To the question of whether or not you need tillage in Coastal Plain wheat production, the short answer is “yes.”

“Whenever we’re talking about Coastal Plain soils, they’re very prone to compaction. You need to eliminate that hardpan, and wheat definitely will respond to that,” says Kim Balkcom, USDA-ARS research agronomist.

The bigger question, says Balkcom, is what type of tillage to use on Coastal Plain soils.

“Traditionally, we’ve used a disking operation and buried the residue and then come in with a chisel-plow operation to break up that hardpan. In our tests, we used a KMC subsoiler-leveler. It basically minimizes above-ground disruption, gets rid of the hardpan, and still maintains the beneficial residue on the soil surface.

“Compared to conventional-tillage, we saw no difference if not a slight increase for our non-inversion type tillage. There was no issue with residue interference,” he says.

Increased no-till or reduced-tillage practices among Alabama farmers prompted Balkcom, Auburn University Extension Agronomist Charlie Burmester and other researchers to examine more closely how the trend might impact nitrogen fertilizer rates and timings in wheat production.

Balkcom discussed the research during the recent Central Alabama Wheat Expo held in Montgomery, Ala., focusing primarily on Coastal Plain production.

Alabama wheat farmers, he says, are changing management practices to maximize yields and reduce trips across their fields. Some recent changes include using higher nitrogen fertilizer and wheat seeding rates, in addition to planting wheat in no-till or reduced-tillage systems.

Non-inversion tillage has been widely adopted in summer row crops, particularly cotton on Alabama’s Coastal Plain soils, while conservation-tillage at planting has become a primary method on silt loam soils in the Limestone Valley, according to the researchers.

However, says Balkcom, there are concerns that tillage systems that maintain surface residue will slow vegetative growth and reduce tillering in wheat.

For their research, Balkcom and his colleagues used four locations across Alabama during the 2008, 2009 and 2010 wheat-growing seasons, resulting in eight site-year comparisons.

These locations were at the Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center in north Alabama, the E.V. Smith Research Center in central Alabama, the Wiregrass Research and Extension Center in southeast Alabama and the Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center in southwest Alabama.

The Tennessee Valley location represented Limestone Valley soils while the other three locations represented Coastal Plain soils.