Strip-tillers may face tougher conditions this fall if they’re farming in dry regions, so it’s going to be necessary to account for that when doing field work this fall, says consultant Kevin Kimberley of Maxwell, Iowa.

Farm ground that’s dry from this year’s drought may tend to break up into big chunks or slabs, creating huge problems for next year’s seedbed, germination, stands and yields.

He recommends strip-tillers consider using one or more of these strategies:

  • A three-coulter setup
  • Narrow knives or narrow mole knives
  • Shallower passes
  • Weights to the wings of toolbars
  • Two passes

“From 1990 up until this year, we had wetter conditions and Mother Nature bailed us of out of bad tillage practices with rains in the spring and summer that cured or masked strip-till problems,” Kimberley says.

“But now, farmers are seeing the driest conditions and hardest ground in the Midwest and Great Plains since the droughts in 1988, 1983 and 1977. Many people either forgot about those years or weren’t farming then and didn’t experience them.”

Run Deeper

“The worst mistake you can make when strip-tilling is to blow out the ground in big chunks. These chunks will wedge in the strip, which creates air pockets...”

Kimberley says that by using narrower knives — about 5/8 of an inch wide — or moleknives with the sides cut off, strip-tillers can reduce the tendency for the ground to break up into clods and chunks.

Running a coulter 1 inch deeper than the knives — which is a good practice even when the ground isn’t rock hard — minimizes the amount of ground that blows out and breaks into chunks.

“Because the coulters do the cutting, the knives don’t blow out the dirt,” Kimberley says. “The worst mistake you can make when strip-tilling is to blow out the ground in big chunks. These chunks will wedge in the strip, which creates air pockets. Instead, you want the soil to be as small as possible in the tilled strip, so it settles and creates a good seedbed.”

There are good reasons for strip-tillers to take a hard look at the triple-coulter setup for each row of the toolbar, Kimberley says.

“With the triple-coulters — which has a coulter in the center, running in front of the knife, and two coulters offset 3 to 4 inches on either side of the center coulter — the dirt gets sized so it will flow through well and not blow out,” he says.

Coulters can also make a big difference when strip-tilling into hard ground.

“Don’t be afraid to spend money on coulters,” Kimberley says. “Try a turbo coulter first, but you may have to go to a ripple coulter or one with a serrated edge. And if the ground is extremely hard, you may have to run a straight coulter, which I usually don’t like. The more curve or angle on coulters, the more difficult it is for them to penetrate the ground.”

Avoid Air Pockets

When strip-tiling and other types of tillage creates clods, air pockets form and in those locations the soil doesn’t dry out, Kimberley says. During his travels throughout the Great Plains and the Midwest this summer, Kimberley says he’s seen many places where clods never broke down after the fields were strip-tilled, or where other tillage was used.

“From what I’ve seen over the past 35 years, a 3-inch rain and even a 6-inch rain won’t bring these clods and chunks back together,” Kimberley says. “It takes a 10-inch rain. That’s pretty unbelievable, but it’s true. And there have been plenty of places this year that went 1½ or 2 months without any rain.”

Running coulters and knives shallower than usual should reduce the size of soil clods, chunks and blowouts, Kimberley says.

“With less resistance, there are less blowouts,” he says. “So, in a two-pass approach, run 4 to 5 inches deep in the first pass and then come back and run about 8 to 10 inches deep.”

Last fall and spring, Kimberley recommended that strip-tillers working hard ground add weights to strip-till toolbars. And he thinks that’s a good strategy for this fall, too.

“Start by adding 300 to 500 pounds on each of the wings on 12-row, 16-row and 24-row strip-till toolbars,” he says.

Make Two Passes

ADDING WEIGHT HELPS. Hard ground may mean strip-tillers need to add 300-500 pounds on each wing of their strip-till toolbar, says tillage consultant Kevin Kimberley. That's what this client of Kimberley's did to the machine in this photo. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Kimberley Ag Consulting)

For strip-tillers who don’t have the triple-coulter setup, strip-tilling shallower than the “normal” 8 to 10 inches can reduce soil blowouts and clods, Kimberley says.

Shallow strip-tilling and sometimes even strip-tilling twice — first 4-5 inches deep and then 8-10 inches deep — can get strips tilled and berms built. That’s something that one of Kimberley’s clients did on 3,800 acres.

Some people think making two passes with a strip-till rig is a pain and takes too much time, Kimberley says.

“But the most important questions are these: ‘Do you want a crop? Do you want a good-to-excellent crop, or are you OK with doing less work and settling for a mediocre crop?

“Last year, I saw a field where tillage problems cost a farmer 63 bushels an acre. At today’s prices, that’s almost $500 per acre in gross revenue on corn.”