Tile drainage, patience and state and federal financial incentives are some of the things that make strip-till work, says Northfield, Minn., strip-tiller David Legvold.

David Legvold

Legvold grows corn and soybeans in south central Minnesota where glacial-till soils cover limestone caverns. The limestone is very porous. If nutrients travel through the soil and into the limestone, they will get into the groundwater, he says. Because of this potential problem, Legvold doesn’t apply nitrogen to any of his land in the fall.

Legvold puts down dry phosphate and potash in the fall and returns in the spring with a Soil Warrior and applies 60 pounds of nitrogen for corn.

“I could put on the entire nutrient package in the spring, but I’ve always had the luxury of doing strip-till in the fall,” he says.

Legvold takes a 40-pound nitrogen credit for the previous year’s soybean crop. He built a sidedress rig using disc injectors and hardware from Yetter Mfg. Co.

“When the corn is about a foot fall and in its maximum nitrogen-uptake stage and really takes off, I sidedress 30 pounds of 28% liquid nitrogen.”

After having a small number of acres custom strip-tilled in 2004, Legvold decided to strip-till all of his crop ground. His 5-year contract in the Conservation Stewardship Program paid $44.50 per acre per year for a total of $147,850. That covered the $84,354 cost of the Soil Warrior with a dry-fertilizer system and $20,323 for Trimble auto-steer with RTK equipped with cellular correction, he says.

“The CSP was the cash infusion that allowed me to buy the Soil Warrior,” he says. “If I hadn’t enrolled in the CSP, I’d still be strip-tilling, but I would hire it down. The CSP also allowed me to install the Trimble auto-steer RTK with cellular correction in my old John Deere tractor.”

After 5 years of strip-tilling, Legvold says he’s learned a number of lessons that may be of use to other strip-tillers and farmers considering this practice.

  1. Experiment A Bit At A Time. “I started out by having a custom strip-tiller do some acres,” he says.
  2. Look For Financial Incentives. Check for state and federal programs that provide cost share, grants and loans for strip-till equipment. “There are opportunities to leverage funding or cost-share that allow farms to kiss before marriage to strip-till," he adds.
  3. Make Strip-Till Fit Your Farm. “For example, if you have a well-drained field and it warms up quickly in the spring, try strip-till there," Legvold says. "Farmers feel better when they see that strip-tilled corn jump out of the grounds, so pick an area that will succeed. However, strip-till works pretty darned good on peat ground, too. I have a mix of soils — clay-loam, sandy-loam, sandy, peat and heavy clay. It’s variable, as glacial-moraine areas will be."
  4. Tile Fields. “Drainage tile is our friend when it comes to reducing tillage. I’ve tiled some areas that really needed it. I’m fortunate that the rest of my ground has good natural drainage," he says.
  5. Be Patient. “Watch the change happen with your soil. Take a spade and find out who’s home in your fields," Legvold says. "If you bury all of the residue 6 inches deep, the worms won’t get it. Look at the soil texture. In strip-tilled and no-till soils, it will have more structure than conventionally tilled soils. Structure disaggregates with heavy tillage. With ground that I’ve strip-tilled, I can come out and float across those nasty wet areas because I haven’t worked it up in the fall.”
  6. Target Soil Sampling. “Strip-till allows you to place the fertilizer where the crop needs it, not broadcast it," he says. "Banding leads to less grid sampling and more zone sampling along the row. A couple of years ago, I started to zone sample. I really haven’t changed the way I apply fertilizer, which is in the strip or zone. I’m more concerned about applying the agronomic needs of the crop. I have moved away from variable-rate application because right now, I am feeding the zone.”
  7. Learn From Neighbors. Legvold began strip-tilling and applying hog manure in strips after seeing neighbors use these practices.
  8. Check Soil Types. “I think there are definitely benefits from strip-till vs. no-till, but that’s highly dependent on soil types. No-till and no-tilling corn on corn are difficult in cold, wet soil. But no-till in lighter soil can work," he says. "Check the suitability of your soil types. In some case you may have to do some tillage. If I have sprayer tracks or if I can see some effects of nutrient stratification, then I will consider doing some tillage. Sometimes, cold and wet soils have fewer macroinvertebrates — beetles, bugs and earthworms — to move the nutrients around in the soil.”
  9. Use Fall Stalk-Nitrate Test. “Stalk-nitrate sampling gives me a view of how I managed nitrogen. I typically do the test when the corn black layers,” Legvold says.