Blurred Lines: Vertical Tillage and Compact Discs

Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Danish Prince Hamlet, the first question many US producers have when defining vertical tillage and compact discs is “To dig, or not to dig?” The purest definition of vertical tillage is “a tool that enters and exits the soil on a vertical plane.”[1] Adding a digging component to the traditional coulter blades of a vertical tiller upends the classic definition of the term, sowing confusion amongst both soil-conservation-minded farmers and the equipment manufacturers trying to effectively market their products.

To dig or not to dig? That is the vertical tillage question (Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Danish Prince Hamlet as depicted here)

To many crop producers, that vertical plane definition, first coined in the 1970s, hasn’t kept up with the times and the changes in technology within the equipment industry. When viewed in a contemporary light, the definition of vertical tillage is vague at best, and most producers – and most tillage equipment manufacturers – would argue a better definition would include standards for soil disturbance, tillage depth, and/or primary method of engagement (blade versus harrow). But what exactly those standards might be is a contentious topic, adding to the confusion in terms.

Possibly the best summary…

Probably the best summary of the vertical tillage complexity comes from DeAnn Presley, Soils Specialist at Kansas State University, “Vertical tillage has been sold as a low impact form of tillage that helps farmers break down tough corn residue more quickly so they have a better seedbed to plant into the next season. But at best, the lines are blurry when it comes to what constitutes vertical tillage, whether it be with products available in the market today or the degree of soil movement deemed acceptable.”[2]

Leaving traditional vertical tillage in the dust

The advent of new tillage technologies and more complex, multi-function equipment like compact discs has, therefore, left the traditional vertical tillage definition in the proverbial dust. A large reason for the shift away from the traditional vertical-plane-only approach in agricultural equipment design and manufacturing, is the demands of producers themselves. New multi-function machines like the K-Line Ag Speedtiller are driven to market as a direct response to the needs of producers for more labor and fuel efficiency in the operation and greater soil stewardship in the field. These new machines accomplish multiple tasks like digging, residue sizing and seedbed levelling with a single pass, reducing economic and operational functions like fuel consumption and operator costs while simultaneously improving soils and combating compaction.

Vertical and horizontal

Because many compact discs include not only vertical coulter blades, but also blades or rippers that run at various angles, soil disturbance happens both vertically AND horizontally. This two-way movement puts the implements at odds with the traditional definition of vertical tillage as a “straight down,” columnar tillage, encouraging the need for a new definition within the market space. Compact discs also integrate baskets and soil levelers onto additional gangs behind the coulters. These subsequent gangs redistribute mounded or uneven soils, further contributing to the horizontal soil movements. This means both subsurface and surface disturbances take place – something that goes against the almost unseen, primarily subsoil changes effected by traditional vertical tillage.

Innovation in a growing world

As soil conditions, producer needs, and manufacturers’ designs change, the definition of vertical tillage will continue to evolve. Equipment manufacturers, like K-Line Ag, who are responsive to producer needs will always pursue R&D on tillage equipment and other implements, in order to keep up with their core audience’s demands, regardless of definitions or the current state of the industry. Without that kind of consumer-driven innovation, the agriculture industry would stagnate. Important measures of modern farming – things like soil health, yield growth, production efficiency – depend on innovation to keep supplying the food and fiber a growing world requires. Far be it for a definition to hamper that forward momentum. And as for the modern farmer’s answer to Prince Hamlet’s question, “To dig or not to dig?” It’s simple – whatever works in your operation!


[2] Farm Equipment ebook ‘What is Vertical Tillage Anyway?’

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