Any farmer will tell you that strip-till is as much a science as it is an art. Adopting the practice requires a mix of patience, persistence and passion.
But there are shared challenges and lessons learned that collectively, strip-tillers can evolve with, adapt to or overcome. During the 25th annual National No-Tillage Conference in St. Louis, No-Till Farmer editors assembled a diverse group of strip-tillers for a structured, yet at times spontaneous lunch conversation in St. Louis.
With a focus on talking about the transitional considerations for adopting strip-till, the discussion also included experience-based advice on nutrient management strategies, equipment preferences and communicating the value of conservation tillage to the general public. At the table were Donn Branton, from Le Roy, N.Y.; David Burmahl, from Baldwin, Iowa; Ricky Kratz, from Slinger, Wis.; Mike Shuter from Frankton, Ind.; and Aaron Wickstrom, from Hilmar, Calif.
A select excerpt of a much broader conversation that occurred among the farmers and the No-Till Farmer staff is shared below, highlighting some of the more engaging and candid responses to questions during the discussion.
No-Till Farmer: Each of you have taken different paths into strip-till. Can you share how you started that journey and some of the motivations for making the transition?
Aaron Wickstrom “We’ve been dairy farming and crop farming for 76 years. My initial push into conservation tillage and strip-till was just looking at that side of our business. We had plateaued on yields, and just the amount money we were spending with deep ripping, double discing and land finishing was considerable. With our three-crop rotation of silage corn, sorghum sudan grass and winter wheat, it was really expensive.
“Looking at the economics, I’d heard of an environmental group in our area, Sustainable Conservation, that was doing some strip-till trials on a 40-acre field a couple miles away from us. So I went out, took a look at it, and it was a no-brainer. I did a couple weeks of researching equipment and converted all 1,000 of our cropping acres over to strip-till the following year. It’s been good.”
“I think in strip-till, if you haven’t gone through a dozen preparations, you haven’t gotten to where you need to be…”
— Mike Shuter
Donn Branton: “Our diversification of crops led us to thinking we needed to do something to alleviate some of the soil restraints we were encountering. In 1996, we bought a zone-till planter and about 8 years later we bought a 12-row Unverferth zone builder. We had a 750-gallon tank and put a pump on it so we could basically put our nitrogen (N) down for our corn when we went through with the strip-till machine ahead of it.
“Prior to that we were applying all our nutrients through the planter. I’d be filling up every 12½-13 acres and figured if I could take some of that load of the planting tractor and put it on zone builder, that would be beneficial.
“The year that we went to the strip-till machine and deep-placed N, we raised our yield levels pretty significantly. (Results shared by Branton from a 3-year field trial by Cornell University on his farm revealed nearly a 10-bushel per acre increase in corn yield the first year). It was ground conditions that drove us that way and crop response and what we saw on the return side.
“On the economic side, we’ve reduced our production costs so much. It was interesting because the Cornell study was on three different farms, three different fields, three different soil types and three different varieties of corn. But the common denominator was all 3 years, the slot with the deep-placed N trumped everybody else. We’re going 8 inches deep beneath the soil with our N. Typically, I tell people if you’re putting fertilizer on top of the ground and your roots are coming up to get the fertilizer on top, you’ve got a pretty serious problem.”
David Burmahl: “I’ve been no-tilling quite a few years and I went to strip-tilling just to work up the corn-on-corn ground. It needed just a little bit more work. I’ve got a 12-row Progressive toolbar, with mole knives and a dry fertilizer tank, which I’ve been using for about 10 years. We strip-till about 800 acres and I’ve also got beef cows on my ground. So I like to have a little tillage where I don’t want to plant, and that works well.”
Ricky Kratz: “We followed Ray Rawson’s system and in 1999, I started looking to try to find a zone-tillage setup because I didn’t like how unreliable my planter was. We didn’t want a strip-till machine with a shank because we are running class D slopes, and I was worried all our soil would end up in the neighbor’s field.
“We ended up purchasing a SoilWarrior from Environmental Tillage Systems and I liked the setup of a big cog and dual coulters for the spring. We went away from the big cog and now we are just using the dual wavy coulters in the fall and spring, so we are doing two passes. The reason is I don’t want to apply my N all in the fall is because we have a big leaching problem with N in our area. When we starting strip-tilling, we started gaining the 15 to 20-bushel-per-acre peaks that we weren’t seeing with the Rawson system.”
Mike Shuter: “We started no-tilling in 1983, and then in 1993, we built a 24-row no-till planter with just two Rawson coulters and a row cleaner on it. But we found that our corn just wasn’t taking off right, and I had a neighbor who tried strip-till to run a few acres for us. So we’re sitting there with a 24-row planter and trying to figure out how we’re going to strip-till. Once GPS got there, that was the key for us to be able to build a 24-row strip till rig.
“After using a Blu-Jet ammonia bar to strip-till, which required removing the shanks every time we switched from strip-till to applying ammonia, I went to a John Deere 24-row planter set up with Martin row cleaners and took that planter bar frame and built a 24-row strip-till bar out of it with the Blu-Jet shanks. It’s worked well.”
