Pictured Above: SYSTEMS CHECK. Before the seed goes in the hoppers, strip-tillers should run through a checklist of controllable variables including proactive residue management, proper planter setup and understanding how a perfect seed berm should look.

A Strip-Till Farmer Staff Report
Last Updated: January 29, 2024

Strip-tillers often talk about the need to be more sensible with their seed placement and planter setups to create an increasingly responsive environment for initial plant growth.

But how are farmers turning those several inches of optimal planting space into higher yields and lower seed costs? Hitting — or missing — that target planting zone can be the difference between a bumper crop and disappointing yields.

“One thing I love about strip-till is that it provides the most consistent planting condition of all tillage systems,” says Andy Thompson, an Illinois strip-tiller and regional sales manager with Yetter Mfg. “But we’ve witnessed farmers struggle with strip-till when they don’t put the proper time and effort into getting their planter ready to take full advantage of those ideal conditions.”

Before taking the field, strip-tillers can run through a checklist of controllable variables to minimize the risk of executing a poor planting game plan, including proactive residue management, proper planter setup and understanding how a perfect seed berm should look.

Prepping the Strip

Strip-till rigs often serve as primary residue managers, but that doesn’t mean farmers can take a casual approach with their planter to keep strips clean, Thompson says. Ideally, farmers should have planter lift wheels riding on the residue and the row units on the clean strip to ensure the best planting conditions.

Thompson farms with Niota, Ill., strip-tiller Kevin Schmitz, and his son, Brent, and helped set up their Kinze planter for better residue management on 800 acres of strip-tilled corn. The soil on top of their strips in spring can be particularly hard, and the rigid residue managers mounted on no-till coulters that were previously on their planter were making the row unit hop.

Erratic seed placement was a concern. To compensate for the harder soil, they added Yetter’s Air Adjust Residue Manager system, which provided more flexibility to adjust down pressure on the row cleaners from the tractor cab.

“We made sure our residue managers were clearing those clods and leveling off those strips,” Thompson says. “We didn’t create a big divot, but we made a smoother strip for the row unit and closed the seed trench with a paddle wheel.”

Thompson says they harvested some of their best corn yields ever that fall, with some fields pushing 260 bushels per acre. While several factors contributed to the bumper crop, Thompson says smoothing out the ride of the planter and adding floating residue managers helped with consistent seed placement while the paddle closing wheels gave them consistent seed-to-soil contact.

Smooth Out Your Ride

Clearing residue off the strip also sets the stage for good seed-to-soil contact in a strip-till environment, experts say. Proper closure of the seed trench is an objective in any tillage system, but in strip-till there are additional variables to contend with, which can make this objective more difficult, says planter expert Kevin Kimberley, with Kimberley Ag Consulting in Maxwell, Iowa.

When examining strips, he digs straight into the furrow to troubleshoot planting issues, which starts with examining seed-to-soil contact.

TIGHT QUARTERS. Low seed-to-soil contact can often be chalked up to leaving a void in the seedbed with the strip-till rig. “Roots don’t grow in air,” says Kevin Kimberley. “We want that kernel tucked in tight. It will keep us away from cold-water inhibition.”

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To do this, Kimberley recommends a surgeon’s delicate touch. He carefully trowels dirt aside with a flat edged tool, rather than digging for the seed with a finger. He says farmers often accidentally pack dirt around the seed while looking for it, which might make a farmer think they have more seed-to-soil contact than they really do.

“Roots don’t grow in air — they need to have full contact with soil,” Kimberley says. “We want that kernel tucked in tight. It will keep us away from cold-water inhibition too.”

Low seed-to-soil contact can often be chalked up to leaving a void in the seedbed with the strip-till rig, but misaligned press wheels can also contribute to this.

“We’ve seen misalignment of press wheels account for a loss of up to 20 bushels an acre,” Kimberley says. “Misalignment can leave the slot wide open and corn will come up unevenly because some kernels will be tighter than others.”

‘Planting on a Pillow’

Fort Dodge, Iowa, strip-tiller Dave Nelson says his primary goal is ensuring a smooth ride for the planter row unit across the strip. Nelson runs a 32-row John Deere planter with Yetter floating residue managers and Precision Planting’s CleanSweep down pressure adjustment system.

“You can smack that clump of soil with your finger — and that’s what you need that row unit to do — to give you that smooth strip,” he says. “The first time I strip-tilled, I remember in the fall it was a little clumpy and I thought, ‘This is my seedbed, I have to do a better job.’

