Manufacturers share the most common errors producers make when strip-tilling in the field — and explain how to avoid them.

AVOID THE TRAIN. Mounting a dry fertilizer hopper on the strip-till tool bar eliminates one thing that you’ll need to pull. You should avoid the “train” of a tractor, dry or liquid fertilizer cart, strip-till toolbar and anhydrous nurse cart.

Strip-till remains an up-and-coming management practice being used by more growers each season. But because it’s a new technique for many producers — and one that requires a high degree of management — it’s easy to make mistakes.

Many growers want to make the change to strip-till quickly and easily. However, transitioning requires upfront research to fully understand the practice and determine how quickly your objectives can be met.

The editors of No-Till Farmer recently asked a number of strip-tillage equipment manufacturers to share their experiences on what producers do wrong when first adopting strip-tillage into their operation. We identified several key mistakes, and share their opinions on how to correct them — or avoid them altogether.

Mistake #1 Not Understanding The Equipment

No Fit-All Solution

Growers need to understand that strip-till equipment is unique in the fact it may function flawlessly in mellow soils that break and crumble in textbook fashion.

In other conditions, the strip-till unit may need to function as a primary tillage tool operating in hard, compacted soils that are wet, rock and stone infested, and are nearly impossible to break into manageable pieces, says Gary Wallander, product support coordinator for Brillion Farm Equipment.

Add 200-bushel-plus corn residue or 60-bushel bean residue and things get very interesting.

“It’s situations like this that beg strip-tillers to set their expectation level where they are comfortable,” Wallander says. “In most cases, there is not a generic strip-till machine that will work in all conditions all of the time.”

Vince Tomlonovic, general manager of Hiniker Company, agrees that producers must be careful to make the necessary adjustments based on conditions.

“Seldom does one setting fit all conditions,” he says.

Horsepower Needs Key

Producers also make the mistake of being underpowered when using a strip-till implement.

DON’T BE TOO FINE. The soil in your fall strips should be coarse so it can stand up to the weather. Cap the strip-till zone with a 4- to 5-inch mound of chunky, rough soil. Rapid snow melt can lead to erosion with soil that’s too coarse.

“Strip-till implements, pulled at the proper depth, require 20 to 30 horsepower per shank. A grower who believes his row width must be consistent from strip-till to planter to harvest and tries to pull a 12-row tool 8 inches deep at 5 mph with a 200-horsepower tractor can find all kinds of troubles,” says Mike Petersen, agronomist at Orthman.

“As a result, we see a lot of broken-down tractors, too much slippage, high fuel consumption, reduced pulling speed, cloddy conditions, poor seedbed and headaches galore.”

While each of the strip-till tools on the market today have a recommended power need to pull each shank in the ground, Petersen adds it’s critical that you know your soil types.

“Sandy soils will require approximately 20 horsepower per shank unless the soil is seriously compacted, then sandy soils are like concrete,” he says. “The heavier the texture, we know our tool will require 30 horsepower per shank.

“Studies have shown that in sandy clay loam soils, up to 4,000 pounds of force is required to push the shank into the ground and pull it at depths greater than 12 inches. Multiply that across 12 rows and there is a need for lots of horses up front to get the job done.

“It’s also well known that after 2 years of strip-tilling, farmers have seen a decrease in power needs because of the soil becoming more mellow, increased worm action, more residues and improved moisture conditions.”

Determine Strip-Till Goals

Richard Follmer, owner and engineer of Progressive Farm Products, says producers can make strip-tilling very easy or very hard, depending on the equipment.

“Farmers need to think about what they want to accomplish and how they want to accomplish it,” Follmer says. “When buying equipment for strip-till, the farmer needs to decide what fertilizer he’s going to place in the strips — dry or liquid — and whether he is going to apply anhydrous ammonia at the same time and how he will do that.”

One concept a producer should avoid is pulling a “train” through the field, Follmer says. This “train” would consist of the tractor, pull-between dry or liquid, a toolbar and nurse tank and would have a length of 100-plus feet.

“Unless you have a winch on your toolbar, how do you back this “train” up to hook up to the nurse tank? What do you do when you get into a tight corner? How do you back into a corner?” Follmer says. “What the farmer needs to do is purchase a bar that has the dry or liquid equipment mounted right on the toolbar, is moved around like a two-wheeled cart and can be backed up and hooked up to a nurse tank by just the driver.”

Improper Attachment Setup

Rob Zemenchik, ag engineer with Case IH, says he often sees equipment not set up with the necessary attachments to handle different residue, down pressure and agronomic requirements.

