What About Winter Tillage?

The late planting in much of the Midwest in 2019 combined with fall rain and early snow caused harvest to be delayed, which resulted in reduced fall tillage. In areas where a wet harvest caused many soil profiles to be compacted and rutted, tillage will be necessary to help prepare a seedbed for next spring.

But what is the best way to correct serious soil compaction issues caused by the large harvest equipment used today?

This question needs to be answered by each individual operator because each situation will be different. The one common thread is to wait until it is DRY enough to proceed with tillage to prevent further damage. To attempt to till an already wet soil will only drive the compaction zone deeper into the soil profile.

Even the common practice of tilling a partially frozen soil will cause damage. The partially frozen soil will help keep the equipment from sinking and getting stuck, but the weight of the equipment and the action of the tillage tool on the wet soil underneath can cause more compaction deeper in the profile. Winter will not “freeze out” any deeper soil compaction.

The soil profile is the total below-ground environment for future crops. If the soil is compacted, it becomes more difficult to achieve optimum yields. If it remains too wet this winter for tillage, wait until next spring for more favorable weather, but tillage should be kept shallow to avoid losing valuable moisture that is needed for germination. A shovel can be very helpful to determine the soil moisture at the depth at which you want to operate the tillage tool. If the soil is wet enough to make a mud ball at the desired depth, then tillage should be postponed until conditions are better.

A light vertical tillage tool will help to distribute residue and move some soil when moisture levels deep in the soil prevent deep tillage.

Look at all the options and remember to protect the soil profile from further damage to soil compaction.

Figure 1. Harvest Rutting and Compaction Figure 1. Harvest Rutting and Compaction

Dave Klamfoth


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