Pictured Above: EARLY-SEASON ADVANTAGE. From depth, timing and rate to season, product and method, strip-tillers always seem to be on the hunt for new strategies to improve their fertilizer and nutrient application programs.

A Strip-Till Farmer Staff Report

From depth, timing and rate to season, product and method, strip-tillers always seem to be on the hunt for new strategies to improve their fertilizer and nutrient application programs. 

Approaches to fertility placement vary regionally and big differences in soil type and climate must be examined to develop best practices. Farmers agree that there are no one-size-fits-all strategies, but there are some considerations worth making.

Here are 5 ideas, examples and practices strip-tillers have utilized for maximizing the return of early-season fertilizer applications, along with the results they’ve seen. 

1 Know Your Soils. Matthew Beckman of Elgin, Neb., strip-tills 1,200 acres of corn on his 4,000-acre family farm with his dad, brothers and uncle. Even though Nebraskan farmers usually have to contend with drier springs on average, they weren’t spared from heavier rains in recent years. 

However, Beckman believes maintaining flexibility above a baseline strategy is the best route to consistently yielding near 240 bushels per acre. “If it looks like we might need a shot of N earlier in the spring, we’re not afraid to go spread some extra urea,” says Beckman. “We have a baseline program, but if weather dictates that we need to deviate from that in the spring, we can.”

In the spring, Beckman builds strips 8 inches deep and 7 inches wide with a 12-row Twin Diamond Strip Cat, and applies 130 pounds per acre of N in the form of anhydrous ammonia. He also applies 175 pounds of a liquid blend.

“It’s a custom blend made for us by our local co-op,” says Beckman. “It’s a combination of 10-34-0 (liquid ammonium phosphate), 12-0-0-26 (thiosulfate), 0-0-25-17 (potassium thiosulfate) and zinc.”

When he’s planting with his 24-row John Deere 1775NT, Beckman follows up with another 4 gallons per acre of 10-34-0 with zinc, in-furrow and about 15 gallons per acre of surface-banded 28-0-0-5 (a blend of 32% UAN and thiosulfate). 

Beckman uses fertigation for a final follow-up application, which proves to be a perfect time to make up for N suspected to have been lost. After wet springs, he looks for early yellowing or wilting to gauge the need for adding N. 

“Fertigation is part of our plan regardless if it’s wet or not, but it’s a good time to add N if tissue testing has shown a loss,” says Beckman. “It’s usually just a shot —anywhere from 40-60 more pounds of the 28-0-0-5 blend.”

2 Stable Products, Stable Program. On his farm in Beardstown, Ill., David Wankel strip-tills 2,200 acres of corn and 200 acres of soybeans. Wankel builds his strips in the fall, applying a blanket rate of 130 pounds per acre of diammonium phosphate (DAP) with his 12-row Kuhn-Krause Gladiator on 30-inch spacings. He places the DAP at a depth of 4 inches, but he builds the strip about 12 inches deep and 8 inches wide.

While the majority of Wankel’s N is applied at sidedress, he puts a significant amount down at planting as well. He applies 40 pounds per acre of 10-34-0 in-furrow with Keeton seed firmers and dribbles another 30 pounds per acre of N in the form of 28% and some triazole — a fungicide — behind the closing wheels. 

To finish out his program, he sidedresses 200 pounds per acre of N in the form of anhydrous ammonia. Wankel evaluated tissue tests his crop consultant has been doing with a SPAD chlorophyll meter for guidance on N deficiency. 

“Our application of ammonia at sidedress is very stable,” says Wankel. “The bacteria hasn’t had a chance to break it down into nitrates yet, which is leachable. If I’d put down a ton of liquid 28%, I would be more concerned because a lot of it would have already been in the form of nitrates.” 

He has seen some yellowing in his corn, but he attributes this more to a lack in oxygen to the roots and ponding than N loss. Keeping around a 238 bushel-per-acre yield, as he does, isn’t easy in extremely wet years, but Wankel says staying vigilant on signs of N deficiency will help strip-tillers respond quickly.

3 Keeping It Simple. Clare Kurz adopted a twin-row system on his mostly irrigated 2,000-acre corn and soybean operation nearly 15 years ago. But the move was only part of the solution, as the Palmer, Neb., farmer also wanted a more efficient method to apply fertilizer and manage residue.

Kurz applies his starter fertilizer during planting using a pull-type 1,500-gallon Montag liquid tank behind one of his two 12-row Monosem twin-row planters and a 400-gallon saddle tanks on the other. He applies 7 gallons per acre of 32% liquid N, 7 gallons per acre of a liquid N, P and K blend (8-20-5) and 3 gallons per acre of Thio-Sul. 

He typically fertigates the balance of N with a small amount of sulfur through the center pivots.

“We’re dribbling that 17-gallon mix on behind the planter, 1½ inches off to the side of the seed trench and we’re actually closing the trench first,” Kurz says. “If we applied in-furrow, in our sand, we might get away with a little 10-34-0 (ammonium polyphosphate), but we can’t put any sulfur or N there because of potential for seed burn. We try and keep it simple and our system allows us to keep the fertilizer off the planter and avoid the potential for plugging.”

