During California’s devastating 2012-15 drought, many Central Valley growers depending on surface water to irrigate crops were forced to cut planted acres — and potential income — by up to 50%.

Nathan Ray, general manager of De Jager Farms, a 17,000-acre operation dedicated to providing alfalfa and corn silage for 25,000 dairy cows near Chowchilla, Calif., has vivid memories of those years, but says because of strip-till he was able to plant every acre every season, and saw only about an 8% yield drag.

“Strip-till was the main factor that got us through those 4 years,” he says. “It helps us retain more water in the soil between rains and irrigation and helps water infiltration to where we could cut back 20% on water application on strip-till acres.

“Everyone around us was fallowing ground and cutting back acreage, but we were able to manipulate our planting dates, increasing our planting window from two months to four, to better utilize what ground water we had for irrigation. Strip-till made that possible.”

De Jager Farms is the agronomic side of a family-owned dairy business made up of eight milking herds owned by six brothers and two sisters.

“We manage all the crops, all the labor and the tractor and harvester work, everything separate from milking and feeding, which allows the family to spread a single set of equipment across 17,000 acres without duplication,” Ray explains.

The farm includes 8,500 acres of alfalfa rotated with 8,500 acres of double-crop wheat and strip-tilled corn. The hay and row crops are predominately surface irrigated with the exception of a 150-acre center pivot sprinkler system and 1,700 acres of subsurface drip irrigation (SSDI). Currently, alfalfa makes up 1,100 acres of the drip acreage with the remainder in corn, Ray says.

“We rely on groundwater but we do have surface water when it’s available through three different water districts,” he explains. “During the drought, the surface water was non-existent.”

The farm’s typical rotation includes cropping alfalfa stands after three to four seasons with a minimum-till or no-till winter wheat or rye crop harvested for silage in the spring.  The small-grain crop is followed by strip-till corn, followed again by a winter cover or cereal crop in the fall.

“Strip-till helps water infiltration to where we can cut back by 20% on water application…”

In the case of SSDI alfalfa, however, Ray says stands are lasting 8-10 years, and because those acres are irrigated on 40-inch drip-tape spacing, he’s experimenting with twin-row corn behind alfalfa on 40s with good results.

“The dependable and precise water application allows us to push corn seeding rates up around 45,000 seeds per acre, and we’re getting beautiful results,” he says. “Also, this will help us increase amortization of the expense of SSDI to roughly 14 years of use.”

Dollars & Sense Decision

Ray says De Jager Farms began moving from conventional tillage practices to strip-till 10 years ago, solely for financial reasons.

“With increases in labor and fuel costs, and the increased price of tractors and all other inputs, we were looking for ways to cut costs,” he says. “We started on several hundred acres, then took it to 800 acres, then to 1,500 acres, and by the fourth year we were at 3,000 acres of our 8,500 acres of cropland.

“The $80 per acre reduction in fuel and labor we saw when we moved to strip-till was an immediate eye-opener,” he says. “The fifth year, we went 100% strip-till on our corn.”

As with any new enterprise, Ray says there was a lot to learn. “We were putting strip-till on our best acres at first and yields remained the same,” he says. “As we branched out to less-than-optimum soils and terrain, however, we saw about a 2 year yield drag,”

“As we learned more about what we were doing, those yields returned and have grown to the point that now — across the whole operation — we’re producing the equivalent of 275-bushel corn in the silage we chop.”

Ray says after 5 years of strip-tilling and tracking yields on each field, it became apparent there was an increase in the health of the soils where they were growing in strips.

“We had 1,500 acres with four years’ continuous minimum-till corn and wheat that showed a 2.5 ton per acre yield improvement over the average of the rest of the farm,” he explains. “We realized we were building soils.

“In our hot summer conditions, and using tillage, we can burn up soil organic matter in no time. Many of our fields measured only a percentage point of organic matter (OM),” he says. “But, where we were strip-tilling we started finding 3-4% soil OM in the top 6 inches.”

