Vertical Tillage: Is it the King of Tilling Methods?

Vortek Team |
October 31, 2023

What is this Vertical Tillage Hype All About?

The concept of vertical tillage can be traced back to the early 1900s, when farmers began to experiment with new ways to till their soil without inverting it. It also targeted the problem of thick residue beds by sizing and mixing the residue with the topsoil for faster decomposition. One of the early pioneers of this method was Summers Manufacturing. In the late 1990’s they found that using a vertical blade that cut through crop residue and opened up the topsoil dramatically improved the soil composition.

Summers Mfg. defines vertical tillage as “a tool that enters and exits the soil on a vertical plane.”[i] We will work off their basic definition for the rest of this article. This means that any method/implement using concave blades that create horizontal displacement of the soil are not truly vertical tillage.

Although there are widely varying definitions and interpretations of vertical tillage, I won’t be getting into those here. If you are interested in getting to the bottom of the discrepancies between the interpretations of different companies/farmers check out this in-depth comparison by Dave Kanicki of Farm Equipment Magazine.

One of the first vertical tillage tools was the McFarlane SPR1000 Seedbed Conditioner, which was introduced in the late 1970s. This tool was designed to lightly till the soil without creating a stratification layer. Other early vertical tillage tools included the Summers Manufacturing Vertical Tillage Tool and the Great Plains Turbo-Max.

In the 1990s, vertical tillage tools continued to evolve, with manufacturers developing new designs that were more efficient and effective. Some of the most popular vertical tillage tools today include the Brandt High-Speed Disc, Incite®️-i 5200 from McFarlane Ag, Landoll Adjustable Gang VT, and the Great Plains VT1100 Turbo-Max.

Kuhn Krause Excellerator
The bolt on distribution kit for the Vortek Air Seeder.

Why Did Vertical Tillage Become Popular?

Vertical tillage got its rise to popularity when no-till farmers were looking for efficient ways to manage cover crop residue and moisture content of the soil. According to Larry Kuster, senior marketing specialist for tillage at AGCO, “Since seed companies started modifying their hybrids for better stalk quality, residue became a much more difficult material to deal with, because it didn’t break down as quickly. Consequently, the buildup of tough residue was decreasing yields.” He also stated that, “Back in the early 2000’s, corn process prices were pretty good, and some producers were looking at doing corn-on-corn. Without the crop rotation, the residues were really piling up.”[ii]

Early vertical tillage implements were built to cut through that residue while causing minimal soil disturbance and that is exactly what no-till farmers were looking for. Vertical tillage continued to improve with the introduction of soil-residue mixing blades and more complex implements. This along with many of the benefits that I will mention below contributed to a quick rise in the popularity and availability of vertical tillage implements.

Before you too jump on the vertical tillage bandwagon, let’s consider both the positive benefits and drawbacks of this method so that you can determine if this tillage method is right for your farm and crop schedule.

Benefits of Vertical Tillage

Vertical tillage offers a number of benefits over traditional tillage methods, including:

  • Improved soil health: Vertical tillage helps to improve soil health by reducing soil compaction and increasing organic matter content. This is because vertical tillage does not invert the soil, which helps to preserve soil structure and protect soil microbes.
  • Reduced soil erosion: Vertical tillage helps to reduce soil erosion by keeping crop residue on the surface of the soil. This residue helps to protect the soil from wind and water erosion.
  • Improved soil water content: Vertical tillage helps to improve water infiltration by loosening the soil and creating channels for water to flow through. This can help to reduce runoff and improve irrigation efficiency. It also allows wet soil to dry out faster meaning earlier planting.
  • Reduced costs: Vertical tillage requires less fuel and time than traditional tillage methods. Traditional tillage can take 5 –10 passes where vertical tillage typically only takes one. It also requires less horsepower than deep ripping, making it an option for more farmers without purchasing new tractors.

