Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the Feb. 2014 issue of No-Till Farmer’s Conservation Tillage Guide.

Farmers have many reasons for moving from conventional tillage to strip-till, whether it’s minimizing erosion, being more precise with inputs, building soil health or getting more bushels per acre.

For Slinger, Wis., farmer Ricky Kratz and his family, it was a matter of getting more reliable results.

After several years of zone-tilling about 2,000 acres of corn with a three-coulter Rawson system, they found stress on the 12-row Kinze 2600 planter they were using was costing them time and yield potential.

“After about 1,000 acres, we’d break the center bearing on the planter because the cast bearings were too weak to hold that extra weight,” Kratz says. “We were looking for a way to take weight off our planter and didn’t want to go back to more intense tillage again. With strip-till, we liked that the fields weren’t washing out like they used to with conventional tillage.”

The Starting Point

Kratz farms about 4,800 acres with his father, Rick, and uncles Jim and Gary Kratz and Allen Emmer.

Reliable System
RELIABLE SYSTEM. Ricky Kratz of Slinger, Wis., and his family began strip-tilling in 2007 with an Environmental Tillage System’s Soil Warrior. Through a first-year test, they saw a 23-bushel per acre boost in strip-tilled corn, compared to zone-tillage.

His brother Stevie, sister Katie, and cousins Jason and Kevin Emmer are also part of the operation, which includes no-tilled soybeans, oats, wheat, alfalfa and soybeans.

The Kratzes also have a dairy farm with 450 cows and 400 acres of no-tilled corn silage.

With such a diverse operation, Kratz says they’re always looking for ways to improve efficiency, and strip-till has brought precise fertilizer application, boosted corn yields and opened the door to further efficiency through use of precision technology and experimentation.

“I like where our yields are, but what does it take to get that extra 3 bushels?” he says. “It costs the same to run the rig across the field, it costs the same to plant the seed and it costs you the same to harvest it. So that 3-bushel improvement is where the margin is.”

As Kratz began researching strip-till as an option, a well-timed conversation with Mark Bauer, founder of Environmental Tillage Systems, peaked his interest in the two-pass system — building strips in fall and fertilizing with the rig in spring — and it’s an approach Kratz has used for the last 7 years.

Bauer showed Kratz pictures of his Soil Warrior strip-till rig setup, which bore a resemblance to the Rawson system, except for one major factor.

“It wasn’t part of the planter and I immediately thought that I could take the fertilizer off our planter and use the strip-till rig for application,” he says. “Instead of going 4 mph, we could apply fertilizer at 6 to 8 mph and get the job done a lot faster, then just come back and plant.”

Testing The System

The Kratzes purchased a 12-row ETS Soil Warrior in 2007, but wanted to compare strip-till with zone-till before fully committing to the practice across all his grain corn acres. The first year they set up two, 25-acre test plots — one strip-tilled and one zone-tilled with the Rawson system.

Ricky Kratz, Slinger, Wis., strip-tiller, shares the new technology they have added to their farm, how it has improved planting and how soon they were able to receive results from their investments.

In spring, the Kratzes planted the same corn hybrids on the same date in 30-inch rows in each plot on fairly consistent peat ground.

They also applied the same amounts of nitrogen, potash and phosphorus in each field, but varied the blends.

For the Kinze planter with the Rawson system, they applied their standard rates of 120 pounds per acre of a nitrogen, potash and phosphorus blend, with small amounts of zinc and sulfur (12-21-21-4s.5z) and 20 gallons per acre of 28% nitrogen, in 2-by-2-inch placement. They then broadcast 185 pounds per acre of a nitrogen, potash, phosphorus and sulfur blend (27-7-14 4s) with a spinner spreader.

But on the strip-tilled plot, they broadcast 100 pounds per acre of ammonium sulfate with sulfur (21-0-0-6s) with a spinner spreader.

“The reason we broadcast was to apply the sulfur, because if we put that amount through the strip-till rig, it would plug up,” Kratz says. “But overall, we applied the same amounts of fertilizer as on the zone-tilled plot, just in different forms.”

With the strip-till rig, they applied 305 pounds per acre of a urea, potash and phosphorus blend (36-4-9). They planted the strip-tilled plot with a 12-row John Deere 1790 corn planter.

Kratz says they figured they wouldn’t need to apply as much potash and phosphorus directly in the strip because they knew the soil would warm up faster than with the zone-tilled field.

