Editor’s Note: This feature first appeared in the August 2013 issue of No-Till Farmer’s Conservation Tillage Guide.
Sometimes the best plan in strip-till is to plan for the unexpected. This is a philosophy Jerry Baysinger knows well after almost 20 years of strip-tilling.
Baysinger, who strip-tills 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Bruning, Neb., also owns a farm equipment dealership — JBI Enterprises.
He was one of the first farmers to embrace strip-till in his area and says one key to his success is adapting to whatever Mother Nature throws at him.
Avoiding Hot Zones
To accomplish these goals, Baysinger keeps a flexible schedule when it comes to building strips. He prefers to build them in late fall and winter so he can apply nitrogen with his 12-row strip-till rig.
“After I strip-till, there’s two things I want to have happen,” he says. “I want at least 2 weeks — ideally 3 — before planting. And I like to have at least 1 inch of moisture, whether it’s irrigation or one rain event, because that’s usually enough to reduce any salt effect or burn from the ammonia I put down in the strip.”
But unfavorable conditions in the fall of 2012 didn’t allow Baysinger to get into the field until this last March.
That was only the start of his challenges. Baysinger strip-tilled about 800 acres of corn, but heavy rains delayed further progress until late April.
CUSTOM APPROACH. Nebraska farmer Jerry Baysinger built his own 12-row toolbar and uses an older version of Yetter's High-Residue Maverick row units. He is considering moving to a 16-row unit to cover more acres and would use RTK to be dead on the 30-inch centers and offset his 24-row planter, if needed.
With a limited window of opportunity and past experience to draw on, Baysinger modified his approach to building the rest of the strips to avoid placing seed in an “ammonia hot zone.”
Instead of having exact 30-inch spacing between passes with his 12-row strip-till rig, he offset his second pass about 6 inches with his John Deere RTK system. This allowed him to plant to the side of the center of the 10-inch berms with his 24-row John Deere planter.
“I’m still on my strip, but I won’t be dead center because what I’m afraid is going to happen is we’ll make our strip, but have a bunch of loose soil on top,” he says. “We can make it look pretty, but it’s going to be gooey underneath, and the last thing we want to do is drop our seed right down there where all the fertilizer is.”
Baysinger applies anhydrous with a 3/8-inch-wide knife that runs about 7 inches deep. He’s a proponent of placing fertilizer, especially nitrogen, below the seedbed to allow roots — especially in corn plants — to tap into the nutrients when they’re needed.
Preserving nitrogen placed in the strip is a critical component to maximizing seed-to-soil contact on his clay soils to avoid wasting applications.
“We’re taking advantage of that strip that’s clean and bare, but we’re not going to be right on top of that slice that our knife made in less-than- ideal conditions,” he says. “The risk is our seed drops down in that cavity and then anything can happen. That seed can get burnt or it can just lie there and not germinate.
“If we plant in good, firm soil, we get good seed-to-soil contact and the roots will grow down and not get injured by the ammonia…”
“But if we plant in good, firm soil, we can get good seed-to-soil contact and the roots will grow down. Then those seeds are less likely to be injured by the ammonia.”
Four years ago, Baysinger and other strip-tillers in the area learned their lesson after a dry winter and spring left excess ammonia in strips built during a damp fall.
When the ammonia was released from the anhydrous knife and started to vaporize, the vapor migrated up the knife slice and tended to attach onto the sidewalls in the soil.
“When we planted on top of that, the roots would come in contact with that ammonia and we were getting some burn,” Baysinger says. “I didn’t experience the burn that my neighbors did because I knew that I had a slice problem and slid over to plant off the center of the strip.
“If you don’t have RTK, it’s a little more difficult, especially on contours.”
The Right Setup
He recently added Yetter Air-Adjust row cleaners to his planter to clear residue and vary depth when planting just off the center of the strip.
CONTROLLING DEPTH. Adding Yetter Air-Adjust row cleaners to his 24-row John Deere planter helps Nebraska strip-tiller Jerry Baysinger avoid creating valleys in strips that can cause washouts or drowning the seed after a heavy rain. With late strip-till ammonia applications, he will plant 6 inches off dead center in the strip to avoid ammonia "hot zones."
With the top layer of soil on the strip so loose, Baysinger wants to avoid going too deep with seeds, which can hinder plant emergence.
This setup lets him reduce or increase down pressure on the row cleaners to change operating depth to compensate for the changing field conditions from the seat of the tractor.
“We have to control the depth of the row cleaners and that’s real tough to do if you have a 24-row planter. You’d have to get out and adjust every row cleaner individually,” Baysinger says. “For us, it’s really important to have an adjustable or floating row cleaner on a strip so we don’t throw soil out and create a valley.
