Pictured Above: HEAVY WORKLOAD. Mark Ricker keeps his veteran DMI 5310 busy every spring strip-tilling a minimum of 3,500 acres of row-crop ground on his five-way rotation farm near Raymond, Kan.

Mark Ricker switched from no-till to strip-till in 1995 and in the ensuing 22 years he has continually improved his yields, while at the same time, cut his fertilizer purchases by 40%.

“We’ve moved our dryland insurance corn yields to 100 bushels per acre with yields up to 160 bushels per acre, whereas before strip-tilling our insurance yields were in the 50-60 bushel range,” he explains. “I attribute that largely to better placement of fertilizer, improved crop genetics and the rotation with cover crops.” 

On irrigated fields, Ricker’s corn averages 200-210 bushels per acre, his soybeans 66 bushels per acre and sunflowers, 3,000-4,000 pounds per acre. Ricker, who farms 5,500 acres of sandy silt-loam near Raymond, Kan., says as a no-tiller he became interested in strip-till in the early 1990s, particularly because he thought it would help him make better use of his fertilizer inputs. 

For a year, he experimented with Blu-Jet in-row ripper from Thurston Mfg., equipped with closing discs and saw positive results. The experience led him to purchase his current DMI 5310 16-row, 30-inch strip-tiller in 1995.

“I was convinced if we could place the nutrients right under the row we could cut back on fertilizer,” he explains. “We cut back a lot. We knew what we had to do to get good results with the equipment we were using, so that first year we used the DMI on all of our acres and cut the fertility on three good farms and compared the difference. We used 80% of the recommended nitrogen (N) and the yields across the farms were identical.” 

Ricker continued to experiment and settled on 75% of recommended N for about 10 years because he began to see a yield drop at 70%.

Eye on Inputs

Continuing to seek savings in inputs, in 2005, Ricker equipped the DMI with an Exactrix high-pressure anhydrous ammonia system, which injects NH3 at 300 psi. He tills about an inch below any compaction and then injects the anhydrous about 4 inches above the bottom of the furrow.

In addition to the NH3, he applies about 10-20 gallons of KTS (potassium thiosulfate) or ATS (ammonium thiosulfate) and 10-34-0 just ahead of the anhydrous ammonia injection, depending on annual soil sample analysis. 

“I apply equal parts 10-34-0 and ATS/KTS on the strip-tiller with the anhydrous and KTS-ATS both injecting from the same Shield Industries mole knife,” he explains. 

The switch to high-pressure injection, and the system’s inherent reduction in nitrification and volatilization losses, allowed Ricker to further cut N application to 60% of recommended levels.

“The Exactrix system is very expensive, but we found it didn’t take very long at all to pay for itself given the reduction in nitrogen inputs it allows,” he explains. 

In 2012, Ricker further improved his N application efficiency, with a move to variable-rate (VR) injection on the DMI strip-tiller.

“Using grid sampling and soil variability maps developed with a Veris sled, our local CropQuest agronomists and I developed VR grids for each field,” he explains. “All that information and RTK guidance signals run through a Trimble FM1000 which cues pumps to vary rates as we build our berms in the spring.

“On irrigated ground, I try to apply 50% of the N and most of the potash, phosphorus (P) and sulfur I’ll need for corn with the strip-tiller,” he says. “Some years we’ll sidedress if needed, or run additional nutrients through the sprinkler according to what tissue samples tell us.”

Better Berm Building

Ricker says he added Sunco row cleaners to the DMI strip-tiller in 2002, and over the years has settled on tilling about 9-12 inches deep while building 2-3-inch tall berms no wider than 9 inches for his best results. Before the row cleaners, Ricker was consigned to berms 10-12 inches wide.

“By planting time, the berm usually settles to level which makes planting easier,” he says.

Ricker pulls the strip-tiller with a Case IH QuadTrac 485 and usually makes his best berms at 7-8 mph. Working with a rotation on dryland and irrigated acres that includes corn, soybeans, winter wheat, sunflowers and alfalfa, Ricker also uses cover crops of winter rye, triticale, tillage radishes and sudangrass.

Typically, Ricker strip-tills about 3,500 acres a year of his 5,500 acre home farm for row-crop production, with the remaining 2,000 acres planted to winter wheat. On his home operation , in addition to the 2,000 acres of small grains, he farms another 2,000 acres of corn, 300-400 acres of soybeans, 100 acres of sunflowers and a stand of alfalfa. 

“I was convinced if we could place the nutrients right under the row we could cut back on fertilizer…” — Mark Ricker

“On our irrigated acres, I plant continuous corn for 4-5 years, then sow a winter rye, triticale and barley cover crop along with tillage radishes,” he says. “The winter cover catches moisture and keeps the light soils from blowing. From there, I’ll terminate the cover when it’s about knee high so we can strip-till and go back to corn or soybeans — depending on the rotation.”

Soil Savings 

Winter cover crops have been a staple for Ricker for 15 years and present no problems to his strip-till farming as most are sufficiently decomposed by the time he builds berms in the spring. On extremely sandy soil, he also seeds sudangrass behind wheat harvest allowing it to grow to nearly waist high before terminating it, knowing that by strip-tilling time it will have further decomposed to about knee-high.

“Even if we have decent wheat stubble on light ground, it doesn’t always last until spring, so the forage grasses add some biomass to protect the fragile soils,” he explains.

Dryland management includes 2-3 years of winter wheat followed by corn and then a year of sunflowers depending upon weed pressure before returning to wheat. Ricker plants with a 24-row Case IH 1255 planter equipped with Precision Planting’s Clean Sweep floating row cleaners and a Sunco Nutrimate3 2-by-2-inch fertilizer system. 

“I generally apply 3-5 gallons of 28% liquid N, 5 gallons of 10-34-0 and 3-5 gallons of ATS through the in a 2-by-2-inch placement, and also use a Shield Industries firming point to flow a pop-up liquid fertilizer about ¼-inch above the firming point in the slot. I want no nutrient deficiency at germination,” he says.

At first, Ricker says he was concerned about putting a 24-row planter on strips made with a 16-row machine, but his ground isn’t too hilly, so side-draft isn’t much of a problem. 

Beginning with 2017’s winter wheat, small-grain and cover crop planting will be handled by a new Case IH Precision 800 Air Hoe running on 10-inch rows. 

In addition to cutting his fertilizer bill significantly, Ricker says strip-tilling has helped him raise organic matter levels on his farm.

“We had spots we had to farm conventionally just to get through them before we began strip-tilling and using cover crops,” he says. “This is particularly true in our irrigated fields where we’ve used the pasture blends. Some of our sands were below 1% organic matter, and now some fields are up to 3%.

“Also, our dryland acres seem to go longer in droughty conditions before they begin to burn up, and we seem to be raising more crop with less irrigation water,” he adds, noting another money saver for an enterprise where the average annual rainfall is 28 inches and most of that comes in spring or during October and November.”