Steering Toward Profit
STEERING TOWARD PROFIT. The Kratzes use a John Deere 9520 tractor to pull their strip-till rig. They use Deere’s StarFire RTK system for precision guidance and have also tried Deere’s iGuide passive implement-guidance system. It took 2 years for their initial investment in strip-till to pay for itself through higher corn yields.

“What we noticed early on was that the strip-tilled corn was a leaf-stage ahead of the other plot, which got us excited about the yield potential,” he says. “The leaves were a nice, dark green, but the zone-tilled corn was more of a yellowish color and still struggling into June and July.”

But the real payoff came in fall when the plots were harvested. A yield check for the inside rows found a 23-bushel-per-acre difference in the strip-till plot compared to the zone-till plot.

“We were over 190 bushels per acre in the strip-tilled field and some of the bump may have been the year and conditions. But even with corn prices at $3 a bushel, that still made a huge difference,” Kratz says. “With zone-till, we’d cut out the high peaks and the lows. But with strip-till, we keep the highs and the lows aren’t there.

“That’s where we’re getting those 20-plus bushels, by just eliminating those lows — which isn’t something we’d been able to do in the past.”

Fertilizing For Stability

Sold on the initial benefits of strip-till, the Kratzes have evolved their fertility program to include split application of fertilizer with their strip-till rig.

Soil-test results indicate that applying phosphorus and potash in the fall and nitrogen in the spring is maintaining a better balance of nutrient levels, says Kratz.

Funnel Effect
FUNNEL EFFECT. The Kratzes typically build their fall strips 12 inches wide and 4 to 6 inches deep, or as much as 8 inches, depending on any present compaction issues. “Walking into a corn field that was strip-tilled after a rain, it’s amazing how in the middle of the strip, right where the corn is, the leaves on the corn plant funnel all that water right to the root zone,” Ricky Kratz says.

“We are never looking for savings with our fertilizer program,” Kratz says. “We are looking for something that benefits us in a different way, either in yield and standability or plant health. We don’t ask our agronomist to save us money; we ask him what it’s going to take to produce the best crop.”

The Kratzes typically build their fall strips 12 inches wide and 4 to 6 inches deep, or as much as 8 inches, depending on any compaction issues being present. Kratz says the goal is to build ridged berms so that at planting, the gauge wheels square off the strips.

“Walking into a corn field that was strip-tilled after a rain, it’s amazing how in the middle of the strip, right where the corn is, the leaves on the corn plant funnel all that water right to the root zone,” he says.

While they still have the same Soil Warrior unit, the Kratzes updated from a single-rate hydraulic motor to a dual-rate motor for fall application of phosphorus and potassium. They also added an Avery Weigh-Tronix digital scale to monitor fertilizer load.

Through soil testing, the Kratzes found that their nutrient levels can be “all over the board” because the alfalfa crop tends to absorb a substantial amount of potash. With two fertilizer hoppers on the strip-till unit, they use one for phosphorus and one for potash.

“We wanted a way to adjust our rates in fall and stabilize our potassium and phosphorus levels,” Kratz says. “We get everything soil tested every year, or every other year, and get our recommendations. We’re trying to get our soils more balanced and split-applying our fertilizer seems to really help with sustainability of our corn crop from year to year.”

Those recommendations are broken out into three categories — low, optimum and high.

This past fall on low-level phosphorus ground, they applied 200 pounds per acre of a diammonium phosphate (65%) and Cal-Sul pelletized gypsum (35%) blend (12-30-0-6s-8Ca). The rate was cut in half for optimum ground and reduced to zero for soil with high levels of phosphorus.

Weighted Decision
WEIGHTED DECISION. To improve their fertility program, the Kratzes updated from a single-rate hydraulic motor to a dual-rate motor for fall application of phosphorus and potassium. They also added an Avery Weigh-Tronix digital scale to monitor fertilizer load. “We’re trying to get our soils more balanced and it seems to really help with sustainability of our corn crop, year to year,” Ricky Kratz says.

For low-level potash ground, the Kratzes applied 300 pounds per acre of a potash (65%) and Cal-Sul pelletized gypsum blend (0-0-40-6s-8Ca). Again, they cut the rate in half for optimum ground and eliminated application for areas with high-level potash. In spring, they use the strip-till rig to apply 200 pounds per acre of urea blended with zinc.

“The reason we do this is to let the phosphate start breaking down during the winter,” he says. “The salt load will start diminishing, so we can come back and apply our spring nitrogen in that strip and not worry about any root burn.

