When Charlie Durdan started strip-tilling in 1997, he sought a solution to the cold, wet springs that can hinder planting in north-central Illinois and diminish yields.

A no-till farmer since 1983, Durdan says switching to strip-till for corn after soybeans stabilized yields, especially in years when the spring weather didn’t cooperate.

“You can’t predict in fall what the weather is going to be like in spring. Building those strips in the fall gives me insurance heading into the next planting season,” Durdan says. “No-till worked fine 4 out of 5 years, but that one year when it’s cold and wet, I would take a 40-bushel-per-acre hit in some spots.”

Corn yields have been much more consistent for Durdan since moving to strip-till, although he still no-tills soybeans. He splits corn and soybeans evenly on his 1,400 acres in Grand Ridge, Ill.

“I tried corn-on-corn, but we just don’t have the topsoil depth to make it work consistently,” Durdan says. “The 50-50 split has worked out pretty well and suits my equipment setup.”

An Efficient Approach

Durdan custom-built his own strip-till rig in 1997, but only ran it one season before taking it apart and piecing together a new one. His first planter bar snapped because it wasn’t equipped the handle the stress of the 12 row units, with mole knives and shanks mounted on the wings.

“The shanks pulled extremely hard with the mole knives — plus, with the markers on it, it was just too heavy,” he says. “Cheap was my original goal because if it didn’t work, I could always park it out back and not worry about it too much. But I wanted to try it before I spent $50,000 to $60,000 for a machine.”

Durdan Farms
HOMEMADE UNIT. Grand Ridge, Ill., strip-tiller Charlie Durdan built his own strip-till rig in 1997 and he says “cheap was my original goal” when piecing together the unit. He spent about $10,000 on the 12-row machine, which he uses to build his strips in the fall.

Durdan’s second attempt at constructing his own strip-till rig proved much more successful, as he reinforced the planter bar and also lengthened the arms to hold the 18-inch discs and mole knives.

He also switched from a hydraulic metering system to deliver dry fertilizer to an air-delivery system powered by a Honda motor, which is mounted on the unit’s bottom trough in the back, below the fertilizer cart.

“For the first two years I had a hydraulic motor and I got tired of fighting and not having enough oil in it. Then the oil would get hot and the fertilizer tubes would plug,” Durdan says. “The Honda motor turns the fan that blows fertilizer out to the row units.

“I bought the bottom trough and designed it to get the motor setup. It’s a combine axle. I use that to drive the metering auger and that’s one of the advantages of using the front combine axle.”

A compact unit — which ended up costing about $10,000 to assemble — was one of the primary objectives for Durdan when he designed the machine. Plus, he wanted a unit that matched his 12-row White planter — which, combined with RTK guidance on his 220-horsepower John Deere tractor — enhances accuracy.

“I wanted a front-mount bar so I could see it easily. If it clogs up, I can tell right away,” he says. “That’s one of the advantages of this setup — the visibility. It’s pretty compact at 30-feet and follows my tractor well.”

Durdan Farms 2
HANGING ON. Durdan replaced mole knives with Dawn Pluribus row units with row cleaners and three coulters in 2009. To hold the 500-pound units, Durdan reinforced the 6-by-6-inch frame with half-inch plates on each side.

Minor Tweaks

Since building his second unit, Durdan hasn’t made many changes to it. The most significant came in 2009 when he swapped out the mole knives for Dawn Pluribus row units with row cleaners and three coulters.

“That fall it was extremely wet and we didn’t get any strips made that year, so we used the mole knives to try and set them up in the spring, but it didn’t work out,” he says. “We didn’t have trash wheels on the mole knives, so we knew that we needed something to address residue if we had to build strips in the spring again.”

While the Dawn units bolted on to the bar, Durdan modified the frame to be able to carry the heavier accessories. He strengthened the 6-by-6-inch frame to limit bounce by adding a half-inch plate on each side to hold the row units, which weigh about 500 pounds each.

Last winter, he replaced the cylinder that folds the bar to further reinforce the unit.

“The Dawn units are heavier than the planter units, and the cylinder inside that folds the bar was only 3½ inches, which wasn’t big enough,” Durdan says. “I replaced it with a 4-inch cylinder to get more lift. Last year, it would fold if it’s cold and there’s no dirt sticking in the units. But in the mud, it would fold in the morning, but it wouldn’t at night.”

Covering Up

Durdan says he’s tested the modifications and is confident they will hold up. He prefers to build his strips in the fall — about 4 to 5 inches deep and 8 inches wide — because of the potential for cooler, damp weather in spring.

He only applies about 10% of his nitrogen requirement in the fall through diammonium phosphate (DAP) and dry ammonium sulfate (AMS).

Durdan Farms 3
SPECIAL DELIVERY. Durdan switched from a hydraulic metering system to deliver dry fertilizer to an air-delivery system powered by a Honda motor, which is mounted on the unit’s bottom trough in the back, below the fertilizer cart.

“My nitrogen application in the fall is pretty incidental,” Durdan says. “In the strips, I’ll put down about 200 pounds of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, as well as sulfur, that gives me kind of a starter effect. Then in the spring, I’ll look at the soil types put on about 20 gallons of weed-and-feed during planting, then sidedress the balance with 28%.”

Covers crops have become a key contributor to soil health for Durdan. He started 5 years ago planting oats, annual ryegrass and oilseed radishes to help preserve soil nutrients during the winter and prevent erosion, 

This year, he is going to experiment with planting 15 acres of corn into cereal rye, after only planting soybeans into the cover crop.

“We’ll see how it goes and if we decide to do more than 15 acres next year, we’ll have to put nitrogen on and go with 2-by-2-inch placement,” Durdan says. “Currently, I don’t have starter on the planter. But if I’m going to expand on planting corn into cereal rye, I’ll probably have some type of nitrogen on the planter, so that’s next.”