ASK Jeff: The Rodale Institute’s farm manager, Jeff Moyer, answers your hardcore farming questions

Would a disc or rototiller be a better purchase for me?

Posted April 12, 2007

What Jeff brings to the table

Jeff Moyer, who’s been the farm manager here at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm for more than a quarter of a century, receives lots of mail from farmers just like you asking for advice. Jeff’s hands-in-the-dirt experience over the past 26 years has run the gamut from refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems (including managing 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market) to overseeing The Rodale Institue Farming Systems Trial®, the world’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. We thought it would be fun and informative to share some of these farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and Jeff’s practical wisdom, with our readers … and we’ll be doing it on a regular basis.

Got a question of your own? Click here to send it to Jeff.

Dear Jeff,

I bought a small farm—only 3 acres of tillable land—and want to spend the next year preparing the soil for crops. (I'm planning for a market garden—flowers, small fruits and tree fruits.) The fields have been fallow for probably 15 years. I had the soil tested and there's some deficiencies, but not serious, and organic matter is high. Still, I'm not in a rush and want to spend this year preparing the soil with some cover crops—mostly to add some nitrogen and smother the weeds.

Now to my question: I'm trying to decide if I should get a disc or buy a rototiller. I inherited an old IH 30hp utility tractor and plan to buy a used 2-bottom plow to turn the soil and get the sod and weeds killed. But then I'm not sure of the best next step. Normally around here, folks might disc and then seed. But a pull-behind tiller seems like it would be more versatile and useful in small acreage. And one of my neighbors says that it's been so wet in the past so many years that they've skipped the plowing and discing and just used a tiller. What do you recommend?



Dear David,

Thanks for reading New Farm and for the question on soil building. You are wise to work in advance to prepare for the transition into vegetables. There are several things you can do during this time period to reduce weed pressure and improve the health of the soil. I can tell from your email that you are ahead of the curve in the way you are approaching your new farming venture.

As far as tillage choices go, you can never have too many tools at your disposal. Much like a cabinetmaker or a good mechanic, you'll want to use different tools for different situations. Each tillage tool has its place in a well-thought-out system. In a vegetable system, a rotovator can be a very useful piece of equipment. If you go in this direction be sure not to overuse it, or to use it in soils that are wet. A tiller can be a good one-step seedbed preparation tool, but it can cause hardpans and pulverize the soil into fine particles that may crust. A disc, on the other hand, is very useful when following a plow to break up soil clods and ready the soil for planting. Both tools can be used for knocking down harvested plant stubble and removing weeds from border areas, etc.

I'd have to say that there is no right or wrong answer, and ultimately you'll probably end up with both. It's just a question as to which one you'll purchase first.

Best of luck,