After 14 years of no-tilling, Glenburn, N.D., farmer Robert Schaefer and his father, Dan, started strip-tilling their corn acres, a move that has increased yields 20 to 30 bushels an acre. And, even more significantly, strip-tilled corn vs. no-tilled wheat produces twice as much revenue per acre, Schaefer says.
"The biggest difference with strip-tilled corn vs. no-tilled corn is the emergence is more uniform, which equals more bushels and better drydown," he says. "The key is getting the corn out of the ground fast. Where I farm — about 12 miles north of Minot and about 40 miles south of the Canadian border — it's a cool environment with cool ground."
The Schaefers were one of the first farmers in the area to no-till and one of the first to quit no-tilling and begin strip-tilling in 2009.
"We switched to corn about 7 years ago because we weren't satisfied on the returns with wheat," Schaefer says. "We are extremely happy with the returns on corn, but it takes a lot more management. Corn is 100% better, revenue wise, if it's managed right."
It's simpler to no-till wheat than it is to successfully no-till or strip-till corn, Schaefer says. While strip-tilled corn can net 100% more revenue than no-tilled wheat, corn-production costs are 20 to 30% more.
In addition to corn, the Schaefers grow hard red spring wheat, hard red winter wheat, sunflowers and soybeans. They strip-till corn after harvesting wheat, and sunflowers after harvesting corn.
After trying one strip-till rig for a year, the Schaefers have been using a strip-till rig with Wako triple-coulters and a shank. Strip-till consultant Kevin Kimberley of Maxwell, Iowa, helped them put the strip-till rig together.
(Editor's note: For more information on this strip-till system, read the July 2011 Strip-Till Strategies' story in this issue in which Kimberley describes 8 tips for strip-till success.)
Check The Strips
Schaefer says Kimberley has helped them learn how to make good strips, and how to troubleshoot.
"You need to get out of the tractor and out in the field and dig into the strips and check them," he says. "You want to see if there are air pockets or chunks of soil. If you have air pockets, you won't get a uniform seedbed and you won't get good seed-to-soil contact in the spring. The A-1 goal is good seed-to-soil contact."
The Schaefers' strip-till rig has 16 rows on 30-inch spacings. They plant corn with a 32-row Deere DB 80 planter with 30-inch spacings. They use a Deere 9430 tractor with about 425 horsepower and RTK for strip-tilling and planting
This spring, the Schaefers will apply half of their fertilizer for corn when planting and, for the first time, they will sidedress corn with half of the nitrogen.
"We bought a Fast 8300 pull-type sidedress rig, which has 16 rows and 17 coulters on 30-inch spacings," Schaefer says. "We will apply liquid nitrogen with it for the first time this summer. Sidedressing will help us manage our nitrogen application better by applying it in more timely fashion when the corn needs it."
When strip-tilling, the Schaefers' implement creates a strip about 8 to 10 inches wide and 5 to 6 inches deep.
"I like to loosen up the ground because that helps build root mass," he says. "In the loosened ground in the strip, the corn roots can grow more easily than they can in no-till, where the ground is so hard."
Discussions with Schaefer about the difference between strip-tilling corn vs. no-tilling invariably return to emergence.
"With strip-till, corn emerges uniformly," he says. "You are not planting into trash."
Schaefer has a yield goal for corn of about 150 bushels per acre. He applies liquid phosphorus in the form of 10-34-0 and 28% liquid nitrogen at planting. The phosphorus is placed in furrow, while the nitrogen is placed 2-by-2.
A 700-gallon tank for liquid phosphorus sits on top of the corn planter, which pulls a 2,000-gallon tank with the 28% liquid nitrogen. The Schaefers like using row cleaners from Yetter Mfg. Co. and have been experimenting with different applicators for 2-by-2-inch placement of nitrogen.
The Schaefers chose hybrids with a maximum relative maturity of about 80 days.
"To us, it's more important to have dry down — and make sure the corn matures before the first killing frost — than to have that top-end yield," he says. "Our average first frost date is Sept. 15 and we can get an early frost. And this is why strip-tilling corn is so important. It gets the corn up 3 to 7 days more quickly than no-till.
"When the strip-tilled corn emerges, it just takes off. With the no-tilled corn, the growth tends to lag or stall after it emerges."
Choosing Hybrids Wisely
When selecting hybrids, Schaefer uses the following ranking system.
"Yield is No. 1, followed by dry down, then test weight and standability," he says. "In our area, there may be about 10 hybrids available with the relative maturity that we need that meet my criteria."
The final stand of strip-tilled corn is dramatically better than no-tilled, which produces more bushels, Schaefer says.
"With strip-tilled corn, we may lose about 1,000 plants per acre, in our final stand, while with no-tilled corn, it was 4,000 to 5,000 plants per acre."
Schaefer believes more farmers in the area will grow corn in the future because of the returns, which could bode well for strip-till adoption.
"We wouldn't be growing corn without strip-till," he says, "because our yields wouldn't be as good."