Rolling soybean in the Upper Midwest

Tractor pulling equipment that has three large metal rollers and two sets of wheels.
Figure 1: Rolling corn residue in a field ahead of planting soybeans.

Land rolling has become a common soil-finishing practice for soybean in Minnesota and throughout the Upper Midwest.

The practice has been used for decades in alfalfa and grass seed production to improve germination and manage rocks, but it’s relatively new for row crops, where its main purpose is to improve harvesting efficiency and reduce combine damage.

Large rolling drums are pulled across the soil in the spring, usually right before or after planting (Figure 1). According to Iowa State University, the drums exert a packing force of about 3 pounds per square inch, similar to the pressure exerted by planter closing wheels.

Advantages

Land rolling prepares the field for harvesting by pushing small and medium-sized rocks down into the soil and crushing soil clods and corn rootballs. This allows the combine head to be set low to the ground, reducing the risk of picking up damaging rocks, rootballs and soil.

State map of Minnesota with counties outlined. Markers indicating where rolling was done in years 2008, 2009, 2010.
Figure 2: Locations of the University of Minnesota Extension field-scale research plots in western Minnesota.

Other benefits of soybean rolling include:

  • Reduced operator fatigue

  • Less downtime

  • Less wear and tear on harvesting equipment

  •  Faster combine speed

  • Cleaner seed at harvest

Disadvantages

Land rolling does pose agronomic, economic and environmental concerns. These include:

  • Potential plant injury

  • Soil sealing

  • Erosion

  • The loosening of corn stalks

  • Added expense

Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of land rolling will help farmers decide if and when rolling makes sense.

Land rolling and its impact

To better understand land rolling, the University of Minnesota Extension conducted a three-year research study (Figure 2) to assess their impact and inform best practices for Minnesota soybean producers.

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Recommendations

Balance the improved harvesting conditions and peace of mind that rolling offers with the damaging effects of rolling on soil quality and the additional expense.

If you decide to roll

  • Confine rolling to rocky fields and flat fields with low erosion risk.
  • If soybeans have emerged, roll as early as possible (before the third trifoliate stage) to minimize plant injury and allow more time for plant recovery.
  • If you roll erosion-prone fields, roll before planting or wait until soybeans are in the first trifoliate stage. Erosion risk is the greatest right after planting.
  • After emergence, roll in the afternoon, during the heat of the day, when soybean plants are flexible.
  • Control wheel damage by configuring tractor tires and roller width to minimize plant injury.
  • Don’t roll when the soil surface is moist to reduce the risk of crusting or sealing and soil sticking to the roller.
  • Avoid rolling when plants are damp because they can stick to the roller and be pulled out of the soil.
  • Avoid rolling when it's windy because residue can easily be moved to ditches and neighboring fields.
  • Don’t use rolling in an attempt to level soil ruts.

Jodi DeJong-Hughes, Extension educator, Doug Holen, former Extension educator and Phil Glogoza, Extension educator

Acknowledgements

We'd like to thank the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, cooperating producers, crop consultants and equipment representatives for their cooperation and support.

Reviewed in 2018

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