After a severe wind storm moved through northern Iowa in early September, Cresco, Iowa, strip-tiller Frank Moore decided to get a better look
STRIP-TILL STANDS TALL. This photo that Iowa strip-tiller Frank Moore shot in early September shows his strip-tilled corn at the top — still standing — with flattened, conventionally tilled corn at the lower right. (Photo: Courtesy of Frank Moore)
So Moore, a private pilot and certified crop adviser, took his plane up on Sept. 6 to check out his field and others.
"I noticed that my fields of strip-tilled corn did not seem to have as much damage as many neighboring fields that weren't strip-tilled," he says. "All of the corn fields around me were conventionally tilled.
"That means a field cultivator or disc on soybean stubble, and a chisel plow followed by a spring secondary pass with a field cultivator, or a disc on corn-on-corn. Some of the soybean fields may have been no-tilled."
Scouting from the ground confirmed that there was little or no damage to Moore's strip-tilled corn. A few areas with sandy soils, or soils that were shallow-to-limestone bedrock, had some heat and drought stress and some downed corn.
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM? This conventionally tilled corn went down in an early September wind storm in northern Iowa that hammered crops and buildings. (Photo: Courtesy of Frank Moore)
"There were numerous instances of grain bins and machine sheds being damaged by the storm, which had sustained winds estimated at 60 to 80 mph," Moore says. "Wind towers nearby clocked the top speed at more than 100 mph."
On Sept. 14, Moore flew his plane over his fields again and took pictures. One field in particular stood out, and he shot several photos to show his family and the landlord.
"When I opened the photos on my computer, I was astounded," he says. "All of the fields around this one — which was strip-tilled — had severe damage. I was focused on my farm and hadn't noticed that while in the air."
Moore says several fields damaged by the wind looked pretty good from the road and farmers that didn't walk into their fields probably didn't know the extent of the damage. Many farmers bought corn reels for the downed corn, and some started harvesting wetter corn to pick up the damaged crop.
Moore also noted aerial photos he shot that showed that the windstorm completely flattened heat-stressed corn in lighter, poorer soils.
DAMAGED CORN. After viewing fields of downed corn from the air, Iowa strip-tiller Frank Moore shot photos from the ground of this field of tangled conventionally tilled corn. (Photo: Courtesy of Frank Moore)
"Why did my corn stand while neighbors did not?" Moore says. "I've tried to find a single answer, but it has eluded me." This field in the photo was corn following soybeans that was strip-tilled in the fall of 2010."
Initially, Moore thought the answer was the hybrid, but he ruled that out because so many of the neighbors with flattened corn planted different hybrids.
Also, Moore strip-tilled several corn hybrids that neighbors conventionally tilled. These same conventionally tilled hybrids on neighbors' fields went down in the wind storm. Then he thought about the moisture that strip-till conserves.
"With the strip-till system, I eliminate one or two tillage passes in the spring," Moore says. "As a rule of thumb, the soil profile will lose about 1 inch of soil from each tillage pass in the spring. Perhaps that 1 or 2 inches of water that strip-tilling saved was the difference between having moisture stress this summer and not."
With 1 to 2 inches more available water, the plants would have been under less stress during the heat of late July, translating into better plant health, Moore says. Moisture was not an issue in the early part of the growing season.
"We were too wet early, which is typical of Howard County," he says. "But when it turned hot and dry in July, a 1-to-2-inch rain would have been the proverbial 'million dollar rain.' You could say I got that rain while neighbors didn't because of their tillage system."
Moore has continuously no-tilled and strip-tilled the field in question since 2005.
"I believe that we have developed better soil quality and tilth and that our root systems are able to penetrate deeper into the soil profile," Moore says. "We probably had a little better root system, a little better stalk quality and up to 2 inches more of available moisture. All of these combined to keep this cornfield standing in 60- to 80-mph sustained winds.
"A neighbor asked me why I had the only field in the whole neighborhood with standing corn. Could it be the strip-till system?"