Potato cultivation

Cultivation, any mechanical act to prepare the soil to raise crops, is an essential feature of many crop production systems.

Potato cultivation should only be done during a time when the soil moisture is right. During this stage, it is important to reduce soil structure damage. Compaction and other issues caused by cultivating early will normally cause more yield loss than the ‘lost days’ spent waiting for soil to dry.

Cultivation approaches


Before ploughing, it is important to take in consideration soil mosture and plough setting to help wasting resources and causing soil damage.

You should take in consideration factors such as:

  • Skimmers setting
  • Speed control
  • Plough depth suitable for the soil type

Read more about ploughing and to achieve efficent results on pages 15-16 of the Arable soil management guide (page 15–16).

Pre-ridging and deep ridging cultivation 

While pre-ridging could have a positive impact on loosening stiff soil, which can pull the tractor off-line and make it hard to maintain a straight line, deep ridging will bring a significant amount of wet material to the surface.

Our advice for success:

  • Check soil conditions by digging down to 300-350 mm; if it is easy (don’t have to stand on spade), no pre-ridging work is required
  • Watch for operators going too fast and the tines riding up out of the ground
  • Check working depth
  • When deep ridging, leave the soil to dry out for 1-2 hours before bed-tilling or separating

Read more about potato cultivation on pages 15-16 of the Soil management for potatoes guide.


Subsoiling is a routine operation to ensure good drainage and root passage. However, the need and the time for subsoiling should carefully assessed.

  • Autumn subsoiling is effective for heavier soils, as conditions at depth are likely to be dry enough for shattering and overwinter slumping risk is low
  • If moisture levels are adequate, spring subsoiling reduces the risk of slumping on lighter, especially sandy, soils

Read more about subsoiling and subsoiling after planting on page 26 of the Arable soil management guide.

Summary of cultivation approaches for combinable crops

Deep non-inversion

  • Deep soil movement
  • Typical depths are 20–35 cm
  • Drop residues mixed into the top soil
  • Usually, moved to depth, unless low surface disturbance loosening is used in combination with shallow surface mixing

Shallow non-inversion

  • Shallow surface movement
  • Typical depths are 5–10 cm
  • Most crop residues remain on the soil surface
  • Can be combined with low surface disturbance loosening (as a separate operation)
  • Uses discs or tines

Strip tillage (non-inversion)

  • Combines tillage (typical depths are 5–10 cm) and drilling, if needed, in strips* (as opposed to the entire field)
  • Specialist drill having leading cultivation elements
  • Most crop residues remain on the soil surface

*Can be considered a form of direct drilling

Plough (inversion)

  • Viewed as a ‘conventional’ cultivation
  • Inversion and burial of surface residues
  • Plough depths vary (15–40 cm)
  • Typical depths are 20 cm and 40 cm
  • Subsequent cultivation passes are often used to condition the soil

Direct drilling (non-inversion)

  • Crop established in one pass, direct into land without prior cultivation
  • The operation often uses some form of cultivation (e.g. to loosen topsoil before seed placement), followed by rollers to firm the soil
  • Typical depth is 5 cm. Where no soil movement occurs, it is ‘no-tilled’
  • Uses either a specialist drill or a cultivator drill combined with loosening tines

No-till/zero-till (non-inversion)

  • Crop sown directly into previous crop’s stubble without any prior topsoil loosening
  • Specialist operation that often uses a disc to cut a slot in the soil, in which the seed (and fertiliser) is placed. Following press wheel(s) close the slot
  • Sometimes referred to as direct drilling

Read about the pros and cons of each approach on page 33 of the Arable soil management guide.


Primary tillage compaction zones

During potato production, the short work window for cultivations when soil moisture is right means it is particularly important to minimise soil structure damage at each specific cultivation depth and by associated trafficking. 

Use the diagram to understand the different compaction zones.

  • Zone 1 Compaction pan below plough depth
  • Zone 2 Compaction pan just above plough depth
  • Zone 3 Compaction in wheelings 
  • Zone 4 Compaction at the base of the ridge
  • Zone 5 Compaction below the tuber
  • Zone 6 Compaction of the ridge (‘capping’)

Find out more about compaction and how to tackle the issue depending on the zone on pages 24 to 26 of Arable soil management guide.