Groundbreaking Technology

Cover Story - Groundbreaking Technology

Matt Wilde
By  Matthew Wilde , Progressive Farmer Crops Editor
(Progressive Farmer image by Dean Houghton)

Recreational tillage is not Dug Radcliff's idea of a good time. The Circleville, Ohio, farmer prefers to work his ground as little as possible.

However, Radcliff "digs" prescription tillage.

The corn and soybean farmer participated in a 2018 study by Ohio State University (OSU) in conjunction with Case IH, which helped the company perfect its recently released AFS (Advanced Farming Systems) Soil Command prescription tillage technology. It allows farmers to automate and tailor seedbed preparation based on agronomic and environmental conditions.

Radcliff was so pleased with prescriptive tillage results he plans to join a growing trend of farmers who've adopted the practice. The technology is designed to increase productivity and revenue while protecting the environment.

"I wish we had this [prescription tillage] 30 years ago ... it's exciting," Radcliff exclaims. "I saw a [yield] increase that was enough to say, 'Wow, this is good.'

"We need to make money, but I intend to take care of the land we own and rent," he continues. "Prescription tillage is another important tool in the toolbox [to do that]."


Case IH and John Deere offer automated, prescriptive tillage technology. Other manufacturers such as AGCO, Landoll and Great Plains offer manual, on-the-go tillage tool adjustments.

Tillage prescriptions are written and uploaded to a tractor's computer, which automatically adjusts a tillage tool's settings as it moves across the field. This could include the depth of shanks and disks, the gang angle of disks and downpressure of wings and rolling baskets.

The prescription could call for aggressive settings in areas of a field to alleviate compaction, slice and dice, and incorporate residue, eradicate weeds and level ruts. In light, highly erodible soil, the prescription could adjust the tillage implement to be less aggressive or not engaged to keep as much residue on the surface and prevent erosion.

"Most farmers today set up a tillage tool and forget it. Every acre gets the same treatment, and they accept the consequences," says Chris Lursen, Case IH tillage marketing manager. "That could potentially hurt a field environmentally and agronomically."

He says prescriptions and complete automated control of tillage is a relatively new concept for some companies and not widely used. Some farmers may not have considered it, he adds.

It works on the same principle as other prescriptions farmers do today with fertilizer, chemicals and seed.

"You are doing the right things to the right areas of a field to maximize productivity, agronomics and yield," Lursen continues.

Prescriptions and technology will open up doors to farmers when it comes to tillage they never had before, he claims.


OSU reached out to Radcliff about participating in the prescription tillage study to learn more about how the technology could help manage variable soils. The university and Radcliff have a long history of partnering in precision agriculture research, such as variable-rate seeding and fertilization.

"We've been very successful the last six to eight years believing in technology," Radcliff says. "Our partnerships with OSU have given us the ability to see that."

He says he jumped at the chance knowing he had a variable field -- nearly 60 acres of highly erodible, light and heavy soils with side hills and buried rocks -- with compaction issues that limited yields. He wouldn't deep-till the parcel to break up compaction because of erosion fears and bringing up rocks, which would cause even more problems. But, he was willing to give prescriptive, variable-depth tillage a try.

Andrew Klopfenstein, a senior research associate engineer in OSU's Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, led the field study. He's conducted prescriptive tillage research for about five years, roughly the same time manufacturers started offering it as an option.

Even though Case IH was still working on automated, prescriptive tillage at the time of the study, the company wanted to see how it could affect agronomic performance. Klopfenstein, working with OSU Ph.D. student Brittany Schroeder, used yield, soil and topography maps to write a tillage prescription for the field that was previously planted to corn.

The data was used to establish presets in AFS Soil Command, which made adjustments to a Case IH Ecolo-Tiger 875 disk ripper pulled by a Case IH Steiger 580 Quadtrac tractor supplied by the company. Klopfenstein operated the equipment and manually hit presets to mimic automated prescription technology at work based on location within the field using a GPS and mapping technology.

Here's the prescription:

> Shank depth was set at 12, 8 or 4 inches. Shanks penetrated deeper in heavier, flatter ground with more residue and shallowed up in lighter, rocky ground with less residue and steeper slopes.

> Front disk depth was set at 6, 3 or 0 inches. Disks dug in more in relatively flat, heavy soil with high residue, shallowed up in steeper, rocky areas with less residue. Disks didn't penetrate highly erodible soil with less than 50% residue cover and slopes ranging from 2.5 to more than 5%.

> Rear leveling disk depth was set at 5, 2.5 and 0 inches. The leveler disks were adjusted for similar reasons as the front disks.

> Downpressure on the rear crumbling basket was set at 200, 100 and 0 pounds. The most pressure was applied in flat, heavy soils with 50 to more than 75% crop residue. Pressure lessened in lighter, hillier and rockier ground with less residue. No pressure was applied in highly erodible soil.

"We have extremely variable farms that go from peat moss to black soil to gravel all in one pass," Radcliff says. "We can be more aggressive where we need to be to manage residue and reduce compaction, and less aggressive where it's not needed to prevent erosion."


Prescriptive tillage shattered compaction to promote better root development and water infiltration to reduce ponding in the test field, Radcliff explains. There was no noticeable soil loss or rock concerns.

Soybean yields in 2019 averaged 69 bushels per acre (bpa) for the field that never topped 60 bpa in the past. The field was planted to corn in 2020. It averaged 205 bpa, which Radcliff says is exceptional considering the challenging growing season. If compaction wasn't remedied, he says yields would have easily been 10 to 15 bpa less.