“If we get a heavy rainfall, the water can run right down that valley and wash out or drown the seed.”
Even by planting just off the center of the strip, Baysinger has been able to take advantage of established root channels formed in previous years. He stays within a 10-inch range of where his previous crop was planted to better protect seeds in adverse conditions.
“Strip-till has let me cut back on my nitrogen rates because of the precision placement we have…”
Baysinger builds his strips with an older version of Yetter’s High-Residue Maverick row units. The units have a cutting coulter in front, followed by a trash wheel, anhydrous knife and the sealing disc to build the berms.
Baysinger moved away from corn-on-corn several years ago and says he can deal with residue better.
“We can go through soybean stubble really well with our units and not have any plugging issues,” he says.
When Baysinger started JBI Enterprises in 2000, he developed and began selling custom strip-till and no-till toolbars with Yetter row units.
He’s changed very little with the design of the toolbars, which accommodate his 12-row units. However, Baysinger is considering moving to a 16-row strip-till unit in the future.
“We may want to design a new bar to have one machine cover more acres,” he says. “One concern is that we can easily offset now with our 24-row planter, so it’s convenient. With a 16-row unit, we’d have to use RTK to be dead on the 30-inch centers and offset the planter from there, if needed.”
Fine Tuning Fertility
To pinpoint fertilizer placement, Baysinger frequently grid samples his fields and maps specific zones to determine where to increase or scale back nutrient application.
|FLEXIBLE SCHEDULE. Jerry Baysinger, who strip-tills more than 3,000 acres near Bruning, Neb., often bows to Mother Nature to get his strips built in the fall, winter or spring. But he tries to leave at least a 2-week window before planing and at least 1 inch of moisture on the ground to reduce any salt effect or burn from fall ammonia in the strip.|
On average, he applies 160 pounds of nitrogen per acre, but has been able to scale back in areas where there’s carryover nitrate.
“If we have 10 pounds of residual nitrogen, then we take that off the 160 pounds and put on 150 pounds per acre. So we take into account what nitrogen is in the soil and use as much as we can,” Baysinger says. “I’ve gone as low as 135 pounds per acre and still pull off 200-plus bushel yields, so strip-till has let me cut back on my nitrogen rates because of the precision placement we’ve been able to get.
“That’s helped not only our bottom line, but helped our groundwater nitrate issues. Anything we can do to help with that is going to benefit us.”
Although Baysinger typically applies all his nitrogen with the strip-till rig, even and precise placement of anhydrous is critical to avoid wasting nutrients.
Baysinger uses aNH3’s Equaply Liquimatic pump system to get row-to-row precision. The system allows him to apply ammonia in cold temperatures at fast speeds, and to monitor every row with a pressure gauge.
“If we didn’t have that and we plugged a knife, we’d have a yellow row, which usually shows up when it’s too late to get in there and do anything about it,” Baysinger says. “Row-to-row equality is a very important part of strip-till, so we utilize the pump system to achieve that accuracy.
“That’s always going to be a part of our operation, having the ammonia delivery system that is precise.”
“It’s important to have an adjustable or floating row cleaner on a strip so we don’t throw soil out...”
To minimize leeching of fall-applied ammonia, Baysinger recommends using N-Serve nitrogen stabilizer. This keeps the ammonium from converting to nitrate too quickly, which in nitrate form becomes very mobile in the soil and risks significant nitrogen loss.
“I’m a big proponent of using a nitrogen inhibitor, because that ammonia I put on in the fall could actually turn out to be the most expensive ammonia if it’s put on in the wrong conditions,” he says. “If you’re going to be applying nitrogen in the fall — no matter if the soil is 50 degrees or lower in temperature — you’ll see the benefits of that nitrogen stabilizer.”
For phosphorus and potassium, Baysinger applies the fertilizer with his planter and a secondary pass with a coulter machine.
“We use that rig to put on extra phosphorus, so we’re able to meet our phosphorus needs through the planter and another trip across the field in those acres that need it,” he says. “This year, we’ll probably sidedress early, as soon as the corn comes out of the ground.”
Pelletized Lime Application
Since 2005, Baysinger has worked with a local crop consultant to grid sample his fields in the fall.
One of his initial projects was a 10-year trial of pelletized lime application in a strip-tilled research plot. The goal of the ongoing trial is to examine and increase soil health.
Each year, Baysinger applies 250-to-350 pounds per acre of pelletized lime — and nothing else — through winter or early spring.
“What we’ve found so far is that we’re building organic matter, but also raising our phosphorus levels,” he says. “While our soils have phosphorus in them, it’s becoming more available to the plant because our pH levels are increasing.”
