Equipment Demonstrations -- The Seed Farm
Posted: September 16, 2012
Sara Runkel, Director, The Seed Farm
Lehigh County’s Agricultural Incubator and New Farmer Training Program
As the season begins to wind down, many of you may be starting to think about next season and how you can improve your farming system. Having the right equipment is essential to increasing productivity and your bottom line. In the case of tillage equipment, it can also impact the soil health on your farm. This season at The Seed Farm we trialed four different tillage techniques that are appropriate for small farms of one acre or less, larger farms with over 20 acres in production, and everything in between.
This spring we started a new half-acre production area where we are demonstrating small-scale intensive production. The field was previously in a mix of clover and grass and we used a three-bottom moldboard plow to turn under this perennial cover. After waiting two weeks, we followed up with two passes with our set of discs. Once we had the primary tillage work done, we switched from using tractor based equipment to small scale equipment including a BCS walk-behind tiller and hand tools to prepare beds for planting. This system has worked well for us and is an example of what a new small-scale farmer would do. It requires a minimal investment in equipment, especially if you hire a neighboring farmer to do the initial plowing and disking.
In our larger production area we trialed three tillage techniques: moldboard plowing followed by two rounds of disking, chisel plowing followed by two rounds of disking, and spading with our new Celli Spader. The first technique is the most traditional. Moldboard plowing does a great job of turning under perennial growth and it can also be used to bury weed seed infested topsoil. Two and three bottom plows are relatively easy to find used as are three-point hitch discs. The general rule of thumb is that you need 1 horse power (hp) per inch of plow so for a 2x16" plow you would need at least a 35 hp tractor. The downside of this system is that the moldboard plow can create a compaction layer, also known as a plow pan, if it is used when the soil is too wet.
The chisel plow is considered a conservation tillage tool because it does not invert the soil layers and it is less likely to create a plow pan. It also leaves more crop residue on the surface which can help reduce erosion. This type of plow is good for preparing fields that have been in a cover crop or for turning over production areas for replanting or cover cropping. It is not as good for turning under perennial cover and we have found that it often takes more than two passes with the discs to fully breakdown perennial cover after chisel plowing. Each point on the chisel plow requires 10-20 hp depending on your soil conditions. Fields that have been in production for a season or two that do not have a plow pan will require less horsepower to plow. The points on the plow are spaced 12 inches apart and you need to make sure that the plow is as wide, or slightly wider, than the tractor. This ensures that you are not driving over, and compacting, freshly plowed ground.
The spader is also considered a conservation tillage tool and it can be used for primary and secondary tillage, replacing the plow and disc combination. A spader is basically a series of flat pointed shovels mounted on a crankshaft. Unlike a tiller which has blades mounted on a rotating axle, the spader works by throwing small sections of soil up and back. Because there is no rotating action, the spader cannot create a plow pan and we have been able to get into the field and prepare beds when the soil would be too wet to prepare with our other tillage tools. Spaders come in a range of sizes from 32 to 75 inches and because only one spade enters the soil at a time, they require a minimal amount of horsepower. The smaller machines can be used with a 40 hp tractor as long as it has creeper gear. We have a 75-inch unit at The Seed Farm that we run with a 75 hp tractor. Our tractor does not have a creeper gear, but it still goes slow enough (1.5 mph) to operate the spader. The spader has become the tillage tool choice at The Seed Farm and we use it for everything from incorporating cover crops and crop residue to preparing beds for direct seeding or transplanting. The only drawback to this system is that spading is a very slow process and it would probably not be efficient for farms with more than eight or ten acres in production.
Tillage tools can be expensive, but they are an essential part of your farming system. Choosing the right tools depends on what resources you already have on the farm and how many acres you have in production. Also consider other resources that may be available to you, such as a neighboring farmer with larger tillage equipment, and if you plan on expanding your production area in the future.
The Seed Farm offers new farmer training and provides access to land, equipment and mentoring during farm start up. For more information visit theseedfarm.org