Klopfenstein says prescriptive tillage uses less fuel than traditional tillage, because the tractor doesn't work as hard all the time. Past research indicates a 5 to 10% savings per acre, on average, depending on field conditions.

"Once farmers see the benefits and power of this technology, they will adopt it," Klopfenstein believes. "They will want it for all their
tillage tools."


Prescriptive tillage allows farmers to enjoy the perks of conventional tillage, which includes warming and drying the soil, managing crop residue, alleviating compaction, controlling herbicide-resistant weeds and preparing a level seedbed to maximize crop production.

There are numerous benefits to conservation tillage and no-till, as well. Minimizing or eliminating soil disturbance reduces erosion, improving soil health and increasing water infiltration and holding capacity. Equipment, fuel and time savings are also benefits.

"As we go forward, we understand the best of all these worlds are needed," Case IH's Lursen says. "That's why prescriptions are here to vary the amount of tillage. A peanut butter spread approach (set the tillage tool at one depth and forget it) is not the way forward."

Manufacturers and Klopfenstein expect a steady increase in adoption.

Given the recent release of the Case IH tillage technology, Lursen says it's hard to know how many of the company's customers are using prescriptions. However, he says about one-quarter of Case IH tillage implements sold are equipped with AFS Soil Command capable of prescriptive tillage.

Longtime Case IH user Josh Schick is interested in upgrading tillage equipment to prescriptively till. He says no-till isn't an option where he farms, near Gridley, Illinois. Flat and black soil needs to be worked so it can dry and warm up quicker in the spring to plant in a timely manner, he contends. And, the highly productive ground creates a lot of corn residue that needs to be managed.

In areas prone to erosion, Schick manually lifts the chisel plow or field cultivator to keep soil in place. He likes the idea of automation doing it, being less aggressive with tillage in areas where it's not needed to save time and fuel.

"If you have a prescription, you can help yourself out quite a bit," he says.


John Deere partnered with Agrian to offer prescriptive tillage to customers in 2016. Deere's fully integrated TruSet Tillage technology allows farmers to execute prescriptions that automatically incorporate residue at different levels across a field or change depth of tillage based on different conditions, such as lighter soils or areas known for compaction. Farmers can also document tillage passes to see how different tillage strategies affect crop emergence, yield or both.

Kevin Juhl, a John Deere tactical marketing specialist for tillage, estimates about 50% of Deere customers have tried some form of variable tillage either through manual adjustments or prescriptions. He expects prescriptive tillage will increase due to benefits and ease of use as more and more producers use and become comfortable making and executing precision agriculture prescriptions.

"I do believe there's a lot of customers trending that way and it [prescriptive tillage] will become the norm," Juhl says.

He adds TruSet is a low-cost tillage technology option, which most customers buy. It's free to make and send a tillage prescription to a tractor through the John Deere Operations Center.

Juhl says making and executing a tillage prescription shouldn't be a problem for farmers who already make seeding, fertilization and other precision agriculture prescriptions. For those who haven't, he says local John Deere dealers can assist in the learning process. A YouTube video is available, as well (see "For More Information," below).

Prescriptive tillage allows farmers to more easily achieve their agronomic, economic and environmental goals, Juhl says.

"Land is the biggest investment for most farms, and taking care of it is a high priority for farmers," he says. "And, for people who hire out tillage work, prescription tillage gives them peace of mind."

*Return on Investment for Prescription Tillage:

> Ability to achieve tillage objectives for fields with high variability

> Remediation of soil compaction for increased yield

> Management of high-residue environments for increased yield

> Avoidance of subsurface obstacles (rock outcroppings, shallow tile

drainage, shallow utilities, old foundations, etc.)

> Preservation of conservation structures and practices (grassed

waterways, field drains, filter strips, saturated buffers, etc.)

> Erosion management on moderate and steep slopes

*Source: Ohio State University

No Prescription Needed

Prescriptive tillage isn't the only way to prepare the ultimate seedbed and still meet environmental goals. Several manufacturers have tillage equipment the operator can adjust on the fly from the cab.

Jamie Meier, ag division sales manager for Landoll, says customers have asked for more versatile and flexible tillage tools that help minimize passes and build healthy soils. He says the company's all-new 7500 Adjustable Gang VT fits the bill.

The disk gangs on the vertical tillage (VT) tool can be adjusted anywhere between five and 15 degrees based on field conditions as the machine eats up acres. It features 24-inch smooth blades. They can be set to be more aggressive in the fall to bury more residue and less aggressive in the spring to minimize disturbance, run faster and warm and prepare the soil for planting.

"Every field is different, whether soil type or slope," Meier says. "This tool is great meeting the needs of farmers with variable conditions."

Size offerings for 7500 Adjustable Gang VT range from 14 to 45 feet, with a price tag of $50,000 to $185,000.

Great Plains introduced Implement Command in 2019. The system gives producers data needed to make tillage decisions in fields to make real-time adjustments to implements to improve yields and soil health.

Implement Command is ISO-compatible, so there's no need for extra monitors in the cab. It works in conjunction with Great Plains Turbo-Max and Terra-Max tillage tools. The technology allows operators to:

> monitor and control implement depth using three programmable presets

> adjust wing downpressure, even outside and inside wings separately on five-section models

> monitor and adjust coulter gang angle

> monitor or control rear finishing attachment

> monitor fore and aft leveling.

The ability to adjust implement settings on the move based on everchanging field conditions is what farmers want and need, explains Doug Jennings, Great Plains eastern sales manager.

"Farmers are always looking for technology that makes them more efficient," he says.



> John Deere:

> Using Prescription Creator by Agrian:

> Great Plains:

> Landoll:

> Follow Matthew Wilde on Twitter @progressivwilde.


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