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Tilling, toiling

A soggy growing season that turned bone dry has resulted in hard soils and tough tilling

November 10, 2011
By Steve Browne , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - As if farmers hadn't had enough to deal with this past year, dry compact soil conditions are making it difficult to prepare the soil for next spring planting.

"Tillage is tough right now," said Terry Schmidt, regional agronomy manager for agricultural service company CHS Inc. "From the lack of moisture things have gotten so hard and cloddy. We've seen farmers using disks we haven't seen in years now because it's so dry they're trying everything to break up clods."

The soil conditions have been harder on machinery as well, according to Jordan Vandeputte, a farmer and precision farming specialist for Titan Machinery in Marshall.

"Ripper points have been wearing out real quick with the hard dry ground," Vandeputte said. "Some guys have been disking just to mix the residue on top."

Schmidt said expenses because of breakage of machine parts this fall have been the greatest in years.

According to Schmidt, breaking up the soil is critical to corn, which depends heavily on soil to seed contact to germinate. Soybeans are less sensitive to the soil conditions at time of planting. At $350 for a bag of seed corn amounting to about 80,000 seeds, enough to plant a little over two acres, fewer seeds germinating can result in significant expense for farmers.

"The whole goal with corn is to have everything perfect in the seed bed," Schmidt said. "With soy, if some doesn't germinate it'll compensate by bushing out."

Of the major crops in southwest Minnesota, Schmidt said corn is more sensitive to conditions at planting while soy is more sensitive to conditions later in the year toward harvest.

The success of spring planting is going to depend a lot on how the soil reacts to the snow pack this winter, according to Laura DeBeer, conservation technician at Lyon County Soil and Water Conservation District.

"It depends on how much moisture the soil will absorb due to runoff, whether the spring thaw happens slow or fast, and soil compaction which is related to machinery used, the type of soil, and what's been planted," DeBeer said.

Soil in southwest Minnesota is mostly loam, a type of soil composed of sand, silt, and clay in various proportions. Too much clay makes the soil compact hard, but too little clay and the soil won't hold moisture as well, according to DeBeer. Compaction affects moisture uptake.

"Compaction has been an issue for years," DeBeer said.

Schmidt said there are two goals in tillage: to fracture the hard pan to a depth of eight to 12 inches so the soil breaks down and roots can penetrate, and to till the stalks and stubble of the last crop down into the soil to decompose. Right now getting this done before the ground freezes depends a lot on the rain.

"Normally we'd be done tilling and fertilizing this time of year," Schmidt said. "But people are waiting for moisture so the fertilizer can be worked into the soil. One inch would make a world of difference, that's all it would take to get the top six inches of soil loosened up."

Schmidt said if moisture can penetrate into the hard pan the winter freeze will cause it to expand and break up the soil. But if it doesn't rain before the ground freezes some farmers are going to wait until spring to till their soil. Waiting until spring would present problems if the ground becomes too wet to run heavy machinery.



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