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The advancement of precision tillage technology

Tillage has come a long way since John Deere invented the self-scouring steel plow in 1837. Once a basic tool for turning the soil, the implement is being developed into a machine that gives producers the ability to vary tillage settings based on changing soil types, field conditions, conservation practices, and topography.

“Thanks to technology advancements, farmers don’t just set up the tillage tool then worry about raising and lowering implements on field ends today. With precision tillage technology, some implements also connect into the tractor-implement CAN bus enabling implement adjustments on the go,” says John Fulton, a professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University.

In the past three years, he believes, precision tillage technology has come to the forefront. “The more tactical pieces to precision tillage are mitigating soil compaction and managing surface residue,” Fulton says.

Like the variable-rate approach used for seed, fertilizer, and chemicals, prescription tillage technology offers farmers or their trusted advisers the ability to create prescriptions to vary the depth and intensity of tillage tools on the go.

“The prescription can automatically adjust the implement’s settings such as the depth of shanks and disks, the gang angle of disks as well as down pressure of wings and rolling baskets as it moves across the field,” Fulton says.

Dialing in on Depth

Because Eran McCormick deals with a range of soils, maintaining the right depth with a field cultivator has been an ongoing challenge.

“On our clay knobs, the field cultivator seemed like it was just scratching the surface or only going about a half to an inch deep,” says McCormick, who grows corn and soybeans about 20 minutes northeast of Lafayette, Indiana. “In our lower ground, where the dirt is soft and black, the field cultivator would bury 6 inches deep.”

To solve the issue, he decided it was time to experiment with TruSet. Offered on his John Deere 2230FH field cultivator, TruSet allows McCormick to run variable-depth tillage prescriptions to incorporate residue at different levels across the field, as well as change the depth of tillage for different conditions such as lighter soils or areas where compaction is an issue. At the same time, he could document tillage passes to see how strategies affected crop emergence or yield.

Steve Sporrer says a prescription can be simple or complex, depending on what the field needs. “It can be based off soil maps, topography, compaction, and yield data to create different tillage zones,” says the tillage product manager with John Deere.

Using soil maps, McCormick’s fields have two to eight zones. Practicing conventional tillage, the TruSet depth is set at 2 to 21⁄2 inches in black ground and 3 to 31⁄2 on clay soil. Including the tire sink he achieves his desired 4-inch working depth.

“Now we can hold that 2-inch planting depth a lot better on corn. We also run the field cultivator in front of the soybean planter, but it seems to be a bigger issue in corn, because we’re going another 3⁄4 inch deeper,” he says. “Once we figured out what our settings should be, consistency of depth has been fabulous compared to the old way.”

Ecolo-Tiger 875

AFS Soil Command

Residue management and compaction control are the two primary reasons Ray Beck equipped his Case IH Ecolo-Tiger 875 with Advanced Farming Systems (AFS) Soil Command.

“We have heavy clay soil in our area and get about 30 inches of rain annually, much of which seems to always come in the spring,” says Beck, who grows corn, soybeans, and wheat in Bloomdale, Ohio. “Equipment has also gotten so big.”

Because compaction can reduce yields 10% to 20%, breaking up the hardpan at the appropriate depth is important. Tillage prescriptions were developed, creating four zones in each of his fields. An 8- to 12-inch depth seems to work best to alleviate compaction.

“This machine gives us the ability to loosen up that soil automatically, so it doesn’t affect corn root growth,” he says. “It does a wonderful job of breaking up compaction and leaving the ground level so only one pass is needed in the spring before planting. That’s a key feature for us.”

It handles residue well, too. “If you have a lot of cornstalks, the disk ripper does a nice job burying residue and leaves a nice surface,” Beck says.

Yield has also seen a boost.

“Our corn yields have been tracking higher. Looking at the yield maps, we are seeing 10 plus bushels more per acre on average,” Beck says.

First available in the fall of 2021, AFS Soil Command tillage prescription technology complements the agronomics.

“Whether for compaction control, residue management, or creating a smoother seedbed, growers can put in prescriptions with AFS Soil Command and fine-tune each pass of that tillage equipment,” says Alison Bryan, tillage research agronomist with Case IH.

Another Step Toward Autonomy

With the introduction of TruSet in 2016, John Deere became the first company to offer prescription tillage technology.

“The adoption of TruSet has grown to the point where it has become a standard feature on every new tillage tool coming out of the factory,” says Steve Sporrer, tillage product manager with John Deere, adding it is also available as an upgrade kit for older Deere tillage tools. “We are using that as a building block to help drive the future capability with autonomy, so when the operator is out of the cab, we have the ability to control and monitor the implement as well,” he says.

“As it becomes more of a standard feature on new machines or the technology is on machines being traded, I think you’re going to see growers take advantage of having that technology at their fingertips,” says John Fulton, a professor at Ohio State University.

How Growers Benefit

To learn how the technology can benefit growers, the company has conducted on-farm tillage research using prescriptions.

In March 2021, Bryan led a conventional tillage study utilizing an Ecolo-Tiger 875 in North Carolina fields totaling 200 acres. Each field was divided so half was ripped at a constant 14-inch depth and the other half used a prescription to vary shank depth from 5 to 14 inches.

“We determined where the compaction layers were and created prescriptions with different soil management zones,” she says. “Shank points were 1 inch below compacted areas to eliminate the problem, so the 875 only went as deep as it needed to go.”

Variable-depth prescription tillage also increased efficiency significantly compared to a constant depth.

“Since we were able to go faster in areas where tillage wasn’t as deep, we saw a nearly 10% enhancement in productivity of acres tilled per hour,” Bryan says, adding that less fuel was also used.

Deere and Case IH aren’t the only companies building these capabilities in tillage tools. Great Plains, Kuhn North America, and others are also offering solutions.

Is it Worth the Money?

As one of the first in his area to try precision tillage technology, Beck has fielded several questions since purchasing his Ecolo-Tiger 875.

The No. 1 question: Is it worth the money?

“I bought my machine used and paid about $70,000,” Beck says. “If I’m going to spend that much money for a tool like this, what’s a little extra to get it right.”

Fulton recommends farmers conduct their own on-farm trials to assess the value for their operation. “Once you get it figured out and have the patience to make it work for you, you’re going to find that there can be tangible benefits to precision tillage technology.

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