Tillage, once the standby for killing pests and weeds on crop farms, is once again gaining ground, following a 10-year slump in tillage-equipment sales.

Although no figures are available publicly, those in the industry tell us that tillage-equipment sales are up considerably, reaching their highest volumes in 10 years. Strong sales are reported across most categories of tillage equipment, particularly vertical tillage implements, primary tools such as disks, and combination tools, including disk rippers and disk chisels.

“Obviously, the tillage industry is seeing substantial growth, well beyond historical volumes,” says Patrick Sikora, tillage marketing manager for John Deere. “Last year the industry saw record demand, and this year might even top that. With the recent increase in rainfall in the northern plains, along with increasing crop residue that’s making it tougher to manage, we’re seeing tillage come into areas that have been no-till or minimum-till for several decades.”

Other companies report the same demand, which they expect will continue through 2012. And buyers coming back will have a whole new generation of tools from which to choose.

 

Drivers of demand

So why the sudden run on tillage equipment? Experts cite a variety of reasons. One is a buildup of crop residue, a by-product of higher plant populations and high-yielding biotech hybrids. These crops, once harvested, leave behind a blanket of stalks and stems that can make it difficult to plant come spring.

Soil compaction, which can build up in years when wet fall weather prevents deep, effective tillage, is another reason for the rise in sales, companies report. Wet spring and fall weather means that farmers drive on wet ground to plant and harvest their crops, creating layers of compaction deep in the soil. Tillage helps to remove those layers that may otherwise block root growth.

Finally, high corn prices have left farmers with more disposable income. Farmers are using that money to buy tillage equipment, considered an impulse item that farmers can buy off the lot, especially since self-propelled equipment is in such tight supply, says Deere’s Sikora.

“Tillage equipment purchase decisions are typically more impulse in nature than tractors, self-propelled sprayers, and other higher-ticket items, which farmers buy further in advance to take advantage of availability, early-order programs, and other incentives,” he says.

All of these factors are spurring a wave of new tillage implement purchases.

 

Two cardinal rules

Crop specialist Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois, is seeing the results of those purchases as he drives past fields in his home state. He says in the past two years, he has seen more tillage than usual, and attributes it to the wet fall in 2009 that left tire ruts and soil compaction, followed by a wet spring in 2011. Dry soils and good tillage conditions came in the fall of both 2010 and 2011.

According to an Illinois Department of Agriculture survey, the number of tilled acres (including conventional till, reduced till, and mulch till) increased an average of 2% between 2009 and 2011 while no-till acres in the state declined 5%, from a record high of 33.2% in 2006 to the current 24.2%. A recent Farm Industry News survey, conducted with 300 readers throughout the Midwest, showed a similar upswing in use.

Nafziger says there are really only two reasons why farmers should consider traditional tillage. One is to improve soil aeration and break compacted zones in the root zone, where primary (deep) tillage can help. “The other is to improve seed placement, which we normally accomplish with secondary [shallow] tillage,” he says. He suggests doing less of either primary or secondary tillage if conditions that tillage helps correct are not present.

The tools being used most, he says, are big combination tools like heavy disk rippers, which can disk, rip, and level the ground all in one pass. Vertical tillage tools, designed for light, fast, and shallow tillage, are being used as secondary tillage implements in some cases, Nafziger says. “But more traditional implements like field cultivators and disk harrows are now joined by combination ‘soil finishers,’ which can do a very good job of seedbed preparation without making the seedbed finer than it should be,” he says.

 

Top-selling implements

Rob Zemenchik, sales and marketing manager for Case IH tillage products, says that Case IH recognized several years ago that the greater volumes and more durable chemistry of crop residues were creating operation problems for crop producers.

 “After evaluating 1,600 on-farm production-scale field plots over a five-year period, we introduced the Ecolo-Tiger 870 and True-Tandem 330 Turbo to address these challenges, and they have proven to be very successful,” Zemenchik says.

Zemenchik claims the Ecolo-Tiger 870, a disk ripper, can process high crop residue volumes into a target piece size of 18 in. or smaller, while leaving a target clod size of less than 6 in. when equipped with a patented double-edge reel. Subsequently, the True-Tandem 330 Turbo vertical tillage tool is designed to level the seedbed in a high-speed, low-draft operation to allow for precise planter-row-unit performance.

