Much of the soybean crop is now harvested and growers are starting to finish up with their corn acres. If they haven’t started already, tillage will be the last step before winter. What is the best tillage practice to set your soybean field up for success next season? That is a very loaded question—let us look at the value of surface residue cover to help us find the answer.
Benefits of surface cover residue                                           Drawbacks to surface cover residue
– Soil retention                                                                          –  Delayed planting
– Moisture retention (water & snow)                                       –  Delayed crop development (spring)
– Increased water, aeration & biological activity                    –  Increased survival of pests
– Minimizing soil crusting                                                        –  Nutrient tie-up
– Reduced weed seed germination                                          –  Less pre-herbicide effectiveness
The list above can be extended, but these are the main points we find in Illinois. Each operation is different and what works for some, might not work for others. The idea behind listing out the pros and cons of tillage practices is to help one think through what works best on the pro side, and then manage the cons. There are basically three types of tillage categories: conventional, conservative (minimal), and no-till. A conventional tillage system will have less than 30% of the soil surface covered with residue, whereas a conservative one would leave more surface residue. A no-till system is simply as it states, where the soil is left untouched until next planting season.
As stated above, there are many ways to prep your field for soybean planting next spring, but there are several ideas that can be used to help retain yield and efficiency across all platforms.
  • If planning on some sort of tillage, try to act on it quickly while warmer weather conditions are present. Heat will help keep soil microbes active and breaking down residue; this will help reduce the nutrient tie-up next summer.
  • Be prepared and ready to spray a pre-herbicide to keep early weeds down. Less tillage will mean less mechanical reduction of weeds, but more tillage will mean stirring in new weed seed to the seed bed. Heavy pockets of resistant weeds are best to avoid with tillage, which spreads new seed. Make sure to target these areas with a good pre- and post-herbicide system. If weed pressure is difficult to manage in the spring, look at options for a fall burndown, especially in reduced tillage systems.
  • Where conservative and no-till systems are used, plan and budget ahead for possible additional nutrient applications. The residue on top will have a slow release effect back to the soil, especially phosphorus. Also noteworthy, when the rotation is back to corn the leftover residue allows the microbe population to feed and build, resulting in a “tie-up” or “carbon-penalty” of nitrogen. Eventually this tie-up of nitrogen will be released back into the soil, but only after the microbes have no more residue to break down.
  • When planting into a conservative or no-till program, strongly consider planting treated seed. Higher moisture retention and residue result in over-wintering sites for pests and pathogens; reduce the damage risk with an insecticide and fungicide treatment. Also, consider using a treatment to reduce Soybean Cyst Nematode and Sudden Death Syndrome when planting early soybeans.
There are many things to consider when preparing your field for planting soybeans next spring. Use the vast options of tillage systems to find what works best for your operation and take into consideration: time, labor, budget, weed pressure, etc. Soybean genetics today have grown to become very forgiving and obtaining high yields can be achieved in several different ways with the options of pest control and equipment available now. Find a system that works best for your farm and master it.

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About the Author: Cody Pettit

Currently, Pettit is a field agronomist for the Pioneer brand with Corteva Agriscience, covering the east central part of Illinois. Prior to his current role, he was a district sales manager in the seed industry after graduating from the University of Illinois, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in crop sciences. Pettit has a passion for understanding new practices and solutions employed on a variety of farm operations, and is excited for the ever changing future of the agricultural industry.