Hiring a custom strip-tiller allowed Cresco, Iowa, grower Frank Moore to switch tillage systems 3 years ago without buying new equipment.

Moore ridge-tilled his corn and soybeans for almost 20 years and then no-tilled corn for several more growing seasons.

“I love ridge-till, but as we started farming more acres, it was difficult to get across all of the fields with a cultivator in the summer,” Moore says. “I began no-tilling corn in 2006 and that worked, but I felt that in the long term I needed to get the phosphorus and the potash into the ground instead of on the surface.”

Instead of buying a strip-till toolbar, Moore hired a custom strip-tiller in 2008 who was doing 5,000 to 7,000 acres with a 16-row toolbar with 30-inch row spacing.

“Buying a 16-row toolbar to strip-till would cost me around $100,000, and I’d have to buy another tractor and hire another part-time employee to strip-till,” says Moore, who farms 1,600 acres with his father, brother-in-law and a nephew.

AN EASIER OPTION. Instead of buying a strip-till toolbar, Frank Moore hired a custom strip-tiller in 2008 who was doing 5,000 to 7,000 acres with a 16-row toolbar with 30-inch row spacing.

Custom strip-tilling cost Moore $18 per acre. That includes $2 per acre for GPS data. Applying a 2-year crop-removal rate of 90 pounds of phosphorus and 135 pounds of potash per acre for a corn-soybean rotation cost about $135 per acre in the fall of 2010.

Overall, strip-till has worked well for Moore, but there have been some kinks to work out.

While the custom strip-tiller used RTK in the fall of 2008, software problems prevented Moore from acquiring the A-B line when corn was planted in 2009. There was also a learning curve for Moore that year when he started using RTK and auto-steer for planting and combining.

“In the fall of 2010, I rode with the custom strip-tiller to get a feel for what he was doing, and to give him an idea of what I wanted,” Moore says. “To minimize erosion, I’ve got contours and terraces on some fields.”

Moore uses a 16-row John Deere 1770 planter equipped with Seed Command row shutoffs and Dawn Equipment row cleaners, which have dual wheels and interlocking teeth.

“The Dawn row cleaners do a good job on the strips where I’m planting corn,” he says. “I don’t set the row cleaners very deep — just enough to clear off the strips. By springtime, there’s not much residue on the strips.”

Testing Fertilizer Rates

Last fall, Moore reduced the phosphorus and potash rates by 33%. He alternated the full rate of 90 pounds of phosphate and 130 pounds of potash per acre with the reduced rates on two 80-acre fields.

“I want to see how the corn and soybeans fare in a strip-till situation with reduced rates of fertilizer,” he says. “I’ll use the yield monitor this fall to check the yield response and determine whether I make any permanent changes.”

THIS IS A TEST. Corn seedlings on Frank's Moore's farm near Cresco, Iowa. Last fall he began experimenting with reduced fertilizer rates to see how corn and soybeans fare in strip-till vs. the full rate. “I’ll use the yield monitor this fall to check the yield response and determine whether I make any permanent changes," he says.

Moore doesn’t apply nitrogen in the fall. He’s in Tier 3 of the Conservation Security Program and has voluntarily restricted himself to applying a maximum of 30 pounds of nitrogen per acre before planting.

“We apply part of the nitrogen when we are spraying our pre-plant herbicide, and sidedress the rest,” he says. “I also have the option of sidedressing 100% of my corn if I can’t get some nitrogen on before planting.”

Weather Skews Corn Yields

Moore says poor harvest weather in 2009, and great weather in 2010 make it difficult to judge how much the switch to strip-till affected corn yields vs. no-tilling.

“In 2009, the corn didn’t mature and we were harvesting corn into December,” he says. “But 2010 was one of the better years for Howard County. For the first time, the county had the highest average yields in the 11-county Northeast Iowa Crop Reporting District. The county also had the sixth-highest average corn yield in Iowa’s 99 counties.”

Until last fall, Howard County corn and soybeans yields were always last or next to last in the district, Moore says. In 2010, the USDA county yield average was 191.4 bushels per acre for corn and 53.5 bushels per acre for soybeans.

Tips For New Strip-Tillers

Moore believes strip-till is catching on in northern Iowa, and that’s good because his custom strip-tiller left the business to do custom manure application.

“I’m trying to find another farmer who will buy a strip-till toolbar with me,” Moore says, “But the closest strip-tiller I’ve found lives 60 miles away. Even so, I’m committed to strip-till. It allows me to farm more land.”

Farmers who want to try strip-till should find an experienced strip-tiller, attend strip-till field days and stay off wet, tacky fields before planting corn, Moore says.

“If you haven’t no-tilled corn before, there’s a real learning curve to strip-till,” he says. “If I had found a mentor before I started ridge-tilling back in 1988, it would have saved me a lot of headaches.”

Moore urges strip-tillers — as well as no-tillers — to ignore naysayers.

“We've had 24 consecutive years of no-till on our farms,” he says. “Of course, the conventional wisdom says strip-till and no-till won't work here in northern Iowa.”

By doing enough research, farmers can make both practices work in most conditions, he adds.

“You do the same thing year in and year out when you are moldboard plowing,” Moore says. “With strip-till and no-till you need to adjust to the conditions. If the ground is wet and tacky at planting time, stay off of it for 1-2 days. It’s worth it.”