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Prepping Your Field For Winter: 7 Tips for Fall Tillage & Fertilizer Application

Prepping Your Field For Winter: 7 Tips for Fall Tillage & Fertilizer Application

Oct 22nd 2020

Prepping Your Field For Winter: 7 Tips for Fall Tillage & Fertilizer Application

The hard work in your garden doesn't stop when the plants finish producing for the year. As soon as all the produce comes off, your first thought should be how to prepare for Spring.

Gardens of any size benefit from fall fertilizer application. Yes, even your small backyard plot.

The hard part of prepping a field for winter is deciding what's best for your specific needs. New gardeners and farmers often cling to outdated advice because it's all they know. Those old ideas lead to nutrient-deprived soil that doesn't produce anything worthwhile.

Save next year's crops from certain doom and prep your soil now. These tips will ensure your spring crops grow up happy and healthy.

1. Choose a Fertilizer Application Early

A common misconception is that fall field preparation begins with tillage. The truth is, the way you harvest the produce sets the stage for field preparation.

If your harvesting method strips out the entire plant, your fields may suffer. Only certain plants, like tomatoes, call for full removal to protect the soil.

Crop residue refers to the parts of the plant left in the field after harvest. Aim to cut the crop residue down to 4-6 inch chunks. Experts recommend using sharp blades on something like a straw chopper.

The crop residue fertilizer application utilizes the natural regeneration cycle. Decaying plants replenish the missing soil nutrients.

For fields that need augmenting, you need to mix in the nutrients during fall tillage. Leaving manures on top of the soil smells awful and the wind blows it away from the field.

2. Get All the Necessary Equipment Before Starting Work

Careful planning for all your gardening needs makes the work go faster. In the weeks before you plan to harvest, check your equipment. If anything needs repairs, take care of them as soon as possible.

New farmers need to make sure they have equipment like:

  • Vertical tillage tools
  • Chisel plow
  • Disk plow
  • Straw chopper
  • Fertilizer applicator
  • Measuring tools

What kind of fall tillage equipment you pick depends on the moisture in the soil. Heavy equipment compacts the dirt and leaves no room for root growth.

3. Find Ways to Limit Soil Erosion

Sediment from gardens and fields carries nutrients away from the soil. Over time the displaced phosphorus and nitrogen ends up in a river or stream. Phosphorus promotes algae growth which depletes the oxygen in the water.

Once the nutrients in the water are out of balance, local wildlife struggles to survive. They're not alone, though. When sediment deposits 10 mg/L of nitrogen into a water source, humans can't drink it.

Rivers and streams aren't the only water sources polluted by soil erosion. Domestic water wells are also at risk.

Crop residue is a fertilizer application that helps the soil retain water better. Burying a layer of chopped plant matter draws water into the soil.

4. Test the Soil for Nutrients

Plants need a specific mix of about 16 elements to grow and produce well. When these elements aren't right, plants don't grow or die. Adding the nutrients too late in the growing process stunts plant growth.

Before your fall tillage, test a few places in your field or garden for nutrient levels. If you take out the plants and use additives, these are the levels you use to measure fertilizers.

For fields that turn the plants under the top layer, 70% of the nutrients come from decay. Nutrients you may need to add include nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. 

5. Always Measure Before Liquid Fertilizer Application

Once you test your soil and calculate what nutrients it needs, it's time to fertilize. New farmers fall into the trap of thinking the more nutrients, the better. Don't ignore the nutrient calculations for the sake of taking a shortcut.

Extra nutrients in the soil don't make for better produce yields. Instead of soaking into the plants, the nutrients migrate. Some follow sediment to water sources, others evaporate.

For example, too much nitrogen left on the topsoil turns into a gas. That gas is a leading cause of acid rain.

Check your AG supply shop for a fertilizer density scale. It uses counterbalance to measure how many pounds per cubic feet you're using.

6. Use the Right Fertilizer for the Plants

How you prepare a field for winter depends on the type of plants going in the ground next. It's important to note if the plants need a nitrogen-rich soil or something more balanced.

How can you tell what is in a complete fertilizer mix? Check for the N-P-K ratio on the packaging. The ratio shows how many pounds of each element is in 100 pounds of the fertilizer.

The first number is nitrogen, the second is phosphorus, the last number is potassium. They're always written in that order. The packing should list the other elements in the fertilizer.

Liquid fertilizers contain concentrated nutrients and give you more value. Be careful when using these products. Always follow the manufacturer's guidelines.

7. Consider Planting Cover Crops

A major reason for erosion is there are no root systems to hold the dirt in place after fall tillage. Old farming habits say to allow a field to rest over the winter. But what if there were plants that add soil nutrients and boost field productivity?

Pick 1 or 2 of these cover crops to plant 30 days before your first frost:

  • Barley
  • Hairy Vetch
  • Annual Ryegrass
  • Oats
  • Field Pea
  • Hardy Legumes
  • Crimson Clover

Cover crops like hardy legumes give the soil more nitrogen. Hairy vetch is also good for boosting atmospheric nitrogen levels.

Sow the cover crops under before they bloom or after they die off from frost. As they decay, the nutrients prepare the planting bed for spring crops.

Fall Tillage and Fertilizer Application Boost Field Productivity

Old ideas about fertilizer application pose too many threats to the environment. Adopting a system that utilizes the natural growing and decay cycle preserves water sources. Tilling under old plant growth and using measured fertilizer additives is far safer.

These systems create ideal growing conditions for your crops. Your garden and fields will thank you with its best production season yet.

Prepare for fall tillage by visiting the Barndoor Ag shop. We carry quality farm supplies for tilling, fertilizing, and more.