Get out of your rut


SALEM, Ohio – The combine got stuck. So did the grain cart. And the tractor.
The fields last fall were a soggy mess. Even though the rains finally stopped, those same fields are still a mess, filled with divots and ruts the size of small children and equally as frustrating.
In terms of compaction, last fall and this winter have been “undoubtedly the worst situation we’ve had here in Ohio,” said Randall Reeder, Ohio State ag engineer and tillage guru. And he’s been at this since the early 1980s.
Even in continuous no-till fields or tiled fields, there was rutting and compaction where people got stuck. Or tractor drivers barreled through standing water, full speed ahead, and made it through, but left a tire rut legacy in their wake.
Rut season. In some parts of the region, those ruts may now be snow-covered, hidden from view. But they haven’t gone away.
Reeder looks at a photograph of a newly planted no-till corn field, with neat rows of residue down the middle of the rows and a uniform stand of corn seedlings. Then he shakes his head and says very few fields will look like this in May.
He flips back to a photo of a field criss-crossed with tire ruts.
“Do you fix it, patch it or live with it?” he asked.
This year, he admitted, nothing will be a perfect solution.
Options. If the rut is just an isolated incident, Reeder recommends using a light tillage implement to try and level it out, just enough to minimize standing water. The goal is just to smooth out the surface.
And don’t feel you have to smooth out the whole field. The fewer trips over the field, the better.
But if your whole field is a rutted mess, it’ll take another plan.
Waiting until closer to planting time in March or April may be a better time to get on your fields, especially if you didn’t get strip tillage done in the fall. Use a light, shallow tillage piece like an Aer-Way, M&W Dyna-Drive, Genesis or Phoenix harrow to smooth out the surface.
Don’t run deep, just around 3 inches, so you’re not bringing up wet soil.
Don’t run a subsoiler, Reeder warns, or “you’re going to have a bad situation.”
“You’re probably going to do more damage than just to leave it.”
Strip tillage. If you couldn’t get into the fields to do fall strip tillage, you can do it right before planting, Reeder said, as long as you’re not bringing up wet soil. You just want to clear the residue and make a bare strip for planting.
Do nothing. In the worst-case situation, you may want to do nothing at all, Reeder said. He still recommends no-till planting, but just realize (and accept) the plant stand won’t be as good where there are ruts or severe compaction.
In some of those spots or whole fields, going in and trying to fix it, when soils are still saturated, will make the problem worse, Reeder said.
Know your soils. Every field and each soil is different, so Reeder’s recommendations may not apply to you.
If you have a tough, clay soil that you know won’t produce anything without tillage, it may be less risky to do some winter tillage (under a frozen layer) and, in Reeder’s words, “hope for some freezing and thawing.”
And if you can forget about the corn prices for a second, Reeder warns this would be the spring you wouldn’t want to do continuous corn, for a variety of reasons, including disease pressure that is expected to be worse than normal in 2007.
For continuous corn to be profitable and productive, you want it on your well-drained fields on noncompacted soil. Those fields are few and far between this year.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at


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