“If we didn’t have to put the urea down, we wouldn’t be making the spring pass. So every time we run our strip-till rig, we are building something in the soil.”

Despite a wet spring in 2013 which delayed or postponed planting for some farmers, Kratz was able to apply the urea blend and still have the strips dry out and ready for planting. They only had 5 acres of prevented planting acres, while some neighbors barely planted half their crops.

“Normally, we’ll apply the urea in a day and a half and we can come back through and plant. The planter tires will sink 2 inches into the ground and the strip-till zones will be drying out,” he says. “We’re not mudding the seed in, but the rest of the field is muddy.

“Everyone probably thought we were nuts, but some of those fields are yielding 230 bushels per acre.”

Sidedress Experiment

Since moving away from applying fertilizer with the planter, the Kratzes are exploring the potential of sidedressing nitrogen more efficiently in their strip-till system.

Sidedressing isn’t something they’ve done much of with corn, primarily because the timing conflicted with harvesting hay for their dairy operation.

But last year, excessively wet conditions led to substantial nitrogen leaching and the Kratzes experimented with a neighbor’s sidedress unit, applying 10 gallons per acre of 28% nitrogen in four different strip-tilled fields.

“We sidedressed around mid-June when the corn was about ankle-high and we did one strip, then skipped a couple and then sidedressed another one to see if it would be worth it or not,” Kratz says. “The corn we side-dressed yielded about 170 bushels per acre and the plants we didn’t produced 113 bushels an acre.”

Kratz says they will continue to experiment with sidedressing, cutting the rate of the urea blend applied next spring from 200 pounds to 150 pounds per acre and sidedressing 50 pounds per acre of 28% nitrogen.

“We’re still weighing the pros and cons, but it seems with the way the rains have been coming lately — instead of little spurts, getting 2 inches and then nothing and then 2 inches again — it’s something we’ll look into more,” he says. “It’s a lot easier for that nitrogen to leach away when we get that kind of rain pattern.”

Precision Promise

As an experienced user of precision technology, the Kratzes understand its importance in strip-till. They use John Deere’s StarFire RTK system on their 9520 tractor to guide the strip-till rig.

Overall, they’ve invested about $200,000 in their strip-till operation, including about $70,000 in guidance equipment over the years.

“We wouldn’t have invested as much in the guidance if it wasn’t for strip-till, so I needed to see that this technology would pay for itself in 5 or 6 years,” Kratz says. “But it came much faster — our initial investment was paid for in 2 years due to the increased corn yields.”

In recent years, the Kratzes have also experimented with implement-guidance technology with varying success. They tested Deere’s iGuide passive implement guidance on the strip-till rig and corn planter, with encouraging results the first year.

“The tractor and implement were both where they needed to be, so those 16- or 17-hour days felt like 12,” Kratz says. “I was able to cut 3 or 4 days out of my planting window that spring.”

But the following year, they struggled with setting up the A-B lines in smaller, odd-shaped fields, which led to planting challenges and, ultimately, returning the system.

Breaking Bad
BREAKING BAD. After trying zone-till with a Rawson system on a 12-row Kinze planter, the Kratzes ran into trouble with center bearings breaking due to the excessive weight on the planter. Strip-till allowed them to split-apply fertilizer in fall and spring with the rig and focus on just planting into the strips.

“It seemed like the strip-till rig stayed where it needed to be, but since the planter was longer than the strip-till rig, it would drift more than the strip-till rig,” Kratz says. “I had to do more steering to try to stay in the middle of that berm.”

Kratz is considering an upgrade to Deere’s iSteer active guidance system in the future, but may wait until the technology is refined or spend more time testing it in the off-season.

Kratz says they are more likely to incorporate variable-rate seeding and fertilizing into their strip-till operation and recently purchased an Ag Leader Integra monitor for that purpose.

“The only way to increase our yields any more is raising populations. When I went over 34,000 plants per acre here, my plants started falling over,” he says. “All the studies are saying we’re supposed to be running at 36,000 or 38,000.

“I think it’s more based on rainfall, so we’ve got to start backing off populations where the plants are going to burn up so we can still get something out of them and use higher populations where the moisture is going to be.

“If we’re going to variable-rate corn, we’d better be variable-rating our urea because it doesn’t make any sense to put more seeds per acre in one part of the field and have just the same rate of fertilizer there.

“If I’m going to do that, I need to be able to do both.”