“Residue managers, if necessary, should be on the planter, not the strip-till unit. Overly exposing the berm to weather over the winter can lead to berm erosion, leaving fields flat and losing the warm-up and drydown benefits of strip-till,” he says.

Also, he sees a lot of producers not correctly matching their strip-till components.

“Tractor horsepower and configuration, monitoring systems, planters and other implements need to interact well with the strip-till machine,” Zemenchik says. “For example, picking ‘cheaper’ strip-till machines or converting old bars to reduce the cost of transition from conventional tillage may provide less draft, but often give up shank-depth consistency and holding power, leading to inconsistent field output, fertilizer placement when simultaneously root zone banding and planting depths.”

Take Time To Adjust

Producers know the importance of spending time evaluating the performance of their combines to achieve proper performance. Experienced strip-tillers understand the need to give similar focus to their strip-till applicator as they are performing many important operations in one pass, says Steve Drissel, tillage marketing manager for John Deere.

“Many times, strip-till machines are set and adjusted at the farm site, but the settings may not get the attention in the field that they deserve,” Drissel says. “Producers will spend hours, even days adjusting their combines — which is important. They need to spend a little time looking at their machines in operation within the field.”

The consequences of not properly setting the machine means residue will not flow through the machine properly, nutrients will not be placed at proper depths and the machine will pull too hard or easy. It can lead to seedbed inconsistencies and a berm that’s too tall or too flat.

“It can be very difficult for the operator to see all of the components from the cab of the tractor and the operation of the tool; therefore, it’s very important that a person on the ground view the machine while it’s at proper speed and depth,” Drissel adds.

“Some of the things to watch for include being level front to rear and side to side, the front coulters cutting the residue, observing the row cleaners moving residue, the closing discs moving soil, the baskets sizing clods and the firming of the berm. Similar to a combine, make only one adjustment at a time and observe that adjustment in operation.

“It’s important to understand that making one adjustment can have an impact on another area of the machine, so some settings may need to be re-checked after all adjustments are made.”

Maintain Suggested Speeds

Nick Jensen, vice president of marketing for Thurston Manufacturing, says producers often don’t stay within the recommended operating speeds.

“Most farm implements come with a recommended operating speed, and most operators tend to ignore the recommended operating speed,” Jensen says. “If you do this with a strip-till applicator, no part of the strip-till implement will run properly.”

If you run too slowly, coulters will not have the proper rotational speed on the blade to cut correctly, Jensen says. Residue management tools will not sweep residue out of the row; shanks will not fracture and stir the soil optimally; disc closers will not fill and hill the furrow properly; and baskets will not break up clods and level correctly.

Jensen says that if you run too fast, residue management tools may throw residue into neighboring rows. Fertilizer may not be evenly distributed throughout the row or may be placed unevenly within the row if the distribution system cannot keep up.

“Operate the machinery at the manufacturers’ recommended operating speed and make sure you have a tractor with enough horsepower to pull the implement at the recommended operating speed without cheating on depth,” Jensen says. “If you’re unable to complete your strip-till in the fall without exceeding the recommended operating speed, consider getting a strip-till implement with a wider swath width, running multiple strip-till implements or finishing in the spring.”

Think Systems Approach

Dean Carstens, president of Twin Diamond, says producers must not think of strip-till as just another tillage method.

“The consequences of thinking that all strip-till is just another piece of metal will deprive the farmer of the true profit potential,” he says.

The most common mistake made by producers is assuming that any strip-till machine will go through anything, Carstens says.

“Trash management behind the combine is extremely critical,” he adds. “Uneven distribution of residue creates nightmares for the strip-till and planter operators. Avoid hairpinning of residue by investing in a chopper/spreader for your combine.”

Mistakes Trying To Match

Mark Bauer, CEO of Environmental Tillage Systems, cautions producers that it’s not necessary to try to match the strip-till machine to the size of their planter.

“Trying to match a 12-row planter with a 12-row strip-till machine can result in a mismatch, if the tractor is not large enough to handle the size of the strip-till machine,” he says. “This can result in not achieving the proper depth of tillage. Also, this can result in limiting the tractor’s ability to handle the strip-till machine in less-than-favorable conditions, such as an early snowfall.”

Derek Allensworth, manager with Yetter Manufacturing, says strip-tillage equipment design is different and has to be set for the desired results.

“Depending on soil types, field conditions, fall or spring strip-till, crop rotations, speed, depth, desired strip width or height, fertilizer being placed or type of knife being used, these all are items the farmer needs to consider when setting the equipment for the desired strip or berm,” he says.

Mistake #2 Not Investing In A Guidance System

“When the grower decides to make the step to strip-till, they need to consider incorporating a quality guidance system into the program from the beginning,” Brillion’s Wallander says. “This is a major investment, but the payback will be very generous.

