By Rico Balzano, UVM Extension Agronomy Outreach Professional

Here in Vermont, when farmers are considering a no-till system, several
questions often arise: What about incorporating manure? What about cold
soils? What about ruts leftover from harvest? Vertical tillage offers a solution with minimal soil disturbance and virtually no soil inversion, thereby maintaining a natural soil structure essential for success when otherwise no-tilling.

Vertical tillage implement (Great Plains) with straight cutting disks, rotary harrow and rolling baskets.
Aerator machine (Gen-Til) equipped with coulters for vertical tillage.

Vertical tillage can be a vague and confusing term for both equipment dealers and farmers, mostly because there are so many implements that claim to accomplish vertical tillage. A very general definition of vertical tillage equipment is any implement with disks, shanks, or teeth that enter AND leave the soil vertically, only moving soil up and down. Implements that move soil horizontally, such as moldboard plows and disk harrows
(with concave disks), create restriction layers that impede water movement and root growth. These implements shear or smear the soil, which can lead to compaction in or below the tillage depth.

By definition in-line rippers and chisel plows (with straight points) are vertical tillage tools, and can be used to “reset” the soil profile when restriction layer(s) are present. Ideally, this “reset” should happen only when necessary and not on an annual basis, which would just amount to a conventional tillage system. Most often, vertical tillage refers to shallow or surface tillage that sizes and incorporates residue and manure without creating a stratification layer. Usually the depth is limited to 2” to avoid
creating a compacted layer under the seed. This allows vertical tillage to fit into a reduced tillage system, with the goal of seeding at or below tillage depth. Other advantages of vertical tillage in a reduced tillage system include warming the seed bed in the spring, incorporating
cover crop seed in the fall, incorporating manure, and leveling out ruts from harvest or other field activities.

Most vertical tillage tools consist of vertical cutting blades set straight or at a very shallow angle to size and incorporate residue while minimizing horizontal soil movement. Also, most implements have some combination of rolling baskets and cultivator wheels to break up clods and level the seed bed. Aerator machines can be effective vertical tillage tools, especially when equipped with some combination of coulters, rolling cultivators, or rolling baskets. Some manufacturers’ vertical tillage implements have
concave disks or straight disks set on an aggressive angle. These set-ups can help incorporate residue and manure, but increase the chances of smearing soil and creating compaction in the tillage zone. Care must be taken not to use ANY tillage implement when soil moisture is too high, as more harm than good will be done.

Where’s Rico? Rico Balzano has moved to the Rutland Extension office, but he is still an active part of our team and continues to be involved in programming
content and outreach. Contact him at:
(802) 773-3340 ext. 281,