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Ontario Grain Farmer Magazine is the flagship publication of Grain Farmers of Ontario and a source of information for our province’s grain farmers. 

Tillage choice


DO FARMERS HAVE the right to work land the way they want to? That is a question I have asked many groups that I have spoken to in the last year. Typically,  most farmers believe they have that right. There are a number of people, generally not farmers, who believe farmers do not have the right to work land the way they want. Interesting, eh?   


In fact, how farmers work land can be a very emotional discussion that results in the gross overstating and embellishment of facts. No other aspect of crop production hits so many hot buttons. Maybe that is because there is more art than science in tillage. Tillage is very personal. Tillage is an art. Different farmers will work the same piece of land different ways. One of the best ways to insult a farmer is to tell them they do not know how to work land.

The reality is that in Canada, farmers can work land how they want. Or not work land if they choose. There are some parameters that farmers should work within. Tillage must be done without unduly affecting the environment. Tillage (or growing crops without tillage) that causes or allows soil, nutrients or pathogens (such as those that come from manure or organic waste) to get into water is not allowed.

The purpose of tillage is to bury residue and prepare a seedbed. This creates a quandary. On one hand, the use of no-till reduces erosion but allows nutrients,  especially phosphorous, to get into tile drains. Tillage disrupts these channels to reduce the amount of “P” that gets into water. What to do. There is some land in Ontario that is so prone to erosion that the only way to grow crops is no-till. But one of the rules of no-till is to have the land tiled before you start. And some farmers are much more profitable no-tilling than working land.

And so the conflicts of tillage continue.

I have looked at a lot of research comparing tillage systems. Generally, this research is good to look at trends and effects on soil, but I do not think you can extrapolate yield differences in tillage systems from a research plot to farms in general. There are too many variables – from tillage configuration, tillage depth, follow-up secondary tillage, and planting system. To compare reduced tillage to mould board plowing or no-till must be done on your own farm, with the individual pieces of equipment you have. A Lemken Reuben works different than a Salford RTS, which works differently from John Deere’s disc or VT equipment, which works different than the Aerway, or the CASE IH 330 True-Tandem, etc.

I have looked at how farmers work land and have talked to many of you across eastern Canada and individuals from around the world. The following is what I believe based on my experiences.

A lot of secondary tillage is too deep, particularly with cultivators. You only need to work the seedbed two inches deep. This means working to four inches. Too often, parts of secondary tillage are deeper than that. This is because the cultivator is not level. It may be level from front to back but not side to side. When a driver sees that part of a cultivator is not working, they set the whole machine deeper. This leads to problems at planting, from uneven depth resulting in uneven emergence to bringing up cold soils leading to lumps.

There is a “landlord tillage” factor. I have asked some farmers why they are plowing certain farms. They say that the landlord wants it plowed. If they do not plow it, the landlord will rent to someone else, he will lose the land and someone else will plow it.

Generally, farmers do too much tillage. This comes from misunderstanding their soil. Sometimes from reworking a whole farm because some areas are just not fit. And some just like to drive a tractor working the ground.

There is too much tillage when it comes to handling cover crops. Red clover and oat cover crops do not need to be mould board plowed. If killed off early enough, vertical tillage can be sufficient. This will give the 30% residue cover that I believe you should strive for. If cover crops are left late in the fall, sometimes a mould board plow is all that will work.

There is less of a tendency to work too deep with the newer vertical tillage tools. These are designed to work shallower. Their horsepower and speed requirements are good deterrents against working too deep.

More producers should be renting vertical tillage tools for fall work. The cost and horsepower requirements suggest that vertical tillage tools with a tractor should be rented on many Ontario farms. You cannot count on renting them in the spring in a timely fashion.

I believe there is a benefit to rotational tillage. By that I mean, just as there is a benefit to rotating crops and rotating varieties, there is a benefit to rotating tillage. Different pieces of tillage work the ground differently. So using different vertical tillage tools, mixed in with some no-till and even mould board plowing every seven to 10 years can increase yields without unduly affecting the environment.

Finally, I believe that some of the yield increases in the last five to seven years have come from better tillage. I think we can get even higher yields with some more tillage changes.

Crop advisors provide advice and council producers in their decision making process. This responsibility requires a good understanding of science, food safety, technology, economics and environment. Crop advisors combine knowledge in these disciplines with their local experience to render sound recommendations.

If you would like to contact a CCA in your area or if you would like contact information for any of the above mentioned CCAs, please contact the CCA office at (519) 669-3350 or visit the website at •


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