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A Simple Guide to Ridge Tillage: Why? When? How?

Ridge tillage, a tillage system that involves scalping (cleaning) and planting on ridges built during the cultivation of last year’s crop, typically involves spring-planted row crops grown with a combination of herbicides and at the very least, one cultivation.

Want to learn more about ridge tillage? Please keep reading to learn what ridge tillage is, why it’s done, and how it’s done.

Starting with Ridge Tillage

Ridges are typically built to be six to eight inches high to allow for settling and weathering. By the spring, the ridges generally are four to six inches tall. The first ridges are typically built when the cultivated crop is either grain sorghum (milo) or corn.

Ridge tillage happens when the crop is around 12 to 18 inches high. If the initial crop is soybeans, you need to lower the ridges (three to four inches tall) so that the crop yield isn’t reduced because of covered pods.

Because there is only a short time frame when ridge tillage can happen – it needs to occur before the crop is too large – cultivation might become a critical factor. Some farmers might need to increase the size of the cultivator and planter when switching to ridge tillage to ensure that the capacity is better to rebuild the ridges.

Ridge tillage is seldom used when rows are smaller than 30 inches wide. The wider the rows are, the less peaked and higher the ridges will be. Ridges that are reasonably wide, slightly founded, or nearly flat tend to have fewer problems holding the planters on the ridges. The wider rows are also great for using the wide widths of the combine tires that are more common on larger machines.

Ridge tillage is often done after harvest. This is best done when there is little residue on the surface, such as after removing a silage crop. The heavy residue, such as milo or corn stalks, should be shredded.

Even after doing this, the next planting season can feel like planting into a bale of straw. Ridge tillage is used to reduce the amount of residue placed in fall-built ridges. The residue of soybeans isn’t sufficient to create problems with seedling emergence or planting in the next growing season. It is often preferred over corn residue for fall-built ridges.

The combine machine must do a steady job of spreading the crop residue. If you orient your fall-built ridges on the contour, you can help reduce the over winter erosion in the residue-free furrows.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Ridge Tillage

Now that you know a little bit more about ridge tillage, let’s talk about the advantages and disadvantages.

Pros of Ridge Tillage

  • Less soil erosion occurs when the rows are placed on the contour because each ridge behaves like a mini terrace.
  • Lower machinery, labor, and fuel costs compared to other conventional tilling practices.
  • There are lower herbicide costs than with no-till or other conservation tilling systems that don’t include cultivation. This is because scalping typically moves the seeds of the weeds and move corn problems to the center of the row where the cultivator can control them.
  • Ridge tillage can allow for planting earlier in the season on poorly drained and level land than other tilling systems that create high amounts of residue. This is because ridges can dry out and warm up quicker than those made with the other tilling systems. After all, gravity moves the crop residue and water down from the ridges into the furrows. On poorly drained, cold soils, the crop yields can be the same as fall-tilling systems and can exceed the yield of no-till systems.
  • Ridge tillage works great for furrow irrigation.

Cons of Ridge Tillage

  • There is a limitation on the crop rotation of wheat, drilled soybeans, and other narrow and smaller row crops.
  • Higher equipment, labor, and fuel costs compared to no-till methods. Ridge tillage requires the use of an expensive, heavy cultivator to rebuild the ridges annually.
  • It can cause drainage issues if the furrows have reverse slopes where water pools.
  • It’s challenging to keep the planter on the ridges, especially those placed on steep hillsides and sharp curves.
  • There is an extra cost associated with converting planter machines so they can do ridge tillage by adding the devices that keep the planter on top of the ridges and the scalping attachment.
  • All equipment, especially the grain carts, fertilizer carts, and combines, need to have wheels that are spaced far enough apart so that the tires can stay in the furrow and won’t cause compaction to the ridges. This can require wide-spaced and narrow dual tires on combine machines.
  • Planting through steep, long slopes can cause an increase in erosion compared to other tilling systems, including no-till. Typically, the furrows shouldn’t have more than four percent slopes, but this depends on the length of the slope and the kind and amount of residue.
  • High management is necessary to make the ridge system work. Incorporation and placement of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer will typically change the previous procedures. Rows should be carefully laid out the same year that the ridges are made. Make sure that the “guess rows” aren’t too narrow.
  • End rows can cause problems because they can be planted at the end of the row could be planted in grass or flat. It’s possible to grass 66-foot-wide strips at the ends and use it as “set aside.”
  • Annuals that grow in the winter can have ridge tillage issues because they are typically spotted over the field. They might require control with pre-plant herbicides to prevent loss of soil moisture. Even then, some farmers observed slow growth and stunted plants, which could be caused by the allelopathic effect.

As you can see, there are several pros and cons to ridge tillage, each of which should be taken into consideration before doing ridge tillage. Hopefully, this article has helped you learn more about ridge tillage and how it works.

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