Mark Muench, a farmer from Ogden Iowa, testified to the benefits of vertical tillage in an interview with Successful Farming. Muench states that, “I think there’s a misconception that if you try to take care of the soil, your yields are going to suffer. That’s just not true… Last year our total farm average on corn was 230 bushels. That proves it doesn’t take a lot of tillage to have pretty tremendous yields.”[iii] You can read more about Marks experience with vertical tillage by reading the full article.

Drawbacks of Vertical Tillage

Vertical tillage also has some drawbacks, including:

  • Reduced weed control: Vertical tillage is not as effective at controlling weeds as traditional tillage methods. This is because vertical tillage does not bury weed seeds as deeply in the soil.
  • Slower crop emergence: Vertical tillage can sometimes delay crop emergence because it does not create a smooth seedbed. This can be a problem in cold climates, where early crop emergence is important for maximum yields.
  • Increased equipment costs: Vertical tillage equipment can be more expensive than traditional tillage equipment.

Cover Crops and VT: The Ultimate Pairing

As we have seen above, vertical tillage already has huge benefits for most farmers by itself. Especially farmers interested in or already participating in no-till farming methods. However, when paired with cover crops the two make a dynamic pair. Cover crops can take some extra time and energy to plant and manage, but with vertical tillage the residue challenge is completely resolved. Choosing to plant cover crops leads to soil that is significantly healthier and can have a higher yield.

According to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), an agricultural sustainability initiative of the University of Maryland, cover crops are a key player in soil health and plant yield.

Muench, the Iowa farmer I mentioned above, believes that vertical tillage and cover cropping are inseparable. He states, “”I plant rye in late summer to early fall and will vertical-till them. The following spring, I’m able to plant into a stale seed bed in some of those fields,”[iv]

John Deere tractor in field pulling Vortek Air Seeder
The Vortek Air Seeder hard at work – “Two Jobs – One Pass”

The Vortek Air Seeder Sweetens the Deal Even More!

If you are already sold on vertical tillage, then we have some exciting news for you. At Vortek, our core mission is to make farming more efficient. We believe that when it comes to cover crops and fertilizer, efficiency is key. That’s why we designed the Vortek Application System. Our Vortek Application System with its bolt-on distribution kit can attach directly to your existing vertical tillage implement allowing you to till and seed or fertilize in a single pass.

Here is some more information on our distribution kit and other standout features:

  1. Bolt-on Distribution Kit: Mount our Bolt-on Distribution Kit to your tillage implement, connect it to our 130-bushel/138 cu. ft. Vortek Air Cart, and you’re ready for unsurpassed productivity in the field. Not seeding or fertilizing? No problem. Vortek’s simple disconnect feature allows you to effortlessly revert back to an uncluttered tillage implement.
  2. Large Hassle-Free Tank: The Vortek Air Seeder features a large 130-bushel/138 cu. ft. tank with a 22″ – 22″ opening making it easy to fill and clean.
  3. Flexible Rate Control: With Vortek Air Seeder Carts, you have options. Our Rate Control Modules are compatible with ISOBUS systems for precision control. If you prefer a more hands-on approach, manual rate control options are available.

The Vortek Air Seeder takes out much of the guess work in deciding how to plant your cover crops, even as a no-till farmer with vertical tillage implements. Our system is designed to provide flexibility, speed and results. Contact us to get a quote today or check out custom seeding operators who use the Vortek Air Cart.


[i] https://summersmfg.com/library/tillage/what-is-vertical-tillage

[ii] https://agupdate.com/illinoisfarmertoday/opinion/columnists/equipment_connection/vertical-tillage-machines-gain-in-popularity/article_d8ae1a18-baea-11ea-8ae4-577317822bfe.html

[iii] https://www.agriculture.com/machinery/tillage/using-vertical-tillage-is-like-cutting-a-pie

[iv] https://www.agriculture.com/machinery/tillage/using-vertical-tillage-is-like-cutting-a-pie

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