For Nelson, a key component to improving planter ride and seed-to-soil contact on different field conditions is managing down pressure on row units.

“I know when we go from strip-till to no-till, I have to adjust my depth because the strip is such a mellow seed bed,” he says. “It’s like planting on a pillow vs. the harder ground I encounter with no-till.”

While digging for kernels, Kimberley checks for seed depth and uniformity as well. But an even easier way to evaluate down pressure is to observe the planter in action, he says.

“During planting in Mitchell, S.D., one spring, it was 85 degrees and the soil crumbled in our hands,” Kimberley says. “We thought it’d be perfect, but we ended up with the planter pushing and lifting. Corn was being planted deep and shallow.

“We’ve seen misalignment of press wheels account for a loss of up to 20 bushels an acre…” – Kevin Kimberley

He says they planted 60 acres before they figured it out and pulled the press wheel bracket off and drove beside the planter on a 4-wheeler. From there, they could see the gauge wheel blowing up dirt from underneath because there wasn’t enough down pressure.

In that instance, part of the issue was high-speed planting, which Kimberley is staunchly against. “The faster you plant the more lift you have,” he says. “I think if we can get everybody to buy high-speed planters, we’ll get the corn market back again because yields will tank.”

Creating Consistency

Cedar Bluffs, Neb., strip-tiller Ray Kucera and his son, Kevin, want to see fall-built strips about 1-inch above their soil in spring. They strip-till about 1,300 acres of corn and 700 acres of soybeans with a 12-row Strip Cat knife rig made by Twin Diamond Industries.

While a fall strip-till pass helps clear the rows, the Kuceras’ fields are susceptible to residue blowing back on the strips during winter. They outfitted their 18-row Deere planter with Yetter spike wheel row cleaners and Copperhead Ag Furrow Cruiser closing wheels, which have improved seed-to-soil contact and allowed the Kuceras to plant soybeans slightly deeper than in the past.

“We’re going about 1½ inches deep, compared to about 1-2 inches with no-till,” Ray says. “Our goal is that the consistent depth placement is going to give us the most yield consistency because there won’t be a layer of residue to break through, but still enough moisture in the strip.”

Early returns were positive, with the Kuceras seeing better early emergence of soybean plants the first spring and a 2-5 bushel per acre bump at harvest.

“We had more even emergence and plant growth early on, which gave more time for the nodes to get established,” Ray says. “That certainly contributed to the yield increase and planting was a lot easier.”

Avoiding Seed to Residue Contact

Randy Bump strip-tills around 350 acres of continuous corn in Albany, Wis. His biggest challenge with corn-on-corn is seed to residue contact.

“Whenever seed touches residue, there’s a chance it doesn’t emerge exactly how you want it,” Bump says, which is a big reason why he makes 100% of his strips in the spring.

“Spring strip-till just works really well with my soils, and I want the corn residue to break down more in the fall,” he says. “We’ve tried fall strip-till, but it left a lot of lumps in the soil with the clay content on our hills. Plus, I don’t want to lose nutrients over the winter in our sandy soils. I don’t want to apply a ton of nitrogen (N) in the fall and not have all of it there in the spring.”

Residue control is the no. 1 key to success with strip-till corn-on-corn, Bump says, and it all starts in the fall with his John Deere S660 combine. He added Yetter Stalk Devastators to his corn heads to speed up residue breakdown, and he lays out the field for spring strips as he’s harvesting.

“As I’m combining one way, I’m rolling down 12 rows of corn because I have a 12-row strip-till bar,” he says. “I don’t want to strip-till the opposite way. While I’m in the combine, I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK, these 12 rows are going to go north.’ Then when I’m making strips in the spring, I go up, skip 12, and go back down. When I get to the spring, I want to make sure my row units on the strip-till bar are aggressive enough to move the residue out of the way. When I come back in with the corn planter, I don’t want my row cleaners to be digging in — I just want them floating on top.”

Bump makes his strips 4 inches deep between April 5-10, and then waits a few weeks before planting corn 2 inches deep with his 12-row John Deere 1760 planter set up on 30-inch spacing.

“I plant soybeans first in April, and I don’t get too excited to plant corn until May 1,” he says. “Even when my neighbors are going, I’m in no rush. I apply heavy amounts of fertilizer, and I don’t want to plant immediately right on it. The delay mellows out the soil a little bit.

“One of the best things that happens with spring strip-till is you usually get that nice ½-inch rainfall, which creates a little bit of crust in the strip. That makes it real nice to plant into, and the planter doesn’t sink into the berm as much.”

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