Ray says in addition to the $80 baseline reduction in fuel and labor costs from making fewer field passes with strip-till, as soils respond to increasing OM content, the need for fertilizer begins to drop — adding per-acre input reductions of another $50 on some of the longest-strip-tilled fields.

“I can’t say we’re using less fertilizer overall, but I know we’re using less on the fields we’ve strip-tilled the longest,” he says. “That allows us to divert fertilizer we’d have normally used on those fields when we were in conventional tillage to build fertility on less fertile soils.”

Maximizing Machinery        

Today, De Jager Farms runs three Orthman 1tRIPr strip-till bars (two 12-row and an 8-row) with stock row units set on 30-inch rows. All three are attached to tracked John Deere 9510 RT tractors equipped with three-point hitches.

Strips run 8-inches wide and 12-inches deep and stay on line with cues from an RTK signal processed through an Ag Leader guidance system.

“After our winter wheat silage is harvested in April and May, we’ll run the strip-till rig through to prepare for a 6-inch pre-water application,” Ray explains. “We don’t apply any fertilizer with the strip-tiller for the coming corn crop, because with surface irrigation we don’t want to leach nutrients. All of our fertility is applied at-plant, at side-dressing or with a foliar application in-season.

“If we fallow wheat, we’ll build strips in the fall on those fields, but the majority of our strip-building is pre-plant before corn.”

Ray says he shoots for strip building at 6-7 mph, and even though “new ground” to strip-tilling usually slows that ideal pace down, after several seasons his “sweet spot” speed becomes easily attainable.

“Since we harvest everything for silage, we have a lot of heavy equipment in the field — sometimes running in wet conditions — so we do have compaction issues,” Ray explains. “Because of that, on compacted acres, we run a subsoiler designed to hold surface disturbance to a minimum before we do final seed bed preparation for wheat with a Kuhn-Krause Accelerator. The following spring, the subsoiler path makes berm building much easier before we go back to corn.”

“We’re producing the equivalent of 275 bushel corn in the silage we chop…”

Corn planting on De Jager Farms depends on a Deere 1720 MaxEmerge equipped with Sunco residue managers, a 2-inch-by-2-inch injector and pop-up fertilizer application through Keeton Seed Firmers. The operation typically plants Pioneer 2089 and DeKalb’s 6469 corn hybrids, along with NuTech 5H18 planted at 40,000 seeds per acre.

Basic at-plant fertility needs for nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are based on annual soil sample analyses and yield goals according to field history, Ray explains.

“We also look at soil type and the performance of the wheat crop and estimates of nutrients it removed in our fertility prescriptions,” he says.

For sidedress applications, the farm makes extensive use of field scouting and tissue sampling to prepare in-season fertility recommendations, and micro-nutrient deficiencies are handled with foliar applications when necessary.

“A lot of the decision-making on our sidedress application has to do with whether we can get lagoon water to our fields,” Ray explains. “About 6,000 acres of our operation can be accessed with lagoon water, so that affects what our sidedress applications look like, depending upon where our crops are located in the rotation.”

When it’s time to plant small grains, Ray says a single Deere 1990 CCS no-till air seeder serves the whole farm. “There’s a month of every year that drill continuously runs,” he says.

“The small grains and cover crops we plant are very important to our operation. They help armor the soil against erosion and moisture evaporation between corn rows, and their root systems ensure better water infiltration when it does rain, or when we irrigate.”

Looking back, Ray says the $80-130 per acre reduction in input costs are reason enough for growers to look seriously at strip-till. The real benefits, however, were proven to him during the drought of 2012-15 when moisture conserved by strip-till residue meant the difference in staying fully productive or joining so many others in the area who cut their businesses in half.

“Strip-till has helped us remain profitable on the dairy side by allowing us to grow our own cost-efficient feed,” Ray explains. “Even when corn prices are depressed, which causes many conventional growers to lose money in corn production, we can weather drops in milk prices because we have so little in the crop.”