“But we got to the point where we were ready to make the next step and we went to a Salford air cart with two 160-cubic-foot and one 65-cubic-foot compartment on it. That let us apply 40 pounds per acre of a micronutrient package in the smaller compartment and then our potash and phosphate in separate compartments. We built a different strip-till unit using a Stinger strip-till bar and we put Orthman 1tRIPr row units on it. We’ve got eight-lines coming off the Salford tank, going into eight towers on the bar to split the fertilizer off.
“I think in strip-till, if you haven’t gone through a dozen preparations, you haven’t gotten to where you need to be. In our area, there is still a mantra that the more big steel I’ve got in my farm lot, the better farmer I am. We’ve overcome that mentality.
NTF: We talked a little bit about some of your nutrient management strategies. How have those evolved within your strip-till system from when you started to where you are today?
Wickstrom: “We farm about three different types of beach sand, so N leaching is a big deal. We do have a pretty high water table, but some places it can be 10 feet down. With the drought in our area, it’s now between 40-80 feet down, so having a dairy to supplement nutrients is important.
“We’ve invested a lot of technology in the solid separation systems to where we can take 95% of all the solids out of that nutrient stream. We have about 700 acres that are not near our main dairy facility where we can use our holding ponds and mix it with fresh irrigation water to irrigate. That’s a mitigation measure we implemented when fertilizer prices were high and corn prices were high. It was a pretty quick payoff on that system.
“For fertilizing, typically at planting we’ll do an on-seed in a 2-by-2-inch application of 15-20 gallons per acre of UAN 32% N. Anymore than that will leach down. With the drought 3 years ago, we put in 5 center pivots to cover about 650 acres. The remainder of our operation is flood irrigated.
“We grew 36-ton corn silage on 78 units N and with some dry spread manure just wanted to focus that with our water management and our moisture sensors going down 48 inches. We’re able to time those irrigations to make sure that those nutrients hit right at the corn root zone, so it’s been pretty successful. Our goal is to spoon feed the nutrients to the crop as it needs it so we can minimize waste and maximize production.”
Burmahl: “We’re applying dry fertilizer with our strip-till cart. My dad always applied dry in 2-by-2 inch placement with a four-row planter in the box the box. Then to get the planters set up for N, I put half on with the planter mixed with sulfur and then I’ve got pop-up on the planter, and I sidedress the other half.”
Branton: “Nutrient management is a big focus on our part. Our 5-year average on purchased N-per-bushel of corn has been 0.73 pounds of actual purchased N. 2016 is going to put the apple cart upside down, but we focus on the cover crops and the contribution we get from them. We’ll apply part of the N with our Kuhn Krause Gladiator strip-till rig and apply it deep. Then we’ll apply some N through the planter. We plant all of our corn and soybeans now on twin-rows, 28-inch rows. So we apply some of the N between the rows with a stabilizer because it’s up in the active surface.
“I’m pretty happy that we can produce a bushel of corn on less than three quarters of a pound of N…"
— Donn Branton
“Then we apply a pop-up package through a Totally Tubular system right in the row. With the twin rows, we did have to increase our application rate of the pop-up fertilizer because it typically goes on by the linear foot that we’re treating. We were at 30 inches and 5-6 gallons per acre. On the twin rows, we’re around 10 gallons per acre. Twin rows increased our cost a little bit, but now we come back in with a late season N as a sidedress application with ESN, encapsulated N. We’ve been using that for 2 years now, and that’s worked out really well for us because we can make a later season application.
“I’m pretty happy that we can produce a bushel of corn on less than three quarters of a pound of N. We’re trying to get that lower and continue doing more with less.”
Kratz: “The first year, we actually just did a single, spring pass. We applied N, potash and a starter blend, then in fall, we started looking at all of our soil tests on our fields. On our low testing potash and phosphorus (P) fields, we applied a higher rate of fertilizer. We could improve our low testing fertilizer zones about 20% from what the field actually tested at. We thought that was pretty good because we have dairy in there too, so we have access to a lot of P. I don’t want to be applying any P down in fields that don’t need it just because it’s in the blend.
“Then we started sidedressing N because we started pulling tissue samples and noticing that we were running short at the end of the year. Now we are putting a third of our N down in spring because we’re by the lake, so we need to fluff the zone up to warm it up. Most of the farms around me grow 91 to 94-day corn. I can do 102 to 103 day corn. It seems like the later varieties of corn do yield better from what I was playing with, depending on the variety.”
Shuter: “It starts out with our soil testing. Our soil tests are based off of Veris mapped zones that basically show us soil type areas better than soil survey maps. We also work with an agronomist who pulls samples out of every field, every year. We’re working with the same cloud-based mapping software, so the data can be loaded in for recommendations.