Baysinger says the trial — now in its 8th year — is a “textbook” method for boosting fertility, but few strip-tillers in the area use pelletized lime because it’s more expensive than agricultural lime. But pelletized lime works faster to improve pH levels and increase the availability of phosphorus for plants.
Baysinger has seen pH levels rise from the 4-to-5 range at the start of the trial to the 6-to-7 range now without application of additional phosphorus.
“That’s one example of where we’re intensely soil sampling and looking at some different things. We strip-till and rotate on that farm, just like we do our other farms, and it’s been one of our better producing farms here the last couple years,” he says. “We’ve still got 2 more years on this study, so it will be interesting to see where we end up.”
‘Tricking’ Mother Nature
Baysinger tried strip-tilling corn-on-corn for several years, but struggled to manage the residue and yield drag. He decided to move back to a corn-and-soybean rotation. He’s been strip-tilling soybeans off and on for 10 years and will otherwise no-till his soybeans.
Strip-till, combined with nutrient- management techniques and seed placement, has led to a 10-bushel-per-acre bump in soybeans in the last 4 years for Baysinger.
But it’s taken some ingenuity on his part to prepare soybean strips for planting, especially in predominantly wet years.
“In the past, we’ve dropped some nutrients in the strip for soybeans, but we see a big advantage just making that strip and having an ideal seedbed for the soybeans to emerge,” he says. “We’ve had more snowfall this year than we did last year, so our corn stalks out here are really wet and the residue is matted down, so it’s going to take something to fool Mother Nature and to get that soil to dry out.”
Vertical tillage is one option Baysinger has tried, but he’s also had success taking his strip-till unit through the field with the knives removed before planting to loosen up the top 1 or 2 inches of soil.
He says this “stirs the pot” and establishes a nice seedbed for the soybeans and also reduces sidewall compaction and crusting, which leads to better stands.
“I see growers rush planting and plant a day or two early sometimes, just to get it done,” Baysinger says. “I may be guilty of that as well, but then have to turn the pivot on to get the ground to soften up after planting through wet soil, or pray for rain if you’re on dry land.”
Another tool Baysinger has used to clear residue and soften soybean strips is a rotary hoe. Following the strips with the machine lets him break up crusting and avoid disturbing residue in between the rows.
Baysinger says this strategy works to conserve water because he doesn’t have to start up a pivot irrigation unit to break up the crust. He can cover 400 acres a day with the rotary hoe.
“If I’ve got 800 acres that I need to get a crust broken up on and it’s not going to rain, I want to save my water until I really need it,” he says.
Baysinger builds 10-inch strips for soybeans and plants 3 to 4 inches to the side of the old cornrow. The space between the rows is the “storage bank” for residue and a sponge, of sorts, to catch and hold moisture, he says.
“Years ago, we used to plant on an angle with our soybeans across our corn stalks so we didn’t have to deal with the residue,” he says. “But I got away from that because of the impact that traffic has on the strips.”
It was purely by accident how Baysinger says he came to realize the benefits of making that change. He was working with a neighbor who was planting on an angle with his planter set to 15-inch spacings. Baysinger planted 30-inch rows in the same field on an angle, but at harvest he noticed a difference in the soybean plants where he intersected with the old cornrows.
“When I was combining, I could see these 30-inch strips and I wondered what was going on?” he says. “So I got out of the combine, walked up there and realized that where those strips were, the soybean plants were about 4 inches taller than the others and they had two more rows of pods.
“It was right where the previous year’s corn row was where I strip-tilled. I could see that there was a benefit from that old strip, and the soybeans that intercepted that strip were doing much better.”
Now, Baysinger steers clear of driving across his old cornrows and stays right on the strip.
“We really treat our strips pretty sacred. We make our strips and we stay off of them at all costs,” he says. “Even at harvesttime, I will try to get the grain carts to go all the way to the end of the field and turn around vs. driving across the rows.”
Since Baysinger began strip-tilling, he’s seen a progression of the practice on both his farm and in his region.
“Strip-till around here mainly started out building your strips and putting on your anhydrous with nothing else,” he says. “Now we have growers wanting to do more than just the nitrogen component. They want to put on other nutrients, whether it’s in a dry or a liquid form. That has changed toolbar designs to accommodate both.”
Dry-fertilizer application is one area where Baysinger has seen growth in strip-till. For one, it’s more economical than liquid, he says, and technology lets farmers place dry products more precisely for corn and soybeans.
Despite some industry speculation that anhydrous ammonia is on its way out, Baysinger doesn’t believe such a dramatic change is going to happen anytime soon.
“It’s going to be more regulated, but ammonia is still the cheapest form of nitrogen we have,” he says. “It’s still the safest as far as potential losses because it must go through conversion processes. It’ll still be around.”