When my wife and I purchased our rural acreage, one of the main considerations we discussed was having the ability to turn some of the open areas of land into small fields to plant either a vineyard or vegetables. As a secondary consideration, I also wanted to plant food plots for wildlife.
There had previously been a 7-acre cornfield on the property and a small hayfield located further back in an open area of the woods. Both areas had become overgrown with weeds and tall grass over the years, and the sod appeared very thick. I knew I had some significant work ahead of me to get the fields back to planting condition, and I was hoping to plant the fields that first year. Because I was new to the process of getting fallowed land back into production, I contacted our local extension service for advice.
An extension agent suggested that if I wanted to plant that year, I should spray herbicide to kill the noxious weeds before tilling. After spraying the fields and waiting to ensure the herbicide had a chance to work, I was left with tackling the job of breaking up the soil in preparation for planting. I had a two-bottom plow that was matched with my small tractor, but I had no idea how to proceed from that point. I needed to learn the process of tillage, as well as acquire some additional equipment.
Whether you're looking to work the ground in a large garden or several acres of farmland, here is a basic primer on tillage and the equipment used with small- to medium-sized tractors.
The word "tillage" can mean different things to different people based on their personal needs. Tillage can be as simple as grabbing a shovel and a rake to dig, break up, and then smooth over the soil for a small garden plot. You may also incorporate a small rototiller to further amend the soil in preparation for planting. Tillage can also mean the use of tractors and implements to develop and maintain either small or large tracts of land.
In its essence, tillage can be defined as either primary or secondary: Primary tillage usually involves breaking up the soil to a defined depth, and secondary tillage is the process of further refining the soil to make it acceptable for planting.
I won't spend much time on tractors, but for the purpose of this article, I think it's important to discuss tractor size in relation to the equipment used for tillage. Most rural landowners or hobby farmers are well-served with tractors in the 18 to 50 horsepower category. Unless you're in production agriculture, or have a need to produce hay for livestock, small to midsize tractors should be sufficient for most tasks you undertake.
When it comes to tillage implements, there are lots of options available for equipment matched to your tractor's horsepower. It's extremely important to make sure any equipment you use isn't too large for your tractor's capability, which could result in damage to your tractor.
Plows are used in the primary tillage phase. They're usually the first implement used to break up land that has previously been sown with a cover crop or land that is fallow.
The moldboard is one of the most common types of plow. It consists of a large, curved bottom (called a "moldboard") that's attached to a frame and has a cutting edge on the bottom and a curved "wing" on top, which turns the soil as the plow is pulled by the tractor. The cutting width of one moldboard is generally 1 to 2 feet, with a maximum cutting depth of about 11⁄2 feet.
A one-bottom plow has one moldboard whereas a two-bottom plow has two moldboards — which is probably the largest plow you would need or be able to pull with a small tractor. Large production plows may have 12 or more moldboards.
On average, the cost of a new one-bottom plow starts around $300, and a two-bottom plow starts around $700. (Cost, of course, will vary depending on brand and quality of the tillage implement you purchase.)
Disc harrows are great for breaking up soil that's been initially turned with a plow. A disc uses metal wheels mounted on a frame in offset rows of three or four. The disc works by pulverizing the clumps of dirt produced by the plow, eventually getting the soil to the point where it can be seeded. Using a disc can also be a great way to incorporate previous crop debris or organic material into the soil. Sometimes, depending on the type of soil, a disc can be used as a primary tillage method.
The cost of a disc harrow varies depending on the width and number of discs, but those compatible with a smaller tractor generally start around $700.
Tractor-mounted rotary tillers have the ability to cut through sod and can be used as a primary tillage tool, but are usually used for secondary tillage. Think of the rotary tiller as the big brother to your garden tiller, using your tractor's PTO to run the tines. Rotary tillers work in much the same way as small tillers, by breaking up large chunks of soil and pulverizing them through the rotary action of the tines.
While tillers are a great way to get your seed bed prepared, overuse can create a layer of hardpan soil. Because these tillers rarely penetrate deeper than 8 inches into the soil, they create a hard layer of soil just beyond the tiller's reach, which forms a barrier for root penetration and may inhibit plant growth.
Tillers are sold in sizes starting at 4 feet, and go up to 7 feet for larger tractors. Tillers in the 4- to 5-foot range are a good match for smaller compact tractors, and their pricing starts around $1,500.
Cultivators are also considered a secondary tillage tool. They're most commonly used for shallow soil penetration to pulverize and loosen the soil in preparation for planting. A series of teeth, or "shanks," are attached to a frame that's pulled by the tractor via its draw bar or three-point connection. On most cultivators, the spacing between shanks can be adjusted so that they can also be used to disturb weed roots around growing plants.
Cultivator pricing starts around $200 for small models.
Used and rental equipment
I've given approximate pricing for new equipment, but if you're considering purchasing tillage equipment, it pays to investigate used options. There are online sites dedicated to selling used farm equipment at very reasonable prices, and local implement dealers usually have some quality used equipment on their lots.
Renting is also something to consider, especially for tillage equipment you may use infrequently. Depending on the size of the area you're preparing, readying it for seeding can be accomplished in a few hours with a rented rotary tiller. Plows and disc harrows may also be rented fairly inexpensively. Renting gives you the ability to try out equipment and get a feel for what makes the most sense for your needs before you buy.
Related: Check out our guide to compact tractors.
A regular Grit contributor, Tim lives in rural Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres of wildlife habitat.