“With strip-till on our beach sand, we grew 36-ton corn silage on 78 units N…”
— Aaron Wickstrom
“For our corn planter, we’ve been making some changes on it. About 3 years ago we went to applying 2-3 gallons per acre of 10-34-0 in the row with the Totally Tubular system and then we’re running about 45 pounds per acre of N out the back with that system as well. That’s going into the closing wheel areas. Then we’ll sidedress ammonia early and in some fields we’ll apply the balance and in others, just a portion. It depends on the corn varieties and working with Beck’s Hybrids and knowing when that variety might absorb that N better.
“We’ve got the 24-row N bar that we built for the Miller Nitro sprayer that we go into 6 to 8-foot tall corn and put another shot of N on it. It’s really making a difference in those fields. We’ve also got the Ag Leader OptRx crop sensors on the sprayer and even though we have yet to build a variable-rate plan off those, it’s a possibility.
“We’ve been no-tilling for 30 years now, but one of the reasons we went to strip-till is because we were spreading all that potash and phosphate on top of the soil. This group here at the table is different than many avid no-tillers. They don’t want to see anything worked. But to me, when we are locking that fertilizer in the ground with a strip-till unit, we are doing a better job of controlling where that fertilizer should go. We were years of no-till and spread a lot of stuff on top of the ground and you always wonder if it’s getting in the ground and locked in. When we’re putting it into the strip-till, we know it is.”
NTF: What is one of the biggest lessons you guys have learned throughout the years to help improve your strip-till system?
Shuter: “When we first put the Orthman unit together, we went to the twin coulter setup that they have in that unit. But there were two falls that the ground was just heavy enough that those wouldn’t work. I ended up going back to a shank and mole knives setup with our system. That was when that 24-row bar took a little more horsepower to keep it going. There were days I couldn’t run that I should have been running because the ground was moist enough that it would clog it those coulters. They were staggered coulters and should have cleaned, but they wouldn’t.”
Kratz: “My advice would be if you are ever happy with what you’re doing now, you’re kind of missing the boat. We always keep pulling tissue samples and just seeing how the plant is reacting to our fertilizer program now. We’re always tweaking something it seems like, and throwing something into the mix.
“Putting a cover crop, being able to apply a cover crop with your strip-till bar in fall, would be a very important thing. I just don’t know if I can afford the rate to be able to put that third product on right now with the way the commodities are. Then finding which product to use. Cereal rye for me is my archenemy because we have certified wheat seed, and we can’t have any rye seed.”
Burmahl: “I don’t have things quite right yet. I’m not happy with my yields yet I’ve learned a lot here about the fertilizers. I’m trying to mess with the fertilizer and still think I need to tinker with it and get it working right, whether it’s N management or something else. I don’t know. I’ve been sidedressing for the last few years. I don’t know if I should put it all down at once.”
Branton: “A nice thing with sidedressing is you can analyze your crop in-season to make adjustments from there, which we do now. Five years ago, we didn’t. We applied all the nutrition on that we figured that crop would need to finish out. The year when we first went back to some drop tubing, it was actually a wet spring and through Cornell, they had an N management program, which we participated in.
“Results came back that said we needed 120 pounds of N on this field, this field and this field and 80 pounds on this one, and I said ‘There is no way.’ So my crop consultant and I went out and looked at it. Some areas were obvious, but other areas didn’t show any signs of N stress at the time. So I agreed to apply 60 pounds per acre of N where they say we were deficient and that’s it. We did yield projections for each field in the spring and I was worried that the additional N application was going to throw my N-per-bushel way out of whack.
“So, we left a check strip because I wanted to compare. When we harvested the corn, where we put 60 additional pounds of N on vs. the check strips, we picked up 40 bushels per acre of dry corn on one farm and 41 on another. I was glad we did what we did because it made us money. In hindsight, where we didn’t add any N, I wish we would have done a pass. When we calculated our yields for each field, they were all within 10 bushels of expectations. Then I calculated our pounds of N-per-bushel and we were still under 0.8 of a pound.
Wickstrom: “The biggest risk we have is if we don’t have our corn in early enough, those sandy soils, and strip-till has helped up tremendously as we get these spring that can sandblast it or the heat at emergence will burn it off as it’s coming through the soil. Sometimes we’ll have even as early as mid-May, if we get a hot streak, that sand will get up to about 140 degrees. It just cooks that leaf and buggy whips that corn and it’s done. Our goal has been just always having a growing crop in the soil at all times or at least minimize that time period between the harvest and getting the next crop up and growing.
“For us it’s the sustainability of it. We have a big magnifying glass on agriculture where we live. So we need to make sure we’re doing everything 100% right and to the highest degree 24/7, 365. The past couple years we have spent a lot of time, inviting people for tours, people who’ve never been on a dairy farm or crop farm before. You can talk to people about it, but I’ve found it’s much more effective to have people out onto the farm because they have these preconceived notions of farmers waste water and have huge tankers out there just blowing pesticides.
“Once I explain it is the business, the economics of it. All these inputs cost money. Farmers are some of the thriftiest people. If there is a way they can figure out how to shave a tenth of a penny, we will. Once people see that in person, they leave with a positive outlook on farming and what modern agriculture looks like today. It’s not 50 acres and 6 cows. That’s not going to feed the country or the world.”