Representing the crowd of 380 attendees were farmers, consultants, researchers and manufacturers from each corner of the country.
In the spirit of sharing their best and worst moments, industry leaders and newcomers alike represented the 380 total attendees for the fourth annual National Strip-Tillage Conference in Omaha, Neb. Through the course of seven general session speakers, 12 classroom discussions, 26 roundtables and a bevy of networking opportunities, farmers, consultants, researches and manufacturers exchanged ideas and formed new connections.
While preparation is key to success with strip-till, farmers talking about their operations encouraged attendees not to be afraid of making mistakes.
Keeping an Open Mind
An Elk Point, S.D., strip-tiller reported that many new strip-tillers he works with have trouble accepting the concept of non-cultivation in crops. Joey Hanson, who also does custom strip-tilling in South Dakota and Nebraska, emphasized developing a strong understanding of strip-till prior to ever attempting it. He recommends growers visit different operations over several months to learn techniques that work best for veteran strip-tillers.
Growing up on a conventional-tillage farm, Hanson believes the mental challenge of abandoning conventional-tillage tactics is just as difficult as learning the new tactics of strip-till and finding success is unlikely without thorough preparation.
“You mean to tell me that I’m just going to plant on your strips in the spring, and we don’t have cultivate it,” Hanson says as he shares the typical conversation with a newcomer to strip-till. “Can I cultivate it anyway?”
When it comes to equipment setups, Hanson believes a willingness to try new techniques and learn from failures is necessary for success. While consulting with local strip-tillers on their preferences is certainly recommended, especially when starting out, Hanson notes every operation will bring distinct challenges and advantages. Ultimately, he says trial-and-error often works best in the search for optimal equipment and tools.
Hanson’s experience with finding the correct coulter type serves as a prime example. While a large portion of his fall strip-till acres usually experience wet conditions, he found wavy coulters were nothing less than disastrous. The aggressive nature of the wavy coulter typically works well on drier soils with heavier levels of residue, but the wetter, fracturing soils Hanson typically encounters are a mismatch, as the coulter immediately fills up with dirt.
“About 90% of my failures have come from wavy coulters,” he says. “I’ll normally run coulters 4 or 5 inches deep, but with the wavy coulter, I ran it an inch and almost debated taking it off because it was plugging.”
For most of his acreage in southeast South Dakota, Hanson finds fluted coulters to work best, as the flat-edge design runs through heavier gumbo soils with far fewer hiccups throughout the day. Since committing to the fluted coulter, efficiency throughout his operation has improved drastically.
After a series of modifications to the ridge-till system, which included row stumpers and adding a 24-row planter with auto-steer, issues with either pace or accuracy of planting on the ridge wouldn’t go away.Another noteworthy example of trial-and-error comes from Brandon Hunnicutt, who found ways to optimize corn yields for his Giltner, Neb, operation. For years, Hunnicutt preferred ridge-till for an optimal seedbed. The process involved cultivating the soil twice, setting up a ridge, treading corn stalks and then utilizing a sidewinder tiller with a planter mounted behind. While an effective system, Hunnicutt wasn’t satisfied with the speed of the operation.
With his sights set on implementing an efficient corn-on-corn system, Hunnicutt experimented with strip-till. Noting it gave him the ability to enjoy some of the benefits of no-till while improving the speed of his operations, he was able to maintain ridge-tillage on the side.
“Our challenge is I’ve never been as satisfied with how well anything plants as on the ridges, but again, I don’t necessarily want to be out there cultivating,” Hunnicutt acknowledges. “We’re at the stage where we’re probably going back to more and more cultivating, but we wondered, ‘What can we do to make this process better?’ and it was strip-till.”
Spring or Fall?
A lot of discussion at the conference centered on the best season to build strips. With plenty of varying opinions circling the halls, Hanson prefers the fall for multiple reasons, one being the wider margin to correct errors. With nearly 6 months of downtime between strip building and planting, there’s plenty of time to make any necessary corrections. Additionally, fertilizer has more time to break down in the field after fall application for maximum effectiveness.
Spring strip-till has unique benefits as well, including more optimal nitrogen applications. But Hanson warns that committing too many acres too close to planting time can cause tremendous headaches and lower overall quality if conditions are not ideal for building berms.
“I don’t overly promote spring strip-till mainly because we need to get stuff planted in a timely manner, and people don’t want to wait,” Hanson says. “I really don’t like someone out there planting the same day or even the day after I strip. I usually like to see a rain come in and settle out the berm a little bit. It plants a whole lot better.”
Reaping the Benefits
Attendees represented a diverse range of climates, soil types and crop rotations, and success stories were abundant throughout the conference. Aaron Wickstrom, a converter to strip-till after running a conventional operation for years in Hilmar, Calif., saw substantial economic advantages to strip-till.
The conventional process of pre-ripping and tillage, followed by irrigation and fine-discing a week later, allowed Wickstrom little margin for error, and water loss occasionally required Hanson to drop to a two-crop rotation. He was convinced a better option for corn yields existed.
Believing that 100% no-till was an unrealistic fit for his finer-texture sandy soils, Wickstrom experimented with a mostly strip-till and part no-till combination. Soon after, he was impressed with not only the yield, but also the economic benefit.
“We’re running about $164 dollars per acre for a full-year, three-crop cycle, which saves us $153 per acre,” Wickstrom says. “That was nothing to sneeze at. And we actually saw our yields go up, so I was thrilled.”
The advantages of the strip-till/no-till operation for Wickstrom’s operation extended to improvements in soil biology as well. With conventional tillage, the sandy soils heated up to the point where 2 months into the season, no organic matter existed, Wickstrom says.
Under the new system, he points out there is something growing in the field all the time since he no-till drills winter forage crops after corn harvest.
“Before we switched to the strip-till/no-till system, you could dig in the field and hardly find an earthworm,” Wickstrom says. “Now we have much more vibrant soil biology and diversity in our system.”
The improvements in soil biology had a domino effect with increased water-holding capacity in the soil, which was a major boost considering the triple-digit temperatures and 50-mph wind gusts that can sweep through Wickstrom’s land. Since the transition, he has been able to run a consistent three-crop rotation with little to no problems.
“The increase in water-holding capacity was key to saving us from drought,” he says. “We fallowed about 30 acres, while other local farmers are fallowing about half of their acres just because of the reduction of water. In our pre-strip-till flood irrigation system, we would use 46-54 inches of water for corn, and now we’ve lowered that to about 40-45 inches.”