“Many growers who started out without a guidance system have later made the investment and wish they had done it sooner.”

Stripping Requires Accuracy

Proper GPS precision guidance is necessary to fertilize, strip-till and return to the same rows next spring, Orthman’s Petersen adds.

“We’ve seen recent research that found the placement of fertility has great implications on growth and potential yield. In Oklahoma, Nebraska and Colorado, separate projects found that planting 8 inches off of center from where the fertilizer was placed caused diminished stands and a 30-bushel drop in continuous-corn yields,” Petersen says.

“In high-residue conditions, if residue blows around and covers the strip, it becomes difficult to see where to drive the tractor and planter. Seeding can be a great headache for growers without GPS repeatable guidance.

“Top-quality GPS guidance has become a powerful ally for the grower. Being able to come back onto a line where strip-tilling was done and the fertilizer was placed and wanting to turn the soil into a top-notch seedbed is what strip-tillers need at planting time.”

Embrace Precision Technology

Jensen adds that some producers are using row markers instead of GPS with field-mapping capabilities.

“Yield loss from missing the center of the strip-tilled row when planting has shown to be more dramatic than some might think,” Jensen says. “Yield loss can begin to occur when the seed is planted as little as 2 inches off center in a strip-tilled row and increases from there.

“Being off the row will affect germination, plant stand and root development. It can put unnecessary stress on a young plant during critical times of development.”

Moving to strip-till means it’s time to embrace technology like RTK.

“That will enable users to match their 12-row planter with an 8-row or even a 6-row strip-till machine,” Bauer says. “Users should focus on matching their strip-till machine to the horsepower of their tractor, rather than to the size of their planter.”

Mistake #3 Failure To Consider Soil Conditions

“Numerous customers are of the belief that all soil types and conditions will work the same,” Wallander says. “This is one area where equipment can come into the equation. Strip-till machines need to be versatile so different conditions can be met.”

Know The Compaction Level

Petersen says producers may not take into account the depth of the common compaction layer. They may run the strip-till implement too shallow and not alleviate compaction.

“Compaction limits intake of water, downward water movement, root development, drainage of the surface and yield,” Petersen says. “Producers need to dig observation holes in several areas of a field to determine where the compaction zone occurs, how thick it is, what depth the compaction zone’s bottom is and knowing what tool to use to alleviate the problem.

“When that is determined, adjust your shank to get under the compacted zone to shatter it; however, you don’t want to do that to the point that you cause it to explode and roll in front of the shank and cause huge clods, gaps and fissures. That can dry out the soil and create cavities that may cave in the soil, creating a rough seedbed that is up and down and rolling like a roller coaster ride.

“When tilled to the correct depth, the seedbed will turn out mellow after a winter season.”

Manage Residue Properly

Follmer says that when strip-tilling in continuous corn programs, producers should lay out the new strips between the old corn rows rather than trying to go back on top of the old rows.

“This reduces plugging of the row units. Also, driving on top of last year’s corn rows reduces compaction,” he says.

Drissel says residue management must be correct for every piece of equipment from the combine all the way to the in-crop spray applications.

“Producers may experience residue flow complications in areas of the field where the stalks were not managed properly by the header or residue was not evenly spread from the rear of the combine,” he says. “It should be verified that the combine is operating at the proper ground speed compared to the speed of the corn head.

“Knife rolls or fluted rolls, the rear chopper and the spreader should have worn parts replaced and be operating correctly.”

Avoid Operating When Wet

Producers may also try to strip-till in poor conditions, trying to complete work before winter sets in.

“If the soil is too wet, any strip-till applicator can cause sidewall smearing,” Jensen says. “The additional soil compaction effects from the sidewall smear and pulling heavy equipment over wet soil will very likely negate any gains in yield that strip-till would have provided.

“If compaction layers exist within your soil profile, you will rarely see any advantage to strip-till. Soil compaction must be alleviated in order for strip-till to work, so make sure you don’t cause compaction by strip-tilling in wet soil.”

Tony Randall, national sales manager for Redball, says producers should remember that strip-till is a tillage pass. With all types of tillage, sometimes no tillage is better for the soil than working too wet.

“If fall strip-tillage is being done, you almost always have a large window left to complete the strip-till pass, so let the soil dry,” he says.

Don’t Be Too Fine

Bauer says producers also sometimes leave the soil texture too fine in the fall.

“After fall tillage, the soil should be coarse,” he says. “The zone should be capped by a 4- to 5-inch mound of chunky, rough soil. The coarse soil texture is needed to handle the weather.

