The phrase “change is constant” is an appropriate one to summarize the ever-evolving strip-till operation at Wallendal Supply in Grand Marsh, Wis.
After nearly a quarter-century of strip-tilling a variety of crops, third generation farmer Eric Wallendal and his wife, Megan, still view their system as a work-in progress.
Farming in primarily sandy topsoil with heavy clay underneath, preserving water and fertilizer has long been a challenge for the Wallendals on their 3,200-acre operation. With largely stagnant organic matter content between 0.7- 1% they adopted strip-till and other practices to help preserve soil health and increase crop yields.
“We’re always fine tuning, but strip-till has improved our management practices in what can be a challenging environment,” Eric says. “Our family came to the realization a long time ago that plowing our fields wiped out the organic matter that we struggle to maintain anyway. Strip-till lets us preserve the integrity of our soil.”
The Wallendals’ operation includes a diverse rotation of forage corn, snap beans, soybeans, peas and alfalfa. They also grow forage corn for a sizeable dairy operation and rent out about 800 acres for potatoes.
Megan says they are “guerilla farmers” because they partner with canning companies to grow the crop of choice any given season.
“We grow whatever makes sense for us and our partners, and that requires a great deal of flexibility on our part,” she says. “With six or seven crops in the rotation it’s a little unconventional, but strip-till allows us to experiment with that diversity.”
All of their strip-tilled acres are under center pivot irrigation, and in 2014 they spring strip-tilled 2,000 acres of soybeans, forage corn and snap beans, which accounted for about 80% of their crops.
They use two, 12-row Orthman 1tRIPr units; one on 30-inch spacings for soybeans and snap beans and the other set at 22-inches for forage corn.
They offset the row units 11 inches on the 12-row unit using John Deere’s RTK network and GreenStar3 system on their Case IH tractor. Eric admits the 22-inch system is a bit unusual for corn, but he’s seen positive results.
“We feel we’re able to localize nutrients better with a banded placement of fertilizer in the root zone, while not overcrowding the plants,” Eric says. “This past year we averaged between 250 and 270 bushels per acre for forage corn, applying about 260 units of nitrogen per acre.”
They don’t offset the row units for soybeans or snap beans, but going into corn residue they’ve had to use a Turbo-Till vertical-tillage tool from Great Plains Mfg. to clear debris off the row ahead of planting with their John Deere 1760 18-row planter.
The Wallendals have strip-tilled snap beans off and on for the last 10 years, and this past year, strip-tilled 350 acres of the crop.
“Snap beans are a 55-day crop, so with strip-till we’re able to help those roots develop a little deeper and more easily access nutrients in a shorter amount of time,” Eric says. “We had one of the canning company’s representatives in the field this year and he said the stands looked perfect.”
Wallendal also sees more consistency with the color and emergence timing of snap beans, compared to conventional tillage practices.
“It can be a risky crop, but strip-till has probably added at least a ½-ton-per-acre yield bump for us,” he says.
The Wallendals admit that seed genetics have contributed to increased crop productivity throughout the years, but with strip-till, they’ve been able to maximize the potential of various seed varieties with targeted placement of fertilizer.
This is especially vital on their harder soils, which don’t allow for fall application of nitrogen.
Grand Marsh, Wis., strip-tiller Eric Wallendal, discusses nutrient application practices, to include manure, in strip-tilled fields to help maximize nitrogen uptake and grow a quality crop.
“We’d love to be building strips after harvest and applying our N,” Eric says. “But we can’t because our soils won’t hold the nutrients.”
The Wallendals prefer to build strips as early as possible in spring, and plant the following day, but Megan says that’s not always possible.
“If we build strips and get a big rain 2 days later, we can’t put those bands down because they will wash out with our sandy soils,” she says. “When we strip-till, it’s not just thinking about where that frost layer is, or if we’ve applied manure on the field.”
For the last 2 years, they’ve applied manure on 80% of their fields going to forage corn and have to waited until it dries before they can build strips. Overall, the Wallendals apply manure on about 40% of their acres through a dragline, semi or chisel plow on the back of a truck.
“We want to incorporate the manure as deep as we can within the ground so we’re not losing the value of the application,” Eric says. “The manure application gives us about 100 units of N and is increasing the nutrient-retaining capabilities of our topsoil.”
For forage corn, they typically band a starter fertilizer blend of potassium, phosphorus, boron and sulfur 4-inches deep with the strip-till rig. At V3 they broadcast apply 100 pounds per acre of ammonium sulfate (AMS) and fertigate another 60 pounds per acre of N at V8 or V10.
Eric says in the future, he may experiment with splitting the final application of N between V10 and R3, a couple of weeks before harvest. Another change the Wallendals plans to make is moving to a dual application of fertilizer with the strip-till rig.
“I’m looking to band a starter package both 4 inches deep and again at 8 inches, with the thought that the second layer of nutrients will supplement our V3 application,” Eric says. “This would give us a little more wiggle room with timing of that broadcast application and give our roots and extra boost of nutrients at that 8-inch depth.”
Improving Soil Structure
While the Wallendals struggle with improving soil health, they take an analytical approach to make the most of their farmland. They use Veris carts and soil moisture probes to record organic matter, pH levels and water-holding capacity in their soils.
“What we’ve found is that historically, our topsoil depth has been about 1 foot, but through strip-till we’ve been able to increase that depth to nearly 2 feet,” Eric says.
Adds Megan, “Even if we see an increase of 0.1% or 0.2% of organic matter, having that extra foot of topsoil allows us to catch and retain more nutrients, so that’s huge for us.”
Though they’ve just started utilizing the soil sensing technology, Eric says they’ve seen some early returns.
“It’s important for us to understand our soil makeup to understand how to irrigate,” he says. “We can see the rooting depth throughout the season, see how full the soil profile it, whether it’s 50% or it’s at wilt, how close it is to wilt and how much water we need to apply to saturate that profile.”
Working with a local irrigation dealer, the Wallendals have begun to write their own variable-rate irrigation prescriptions to better assess water needs in specific strip-tilled fields, rather than arbitrarily apply water.
“Strip-till allows us to pay attention this type of detail,” Eric says. “We hope we can translate the data we’re collecting into more efficient use of water to produce higher yields.”