GROWTH POTENTIAL. Agronomic farm consultant Quinton Karshagen says once farmers realize they can take advantage of the economic benefits of strip-till, the practice will provide tremendous growth potential to dealers and farm equipment manufacturers.

Quinton Karshagen was 20 years old when he walked the lanes and demonstration fields of the NAMPO farm show near Bothaville in his native South Africa, and it was there, at the largest agricultural expo in the Southern Hemisphere, he was first introduced to strip-till farming as a way to boost the efficiency of row-crop production.

That was in 1995, and today, Karshagen is still preaching the gospel of strip-till, a practice he says has tremendous potential for growth in the U.S., Canada and around the world — particularly as growers seek to cut labor and input costs, increase yields and build their soil structure.

Karshagen recently became a consulting agronomist with Deerfield Farms Services, located in Volant, Pa., and works with Wallbrown Family farm services and supply business shifting its 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat into a 100% strip-till operation and demonstration farm.

With Deerfield Farms, he serves as a grain and forage specialist, an advisor on inoculants in feed and forage crops and a financial business analyst.

“Given commodity prices, we can no longer afford the fuel and fertilizer bills we’ve accumulated in the past, and we absolutely cannot afford the soil erosion and nutrient mobility that is inherent with conventional farming,” he explains. “We’re also realizing we have to a much better job of water-use efficiency.

“We as farmers may not like all this, but we simply are going to have to meet these demands, because the consumers ultimately wield the political power to make it happen.”

Show Me the Money

Karshagen says, in general, farmers are interested in what possibilities they have to improve their financial livelihood, but they find it challenging to find answers to their questions.

“I can show them a 20% reduction in tillage costs alone in corn production just by moving to strip-till,” he says. “Then, when you factor in an almost immediate 10% yield increase in that corn if you plant it behind a cover crop — even the first year — the dynamics of the farm’s financial situation begin to shift drastically.”

Strip-till farming does require specialized machines to prepare the berms and strips, but in many cases growers who move to strip-till find they can work fewer tractors longer and achieve overall savings in equipment purchases and maintenance.

“When I was working with Wilder Farms in the Texas Panhandle, we were strip-tilling 30,000 acres on 6 farms,” Karshagen explains. “I noticed at one point we were running 11 corn planters, each with its own tractor, and we had 7 strip-till rigs. It was apparent we could probably have gotten by with 8-9 tractors and had some of them pulling double duty on both the strip-till machines and then the planters when the fields were prepared.”

Also, when a grower drops 3-5 tillage passes out of the farm’s activities, a significant amount of labor can be free to do other things — in addition to the diesel fuel saved.

Deerfield Farms Project

There’s more to becoming a strip-tiller than just buying a strip-till machine, Karshagen says, noting Deerfield Farms has one year of strip-till experience that wasn’t successful.

“Because of a lack of knowledge and experience, the project failed to take advantage of the precision capabilities of strip-till that provide input savings and set the stage for yield increases,” he explains. “Part of my job here is to ensure a smooth, successful, precision transition to strip-till management as we move the farm totally to strips in the future.”

Still, the plan is to transition more acres into strip-till in the coming years, with the entire farm in the system by 2018. The initial step was cover crop establishment this year on fields that will be strip-tilled in the spring of 2017, Karshagen says.

“I like combinations of rye, wheat, triticale and clovers,” he explains. “We’ve found the clovers — and the nitrogen they fix in the soil — help break down residue of a cover crop the following season.”

Tests in Vermont have proven this where fields were seeded with 100-120 pounds per acre of small grain seed in monocrops, and 50/50 and 25/75 mixes with clovers.

“We’ve found it’s much easier to break down a 50/50 mix cover crop than it is a monocrop or even a 25/75 mix,” Karshagen says. “Working around cover crops sounds like difficult management, but in practice it pays off in soil moisture conservation, reduced fertilizer requirements and improved soil microbiology.”

Fertility Focus

Karshagen says Deerfield Farms uses Case IH equipment equipped with the company’s AFS precision guidance system. A new strip-till machine for 2017 also is from Case IH and is equipped with factory shanks and a granular fertilizer system.

Rates for the granular fertilizer application — applied with the strip-till rig — will reflect results from soil sampling done after 2016’s harvest.

“Using grid-sampled fertility and soil maps developed at Deerfield over the years, along with post-harvest soil sampling, we’ll be placing fertilizer 4-5 inches deep below the strip, and when we plant we’ll be placing seed and a starter fertilizer at 2-2½ inches,” Karshagen explains.

“This precision seed and fertility placement will allow us to get good germination and initial root growth with the starter fertilizer, then faster growth and stand development when the roots reach the core of granular nutrients.”

Karshagen says he favors split fertilizer applications, because they allow adjustments in fertility to be made according to weather, market conditions, crop vitality and other factors as the season progresses.

“If we apply all our fertilizer down in a single shot at planting, we’ve already spent the fertilizer budget, but the season might not cooperate with us,” he says. “If we spoon feed the crop, we can tailor our nutrient expenses to fit yield potentials and market conditions, plus improve our cash flow because we only spend the money if we think the crop will benefit from it.”

After crop is established and is about knee high, Karshagen says they’ll apply 50-60% of the targeted fertility for their yield goal in liquid form. The second liquid application will come when the plants are about chest high, and by that time, they will know better what the growing season looks like for reaching yield goals. They will also have results of an in-season N test to work with.

“We may decide for some reason our yields goals are not attainable so we can reduce the rates of that second application, and the corn will run out of steam,” he says. “In that case, we’d be cutting our losses because it wasn’t economical to apply the extra fertilizer. That’s the beauty of a split fertility system. It gives us the flexibility to match making expensive inputs with what we’re seeing on the weather and market front.”

Karshagen says his experience shows it’s difficult to say how much a grower can save on inputs with strip-till and split fertilizer applications over conventional methods, but he estimates $30-$40 difference in per-acre costs from year to year.

“When you add that amount to what you’ve saved in tillage costs with strip-till management, you can easily see an $80 per acre savings in input expenses — and that can be substantial in the economics of corn production,” he explains.

Karshagen also plans to use a variety of DeKalb and Asgrow hybrids across Deerfield Farms in 2017, based on soil types and research information on selected hybrids.

“While we don’t yet have planters to seed multiple corn hybrids, we’ll be using 6-8 different hybrids this coming year to match our soils and to manage our maturity dates to best use our labor efficiently,” he says. Also, he says it’s wise to match seeding rates to soil conditions and match hybrids to soil type in an effort to get the most cost-effective yield possible from seed populations up to 36,000.

“We have soils that range from clay to loam and everything in between,” Karshagen says. “In the worst case, if I use a hybrid that’s good on light ground and use it across the board on heavier soils, it will punish me. I’ve seen year-to-year differences of 20-40 bushels per acre if hybrids aren’t matched to soil types.”

Karshagen uses research data from hybrid suppliers, along with local university and industry test plots — and the experience of neighbors — to make his hybrid selections.

“I’d recommend anyone striving for cost-effective crop production to consider this. Not doing so is just leaving money on the table,” he says.