SOIL UNITY. During a field workshop after the 3rd annual National Strip-Tillage Conference, NRCS conservation agronomist Ray Archuleta explains to attendees the value of nurturing a systematic ecosystem to promote soil health and plant growth, using strip-till as a tool.

Held in Illinois for the first time, the 2016 National Strip-Tillage Conference gathered a diverse group of strip-till farmers, researchers and industry experts from more than 20 states and abroad.

The event featured 19 presentations, 20 roundtable sessions and networking opportunities for attendees in Bloomington-Normal, Ill., to exchange valuable practices to put to work on their farming operations.

Strip-Till Farmer editors compiled some of the top takeaways for farmers to consider for their no-till and strip-till systems below.

Covering Up

One of the hottest topics at the conference was the practical use of cover crops in a strip-till system. Several presenters, including veteran Woodville, Ont., strip-tiller Dustin Mulock offered experience-based advice on how to best combine cover crops and strip-till.

“Contemplate when you want to do your strip-till pass,” he says. “I see a lot of farmers making a pass after the cover crop is growing late in the fall. It’s my belief that at that point, we’ve already used the energy from the cover crop to push the roots down, to create the warm channels and the root channels.

“So to run through that cover afterwards and destroy that work is one of the things that is a caveat so far in the industry.”

Mulock prefers to build his fall strips, plant a mix of covers that can include oats, barley, cereal rye and peas and then let the ground rest until planting time.   “We’ll have a nice mellow path to drive through and we’ll have these existing channels that our plants can follow in the spring,” he says.

NRCS conservation agronomist Ray Archuleta also emphasized the value of cover crops as a tool in creating a biological farming system. Used wisely in a strip-till system, cover crops can enhance the natural ecosystem on a farming operation, he says.

“If I had one conservation tillage tool, it could be cover crops, because I know I can farm with fewer tools, but I cannot farm without a living plant because that is what feeds the ecosystem,” Archuleta says. “About 90% of nutrient cycling is biological. If we can get farmers to till less and no-tillers to spray less and use covers, they will be managing carbon more efficiently. It’s a game changer.”

However, during a post-conference, on-farm workshop, Archuleta also stressed the importance of researching, experimenting and matching the right cover crops to an operation to realize the maximum benefits of nutrient retention and increased soil health.

“Please be vigilant of herbicide carryover,” he says. “And if you are using legumes, make sure to use the right inoculant for the right legume. Bacteria doesn’t have legs, so for the pennies it costs to inoculate, it can save you thousands. Legumes need to be inoculated so they can produce their nitrogen.”

‘Bio’ Reacting to Water Quality

With more emphasis placed on reducing fertilizer and water runoff, Eagle Grove, Iowa, strip-tiller Tim Smith shared how a combination of strip-till and enrollment in the Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI) have reduced nutrient loads that filter into the streams leading to the Mississippi and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico.

Nearly 5 years ago, Smith installed a bioreactor, a woodchip-filled structure, 10 feet wide and 110 feet long, allowing tile water to flow through it and serve as a carbon source for bacteria that denitrify water before it enters the stream.

“The system appealed to me because once I realized that indeed nitrates were leaving my farm through my tile water, I could have a positive impact on water quality that goes downstream,” he says. “As a landowner, soil is the most important resource, and I don’t want to see water leave my farm with excess nitrates or see soil leave my farm because it doesn’t come back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Smith adds that prior to installing his bioreactor in 2012, nitrate levels in his tile water were about 13-14 parts per million. Today, after tile water filters through the bioreactor, his nitrate levels are down to 5-6 parts per million.

While bioreactors are a relatively new conservation tool, Smith sees the potential for growth, especially as water usage and efficiency becomes increasingly critical to raise a profitable crop.

“I have a neighbor who practices controlled drainage where he installed a dozen of these bioreactor control structures and then shuts the tile off during the summer,” Smith says. “He started with 30 acres and put 160,000 feet of tile in. He ended up seeing a 25-bushel per acre increase in his corn yield because he shut the water off. The philosophy is that if the tile water isn’t leaving the farm, it’s also not taking nitrates.”

Adaptable Practice

One of the benefits cited by speakers and attendees alike was the adaptability of strip-till to various climates and soil conditions. Farming in the southwestern U.S., presents unique challenges, but Coolidge, Az., strip-tiller Robert Boyle adopted the practice about 2½ years ago to improve water retention and soil health.

He’s succeeded on both fronts, saving 6-8 field passes transitioning from conventional tillage practices to strip-till on his 1,500-acre corn, sorghum, winter wheat and dairy operation. An admitted “tillage-a-holic,” Boyle used to start post-harvest operations with a sub-soiling pass using 45-inch deep shanks, followed by additional soil finishing and ripping passes prior to spring planting.

“Everything took place between Oct. and Jan.,” he says. “Now, with the reduced passes, I can get 2-3 more cuttings of my hay crop, be done harvesting by Feb. 1, strip-till and have my corn planted within a month.”

Boyle also relies on flood irrigation to quench the thirst of his crops during the growing season. But with strip-till, he’s been able to funnel water more efficiently to plant roots, which has translated to a savings of a ½ acre-foot of water (approximately 160,000 gallons of water).

“Our flood irrigation is on 100-foot borders and we plant everything in line with those borders,” Boyle says. “Strip-till allows us to create a hard spot for water to travel down between the strips and then when we shut the water off, it recedes into the strips, where the plants are able to access it.

“We’ve seen better crop color and water utilization throughout the growing season. Water in our area costing $40 an acre per foot right now and it’s only going to increase, so any savings we can get, we’ll take.”