AGCO reports the same demand for its vertical tillage system, the Sunflower 6630. “Sales of this implement have exploded since it was introduced in 2010, and the 6630 is now our most popular tillage tool,” says Tom Draper, manager of marketing for Sunflower seeding and tillage.

“One of the things we learned about vertical tillage tools is that blades need to be sharp for best performance,” Draper continues. “So the geometry of the blade shape and the metallurgy of the steel used help us keep the cutting edge sharp while getting through tough, modern-genetics crop residue.”

Draper says disk sales also are strong. “The Sunflower 1435 disks are still the most numerous-selling series in the Sunflower product line,” he says.

Canada-based Versatile says its tandem disk business has grown in the last six to eight years. “When you ask a small grains farmer, why are you spending $100,000 on a tandem disk, they will tell you it is for residue management,” says Adam Reid, director of marketing for Versatile. “Guys are running the disks quite shallow to avoid compaction and are using them to manage residue, and it’s working for them.”

 

New breed of tools

John Deere’s Sikora says the tillage tools built today are much more focused on minimizing the impact on the soil in comparison to tools designed a generation ago. For example, he says, a whole new generation of primary disks allow for increased working depths and have improved finishing attachments to better anchor the residue, improve its breakdown, and prepare a much more uniform seedbed.

Sikora says the disks themselves are heavier to better size and incorporate difficult residue. The units are more stable to allow for faster speeds and have wider working widths with more finishing attachments. Because the units can do multiple jobs at once, farmers end up making fewer passes, he says.

“Just because we’re seeing a transition back to more tillage doesn’t mean you’re seeing more passes,” Sikora says. “The new solutions are making the whole tillage system more efficient.”

Vertical tillage, a form of mulch tillage, is a relatively new option for no-tillers to address the residue problem yet still leave as much residue as possible on top to prevent erosion. The units consist of offset rows of ultra-shallow, hybrid disc blades that slice cornstalks at speeds up to 12 mph. 

A similar concept is high-speed compact disks. Horsch Anderson brought several of these units from Europe in 2009 and is now offering full domestic production. Other companies sell them, too. Horsch Anderson’s unit, called the Joker, consists of 20-in. notched discs that chop long straws and mulch the residue. Steel rings, which act as the finishing system, roll over the top of the mulched ground and firm it in the soil without creating compacted soil layers associated with other tillage methods, says marketing manager Jeremy Hughes. 

“It’s proven technology from Europe that we now are manufacturing here,” he says. “The discs rotate faster than traditional discs, allowing the whole unit to work at speeds from 8 to 12 miles per hour.”

 

Future of tillage

So, what will be the future of tillage? What will be the next big trend? Case IH’s Zemenchik says future trend lines project even greater challenges in crop residue in the near term. He says the company designed its current tillage offerings to carry buyers out at least for another six to eight years as yields reach the 300-bu. mark.

However, although the company is not willing to share its future design plans publicly, Zemenchik says a new set of challenges will come as hybrids continue to evolve and will again require a new generation of tools.

“For example, drought-tolerant hybrids could introduce new crops to regions that previously would have been too dry to produce them, such as westward and northward,” he says. “What will that mean for, say, Colorado, Nebraska, North Carolina, or Texas?

“We’ll be asking different questions 10 years from now, and we have to be ready for them,” Zemenchik adds. “Maybe corn will be grown for other purposes and have different chemistries than today’s hybrids. So we have to look for that, too.”

 

4 alternatives to tillage

Farmers and equipment manufacturers are finding new methods to handle crop residue and soil compaction without disturbing the ground. Here are just a few.

28% nitrogen or enzymes. Farmers can apply 28% nitrogen or enzymes in the fall after harvest to accelerate the process of decomposition. These nutrients provide food for the microbes, which can increase in population. However, the soil must be moist and greater than 50 degrees for the process to work. This typically occurs only for early-harvested corn.

Cover crops. Precision planting cover crops is gaining traction in the Midwest. Farmers are planting cover crops such as annual ryegrass, winter peas, or crimson clover in late August or early September. The cover crops have deep roots that break up compacted ground.

Stalk shredders. Shredding stalks is another way to deal with crop residue. However, the fine pieces of stalk left are subject to movement by rain or water, which in some cases may result in piles of residue. 

Crimping, lacerating, or crushing the stalks. Performing these actions at the combine head helps start the decomposition process. Various combinations are available. Marion Calmer, maker of the Calmer narrow-row corn head, makes an aftermarket crimper.