“Rapid snow melt in the spring, when the ground is still frozen, can result in erosion in the zone when the soil has been worked to a fine texture and has been matted down. Further, if containment coulters leave a consistent cut down the side of the zone, a runoff channel can form, resulting in increased water erosion.”

Allensworth says farmers are accustomed to field tillage in less-than-ideal situations.

“With strip-till, you have to remember that you are making next year’s seedbed and this is not the field where you will be making two or three passes next spring,” he says.

Mistake #4 Poor Fertility Management

Producers who try to apply all of their nitrogen with a fall strip-till operation increase the odds of leaching nitrogen out the bottom of the soil profile or beyond the reach of roots.

“That a potential waste of thousands of dollars when fertilizer is lost beyond what the growing crop can access. Each implement pass in the field adds cost and with fertilizer, it’s expensive,” Peterson says. “This is an issue for those who want to apply large quantities of anhydrous in the fall.

“With nitrogen costing $1,100 per ton, applying single shots at 200 pounds per acre is courting disaster and monetary loss.”

Splitting the amounts, something akin to spoon-feeding the crop, will provide the best benefit to the bottom line. This methodology gives the farmer a chance to see through some tissue or leaf sampling or soil sampling that a lump sum of 250 pounds of nitrogen was not necessary and ultimately saves money.

Applying smaller doses of nitrogen and feeding the crop in increments allows the grower to exercise fertilizer options—anhydrous vs. varying formulations of liquid, nitrogen with sulfur compounds, nitrogen with phosphates, stable low-salt nitrogen formulas and slow-release nitrogen compounds. Petersen says this can enhance the grower’s opportunities to decrease cost, become more crop efficient, potentially use less products and usually grow a healthier plant.

Carstens says a serious mistake is planting over strips that have had too much ammonia applied. The consequence is loss of stand.

“The opinions on the maximum amount of anhydrous ammonia to be applied are as varied as there are stars in the sky,” he says. “The general rule of thumb is the higher the ammonia rates, the higher the risks,” he says. “To avoid loss of stand, we suggest split-applying nitrogen.”

As an example, Carstens says consider strip-tilling 90 to 120 pounds of anhydrous ammonia with 6 to 9 gallons of 10-34-0. The duel application will create a smaller diffusion band of anhydrous ammonia. Use a higher nitrogen starter (2-inch by 2-inch placement or 2-inch with dribble) like a 30-10-0-5 liquid starter.

Sidedress additional anhydrous ammonia or 28-0-0-5, or foliar feed a slow-release nitrogen when Roundup is applied. By split-applying the nitrogen, considerable reductions in nitrogen can be taken.”

Randall says producers also make the mistake of applying anhydrous ammonia too early.

“In fall strip-tillage, farmers must remember the window is there to wait for soil temperatures to cool before applying anhydrous ammonia,” he says. “If applied too early, expensive nitrogen might be lost. This is no different than fall-applied nitrogen using a standard toolbar system.”

According to Follmer, many farmers are applying only anhydrous ammonia in their strips and broadcasting phosphorus and potassium.

“When doing this, they are missing out on the real savings of applying the P and K along in the strip. You can usually reduce your P and K rates in half. At the cost of P and K, a farmer can pay for a strip-till toolbar very quickly in savings,” Follmer says.

Bauer says applying phosphorus and potassium and other nutrients in the fall and distributing fertilizer evenly throughout the zone allows the phosphorus and potassium to be processed by the microbial action in the soil.

“In addition, applying P and K in the spring can result in burning the seed from contact with P and K oxides from heavy salt fertilizers,” Bauer explains. “As much as a 40% higher utilization of the nutrients can be available for the plants, leading to higher overall yields. This can be even more important in low-fertility soils.”

Some producers are not even using a fertilizer program with strip-till.

“One of the primary advantages of strip-till is being able to place fertilizer in the root zone while creating a seedbed in a one-pass operation,” Jensen says. “If you’re not currently placing fertilizer with your strip-till applicator, you are missing out on roughly half of the advantages of using strip-till.”

Talk with a local agronomist or other strip-tillers that have experience with fertilizer placement in your area to find out what has worked well for them, Jensen says. Then talk to your equipment dealer to see what fertilizer application options are available on your strip-till implement.

Carstens says a common mistake is assuming the fertility programs used in past practices are the same used in strip-tilling.

“Not understanding the program could lead to over- or under-application of fertilizer, poor timing and many other adverse effects,” Carstens says. “The key to successful strip-tilling is to know where the fertilizer goes, when to apply, what to apply and how much to apply.

“To avoid the challenges, seek professional help and suppliers who can answer your questions with valid and confirmable information.”