Oh, ruts: tread carefully over the fields when repairing

It is no secret that discussions around what to do with ruts dominated many coffee row discussions this winter.

These ruts were produced by combines and grain carts operating in wet fields last October and November. Some of them are more than 60 centimetres deep.

Managing ruts this spring is required but it needs to be delicate management. Ideally, it should take place when the soil is dry or frozen, which eliminates compaction.

However, the likelihood of compaction will be reduced if the sub-soil is wet.

There was a short window this spring to get out into fields when they were still frozen, but most of the snow melted earlier, so opportunities were limited.

A tractor with a blade can fill in ruts where soil has been pushed up on both sides of the rut. It may not completely fill in the rut but may allow for seeding to follow.

The goal when dealing with ruts should be to do the minimum to allow a field to be planted. This may result in a field that is somewhat rough to ride across on a sprayer but will allow Mother Nature to heal its wounds most effectively.

Some tillage will likely be required with deep ruts, say deeper than 15 cm. One strategy is to wait in the spring until you can work the field and then perform light tillage only to the rutted ground, if it’s not field-wide.

Use a light tillage pass, such as with a field cultivator, light disc or harrows, which will fill in some of the ruts.

If only a portion of the field is rutted, consider tilling only that area to avoid re-compacting subsoil in other parts of the field. You only want to till five to eight cm deep, which is enough to move some soil but not enough to rip up the field. You still have to maintain the seed bed.

In a worst case scenario, ripping up the field with deep tillage 12 to 15 cm may be required. However, a second operation will probably be required to get the field into planting condition. This second operation may be an opportunity to apply anhydrous ammonia or band urea.

The recent advent of vertical tillage equipment offers another option for managing ruts, but I will make a couple of comments.

My experience tells me that all vertical tillage implements are not created equally. I have seen situations where one machine does a good job at burying ruts and creating a very good seed bed, while in the same year and a couple of kilometres away, I have observed equipment leaving the field in a mess.

I have also seen implements leaving the field looking nice, but when a no-till, independent shank air drill attempted to seed, a mess resulted.

If you have ruts, you are going to have to be patient. This may mean working on some fields and allowing them to sit for a few days while you seed something else.

It won’t be the smooth, efficient spring you may be used to, but it is what it is. Roll with the hand you were dealt with and good luck.

Thom Weir is an agronomist with Farmer’s Edge. He can be reached by emailing thom.weir@farmersedge.ca.

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