By switching to strip-till, a typical dairy producer in California could eliminate up to four or five tractor passes, says Jeff Mitchell of the University of California Kearny Agricultural Center.

And with high fuel costs, fewer passes across the field are better not only for the field but also for the dairy producer.

“We estimate a reduction in costs of $50 an acre by using strip-tillage instead of traditional tillage,” says Mitchell. “However, it is important to understand that strip-till may not work in all soil types. Heavier soils may be more difficult than coarser soils.”

With a Western Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) grant in 2006, Mitchell evaluated and refined strip-till and no-till systems for corn forage production and no-till drill winter forage planting at the San Joaquin Valley in terms of crop establishment, weed control and profitability.

To fill their year-round need for inexpensive forages, California dairy producers typically plant and harvest a series of forage crops — small grains, corn for silage, milo and sorghum sudangrass.

While this requires considerable tillage and seedbed preparation ahead of each successive crop, the production systems lend themselves to conservation-tillage approaches developed in other regions. Adopting these approaches could:

  • Reduce the time between the harvest of one crop and the planting of the next crop.
  • Lower costs.
  • Lessen dust by as much as 66%.

Mitchell conducted the research on the Larry and Daniel Soares dairy in Hanford. The project team evaluated strip-till silage corn production following wheat forage at the 600-cow dairy.

In 2006, the trials evaluated strip-till, no-till and conventional till in replicated strips — each 10 acres — in an 80-acre field. After the 2005-06 winter wheat forage crop was chopped in April 2006, a 6-row, 30-inch Case DMI Ecolo-Till strip-tiller subsoiled the field to a depth of 12 inches.

The traditional tillage strips were disced and listed before planting. Because of irrigation pump challenges in 2007, the demonstration was moved to two fields, where an 8-row, 30-inch Schlagel strip-till rig was used for the strip-till comparison.

The results for 2006 were compromised by irrigation challenges, but in the 2007 demonstration, corn plant populations were higher in the strip-tilled fields. Weed populations and yields were roughly equal in both fields.

On the whole, the results were positive and encouraging, say Mitchell. Since the project started in 2005, interest in conservation tillage has increased markedly in the San Joaquin Valley. Growers have learned that strip-till involves less intercrop tillage than normally used following winter-wheat chopping in preparation for spring corn-silage planting.

Mitchell offers these recommendations for producers considering strip-till:

  • Having some moisture in the soil precludes bringing up large clods.
  • Time herbicide applications within 7 days of planting to improve weed management.
  • Using the same guidance system for strip-tilling and planting will keep the planter on the strip-tilled berm.