Acres of no-till land must be ‘fixed’

Picking cotton and combining soybeans in January is never a good deal, but better than failing to fill contracts and losing money on crops already left in the field too long.

Late fall rains, followed by heavy, and often early snows left many growers in the upper Southeast in position of having to leave a crop in the field or risk tearing up the ground.

Many growers, forced to wait until January — some even into February — to pick and combine, tried to get on frozen ground early in the morning, but quickly found that wasn’t a good option. Getting crops out when fields were too wet back in the fall wasn’t a good option either.

Some growers, like Jay Foushee in Roxboro, N.C., used under-inflated dual tires on his combine. “I’ve never done that before, but it was the only way we could see to get in the field. The duals did help, but it didn’t totally prevent us from doing some damage to our land,” he says.

In many cases farmers got stuck in the field, then made a bad situation worse by trying to hurriedly try to get ‘unstuck’. Scenarios like that have created some world class ruts in the Carolinas and Virginia.

(The severe winter weather also had a big impact on the wheat crop in some areas of the upper Southeast. For a look at that situation please visit

“I had to harvest soybeans in January — the first time in over 30 years of farming. In the fall it was too wet and in the fields I combined, I ruined. We won’t be able to no-till that land in 2010,” says Dave Vinson, who farms about 3,000 acres of grain crops and tobacco near Goldsboro, N.C.

Farmers, like Vinson, using a no-till system who have ruts in their field, will really have no choice but to go in there with a piece of tillage equipment and try to fill in the rutted paths. There is no way they will be able to no-till seed through those ruts.

Long-term no tillers are finding even basic tillage equipment hard to find. Figuring out what to do and to find the equipment with which to do it is a double challenge in fixing the problem.

Finding a big ripper and going in with deep-tillage may do more harm than good, according to most soil scientists. But in severe cases starting over may be the only way to do it.

If a field has isolated areas with moderate to light ruts, getting these areas ready for spring planting can be done without creating further damage. On deep ruts, spread across the whole field, the challenge is much greater.

One school of thought is to do nothing about the deep ruts. Performing deep-tillage on wet land will likely make a bad situation worse by destroying the soil structure. If a farmer can get a no-till planter or drill across rutted ground, it may be more cost effective to go ahead and plant the crop and fix the rutting problem after the crop is harvested.

Leaving the damaged field alone may be the only option available to growers, if rain patterns in 2010 follow similar El Niño years from back in the mid-1990s. On higher clay content land, this also might be the best option.

Unfortunately, a high percentage of land in the upper Southeast is high in sand content and these soils aren’t nearly as forgiving as heavier soils with higher clay content. The biggest concern is with deep ruts in lighter, sandier soils.

Regardless of the soil type, shallower ruts will probably be back to normal within a year or so on most soils and the deep ruts will return to their normal state fairly soon in the heavier clay soils.

A good first step is to make an accurate — and honest — appraisal of what level of damage was left in a particular field. On large farming operations, even a fly-over may be cost effective in determining what rebuilding strategy will work best.

If the crop is only half as high in the rut areas, then it may be time to find a soil ripper and at least do those rutted areas in the fall.

Another cropping casualty of the wetter than normal fall weather, and subsequent winter snows, is that not much fertilizer has gone out, plus many of the nitrogen-fixing cover crops weren’t planted or were ‘snowed out’.

Corn is likely the first crop to be planted this spring, but planting dates are likely to be pushed back in many areas due to prolonged wet and frozen ground. There are some options for farmers to use.

Though not widely used in the Southeast, a number of corn growers in the Midwest are being advised to fertigate nitrogen through their irrigation systems. For growers with irrigation, 2010 may be an ideal year to invest in fertigation equipment to be able to get nitrogen and other fertilizers on quickly in a limited time window.

If wet weather extends into the spring, as has been the case in past El Niño years, anhydrous ammonia may be a more cost-effective nitrogen source for corn, though a little more risky from a crop damage standpoint. And, a little more demanding from a timing standpoint.

Applying anhydrous with a coulter rig is one option. Finding or making a coulter rig set up to apply anhydrous may be a challenge is some areas of the Southeast. Whether using a coulter rig or a knifing rig to apply it, anhydrous should be applied between the rows and deep enough to avoid injury to the corn.

Most growers, like, Wilson, N.C., farmer Brad Coley expect more problems from going back to fix rutted land.

“We’ve been in no-till for several years and like many folks, we are going to have to start over in 2010. We expect we will see more weed problems, or at least different weed issues that we haven’t seen for a while. I don’t look at it as an unbeatable problem, but one we will have to solve,” Coley says.

Most growers in most years go into a cropping season with ‘what’ to plant foremost on their mind. In 2010, ‘how’ to plant may a role in which cropping options they take.

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TAGS: Management
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