, which is the agricultural management technique that aims to minimize the volume and intensity of necessary recurring tillage operations of your soil.
However, it is worth noting that if the field was not adequately prepared in the previous year or if there are extensive divots and imperfections, the fertilizer application process may encounter challenges. In such cases, uneven terrain can result in a rough and bumpy ride, causing excessive wear and tear on the equipment. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure proper field preparation for smooth and efficient fertilizer application.
When utilizing pelleted fertilizer, timing is of the essence. It is essential to apply the fertilizer just before planting, to prevent the nutrients from becoming available too soon and potentially leaching out of the soil before the crop can effectively utilize them. For the application of pelletized fertilizer pre-planting, a spreader cone is a great implement, although figuring out just how fast to drive and how many turns to make to apply the pellets evenly over the field is a process of trial and error.
The Field Prep Step-by-Step
- Flail mowing: First, engage in the practice of flail mowing, meticulously clearing any vegetative matter on the field surface to establish a clean slate for subsequent steps.
- Compost application: Proceed with the deliberate application of compost, a nutrient-rich organic matter, meticulously spreading it across the field’s surface to enhance soil quality and foster optimal crop growth.
- Spading (Tillage): Embark on the meticulous process of spading, which involves the skilled manipulation and turning of the soil using a spade or similar implement, aiming to achieve a desired tilth and soil structure conducive to crop cultivation. It is imperative to allow a sufficient waiting period of two weeks to elapse after spading, during which beneficial soil processes are given an opportunity to occur and adequately prepare the field for further operations.
- Precise pelletized fertilizer application: Carefully administer the pelletized fertilizer, ensuring accurate timing to coincide with the imminent planting phase. This deliberate step strategically ensures that the nutrients encapsulated within the pellets are made available to the emerging crop at an opportune moment, minimizing the risk of premature leaching and maximizing the crop’s capacity to effectively utilize the essential nutrients.
- Bed shaping or meticulous plastic mulch placement: Finally, engage in the meticulous process of shaping clean, well-defined beds or expertly laying a plastic mulch layer, setting the stage for orderly crop planting and growth, while also facilitating effective weed control, moisture retention, and thermal regulation.
Bed shaping is an important agricultural practice that can improve plant health and productivity. By creating defined furrows, bed shaping helps to limit compaction from foot traffic and machinery, which can improve drainage and aeration in the root zone. This, in turn, can lead to healthier plants that are more resistant to pests and diseases.
There are a variety of bed-shaping methods, and the best approach will vary depending on the specific crop and soil conditions. Some common methods include:
- Rototiller: This is a versatile tool that can be used to prepare beds for a variety of crops. However, rototillers can also damage soil structure and organic matter, so it is important to use them carefully.
- Pan shaper: This tool is specifically designed to create raised beds with a smooth, even surface. Pan shapers are often used for crops that require good drainage, such as tomatoes and peppers.
- Cultimulcher: This machine combines tilling and mulching in a single pass. Cultimulchers can be a good option for crops that are sensitive to compaction, such as lettuce and strawberries.
The following are some of the benefits of bed shaping:
- Improved drainage and aeration
- Reduced compaction
- Increased water infiltration
- Improved weed control
- Increased crop yields
When choosing a bed-shaping method, it is important to consider the following factors:
- The type of crop being grown
- The soil conditions
- The desired size and shape of the beds
- The available equipment
Bed shaping is a valuable tool that can help to improve the health and productivity of your crops. By carefully considering the factors involved, you can choose the best method for your specific needs.
Additional Considerations for Bed Shaping
- Bed shaping can also help to reduce soil erosion, improve nutrient availability, and make it easier to apply fertilizers and pesticides.
- The ideal size and shape of the beds will vary depending on the crop being grown and the available space.
- There are a variety of other bed-shaping methods available, including hand tools, animal-drawn equipment, and laser-guided systems.
Marking Beds with Tractor Tires
If the primary tillage process results in desirable soil loft, such as when using a Spader, an alternative approach to shaping beds can be employed. By simply maneuvering the tractor in straight rows along the field, beds can be effortlessly formed. The tire tracks become the aisles. This particular method eliminates the need for an additional tillage step. Not only does this benefit the overall soil health, but it also reduces equipment wear and tear.