For years, the annual field preparation routine for Dresden, Ontario, farmer Mark Richards included a minimum of three tillage passes ahead of planting.
He’d typically plow after harvest, follow with a land-leveling pass in the fall, then make a spring trip with a field cultivator to warm up the soil.
But Richards, who farms with his cousin, Mike, came to realize this system was costing them time and money, so they began their transition to strip-tilling several years ago. They currently strip-till about 1,000 acres of corn and 400 acres of sugarbeets, in addition to no-tilling wheat and soybeans on their 3,000-acre operation.
“The main reason I moved to strip-till is because I was looking at my fuel bills and they were getting out of control,” Richards says. “I saw an advantage with reduced tillage, and tilling only in the row — using auto-steer and RTK — which I thought would also lead to better stands.”
The combination of fewer and more efficient passes through the field, the adoption of precision technology, especially auto-steer, and reduced tillage has contributed to a 15% reduction in fuel costs and healthier crops, he says.
Richards pulls a 12-row Orthman 1tRIPr strip-till rig with his John Deere 8430 tractor to build fall strips about 8 inches wide and 7 inches deep.
In spring, he switches out the mole knives on the row units with double coulters to freshen the strips ahead of planting.
LIMITING PASSES. Using a 12-row Orthman 1tRIPr, Ontario strip-tiller Mark Richards builds strips in the fall and switches out the mole knives for double coulters to freshen the berms ahead of planting. Above, Richards strip-tills into a rye cover crop ahead of corn.
“When we used to plow in the fall, we tended to have a stale seedbed in spring, but I did see a benefit ripping the field ahead of sugarbeets,” he says. “But cultivating the entire field was too aggressive, so that’s why we make that second strip-till pass in spring. It’s less intrusive, but still leaves us with a beautiful seedbed.”
Richards plants strip-tilled corn and sugar beets with a 12-row Kinze 2600 planter equipped with Precision Planting’s vSet vacuum meter system, vDrive single-row control system and DeltaForce hydraulic pressure control.
About 7 years ago, Richards moved to RTK-level accuracy with Deere’s StarFire receiver, and he uses a 2630 GreenStar display in the tractor cab to guide the planter and strip-till rig.
“The switch to vSets improved stands by about 5% in sugarbeets, and with the addition of the DeltaForce we had the best sugarbeet stands we’ve ever seen last year,” he says. “In the past, I think we had issues with sidewall compaction, and the first year we put the row clutches on the planter they paid for themselves in seed savings.”
Richards estimates saving about $5,000 in corn and sugarbeet seed costs with row clutches, especially on irregularly-shaped fields.”
“We farm near a river so we’ve got angled headlands with two to five sides, so those seed savings add up on odd-shaped fields,” he says. “Even on square 50-acre fields, we’re saving 1.5% to 2% on seed.”
Seed-to-soil contact and water infiltration is crucial for Richards, who often deals with variable rainfall during summer months.
His ideal crop rotation is corn, soybeans and sugarbeets, but Richards also prefers to strip-till sugarbeets after wheat and plant a clover cover crop in August to conserve moisture.
CLEAN SEED BED. Seed to soil contact is essential for Richards, given variable rainfall in the area. His ideal crop rotation is corn, soybeans and sugarbeets, but Richards also prefers to strip-till sugarbeets after wheat and plant a clover cover crop in August to conserve moisture.
“It’s worked well because I can under-seed the clover after harvest and let it get established, then spray it down where the strips will go in October,” Richards says. “I don’t have to run row cleaners on the strip-till rig and can leave clover between the rows, then go back and freshen the strips in spring. I’m seeing better water infiltration because the soil is holding together better.”
Last summer, Richards’ farm received an 8-inch rainfall and afterward he compared his strip-tilled sugarbeet fields with one that he had conventionally tilled. The strip-tilled fields survived, whereas the conventionally tilled field had significant ponding.
“We didn’t loose any strip-tilled sugarbeets because we let that clover root take hold,” Richards says. “We’re also able to plant sugarbeets about a ½-inch deeper than a lot of farmers because the strips are cleaner and we’re getting better emergence and stands.”
Sugarbeet yields average about 30 tons per acre, which is consistent with the farm average in Ontario. For strip-tilled corn, Richards averages about 180 bushels per acre, which is on par with annual harvests in his conventional-till system.
But he’s been satisfied with strip-till results because it’s taking less time to get field operations done and he’s using less fuel.
“While the yield improvement hasn’t been there yet, I’m saving enough time and money to justify the system,” Richards says. “On average, I’m only using about an eighth of a gallon per acre of fuel which is far less than what I used in the past.”
Richards is optimistic that yields can increase, especially as he moves toward more efficient application of fertilizer with the strip-till rig. He currently spreads about 200 pounds per acre of potash in the fall ahead of strip-tilled corn and sugarbeets.
CUTTING FUEL COSTS. The combination of fewer and more efficient passes through the field, the adoption of precision technology, especially auto-steer, and reduced tillage have contributed to a 15% reduction in fuel costs and healthier crops for Richards.
Prior to planting, Richards uses his Deere 4930 sprayer to apply about 40 gallons per acre of 28% nitrogen with Agrotain nitrogen stabilizer and 15 gallons per acre of BASF’s Integrity herbicide.
Then with the planter, he applies a 150-pound-per-acre blend of MicroEssentials-SZ, monoammonium phosphate (MAP), sulfur and zinc in 2-by-2-inch placement beside the row. Richards then sidedresses up to 10 gallons of 28% with a 12-row applicator later in the season.
“I’m looking at getting a fertilizer cart this winter to mount on the strip-till bar so I can mix in about 125 pounds of the planter blend with the strip-till rig and switch the planter over to all liquid,” Richards says. “I think it will be a more efficient application and provide a good early kick start to early growth, rather than spraying it on top of the ground.”