4 Feed Based on Need. Bill Weems farms 2,500 acres of wheat and milo about 10 miles east of Amarillo, Texas. He applies his pre-plant N through his 12-row Kuhn Krause Gladiator strip-till rig as he builds his strips, knifing 32-0-0 liquid N into the strips, 8-9 inches deep. 

On irrigated land, additional N can be run through the center pivot sprinklers as the season progresses to better supply fertility as the crop develops. All of Weems’ N is applied according to soil sample analysis based on crop yield goals and all of it comes in the form of liquid, he explains, adding that they no longer use anhydrous ammonia.

“We’ve been able to bring our nitrogen down close to our goal of 140 pounds per acre while still maintaining an average of 190 bushels per acre…”

To meet any P or K deficiencies, Weems uses broadcast composted feedlot manure as needed, usually every 2-4 years, along with a shallow 3-4 inch cultivation to incorporate the material. Studies show $24 per ton compost contains the N, P and K equivalent of $70-$80 per ton commercial fertilizer, Weems says. 

“Compost only has about 28 pounds of N per ton, but it’s very rich in P and K, so we rely on it solely for those elements,” he says. “We have to incorporate it with shallow tillage and that costs some moisture, but for the price of the inputs, I think it more than makes up for it.”

5 Pushing for Less N. Nancy and Jerry Ackermann have been strip-tilling corn and no-tilling soybeans and alfalfa on their 1,200-acre farm in southwest Minnesota for more than 15 years. When the Ackermanns first decided to switch N products they transitioned to urea with a stabilizer banded 6 inches deep. Over time, their system evolved further to include ESN Smart Nitrogen in a split application. 

“Instead of putting all our N on in the fall, now we put down 30-40 pounds of variable-rated urea with a stabilizer and ESN, plus our sulfur, P and potash — all of the rates are based on grid sampling,” says Jerry. “The ESN is more expensive, but our tests show that we see a lot less leaching. Then in the spring we put on another 5 gallons per acre of 10-43-0 with zinc, in-furrow during planting, and a final application of 32% at sidedress during V4-V6 stage.”

The Ackermanns feel strongly that because of the advantageous fertility placement that strip-till has offered them, they’ve been able to dial down their rates significantly. They are hoping to soon be able to consistently produce 200 bushels of corn per acre on 140 pounds of N.

“When we still used anhydrous, we went by the old rule of thumb: 1 to 1.25 pounds per bushel. Then, of course, the recommendation to add an extra 30 pounds because you were sure to lose some over the winter,” says Jerry. 
“Now, because of the better products, strip-till placement and split up applications, we’ve been able to bring it down close to our goal of 140 pounds per acre while still maintaining an average of 190 bushels per acre. With the way things are going, cover crops may help us bring it down even further.”

6 Splitting Applications. Kingman, Ind., strip-tiller Doug Davenport has long subscribed to the philosophy that banding fertilizer in the strip can minimize environmental concerns and give his corn plants the best chance at tapping nutrients when needed most during the growing season on his 4,000 acre farm.

Davenport traditionally applies up to 350 pounds per acre of 9-23-30 (a potash and diammonium phosphate (DAP) blend) or monoammonium phosphate (MAP), but as little as 150 pounds per acre on some fields, depending on need. He’ll then apply 10 gallons per acre of 28% N and 2 gallons of ammonium thiosulfate with the planter in 2-by-2-inch placement.

Davenport sidedresses the balance of N, often starting about V4 stage and the multiple applications, combined with cover crops have allowed him to decrease N applications on some fields.

“We had been using about 1.5 pounds of nitrogen per bushel,” he says. “Then we were able to get it down to 1.2 and then 1. On farms where we’ve had continuous cover crops for 5-6 years, tiling and good pH, I’m confident we can grow a good corn crop using 0.7 or 0.8 pounds of N per bushel.”

7 Tailoring Applications.  Frankfort, Ind., farmer Jerry Neidlinger and his son Jeremy have been strip-tilling 500 acres of corn on their 1,100-acre operation since 2007. By using a few simple strategies fitted to his soil type and climate, the Neidlingers have able to keep their farm average up around 234 bushels-per-acre.  

They stagger both their N application and strip-tilling practices. In the fall, they strip-till about half their acreage, banding anhydrous ammonia 8 inches deep through a 12-row Case IH/DMI strip-till bar on 30-inch spacings. For corn-on-corn, they aim for a rate of 200 pounds of N and 165 pounds per acre for corn following soybeans. In early spring, they come back to finish the remainder of the acreage.

Jerry says concerns about N leaching can be sidestepped by taking a few precautions. “To make sure the nitrogen stays put in the fall, I don’t start strip-tilling until the temperature hits 50 degrees and stays at or below that,” he says. “Also, in the fall I make sure to use N-Serve stabilizer to prevent movement. I’ll use it in the spring too if I’m able to get out early enough, but only up until the April 1.”

He admits that this strategy may not work as well for a farmer with a different soil type, but much of his highest yielding corn is pulled from the acreage he prepares in the fall.

“A lot of people will tell you that sidedressing will give you better yields, but for us and our soil types, this is the best way,” says Neidlinger. “We have heavy black soil throughout, and it has a tendency to hold onto the anhydrous a little better on it’s own.”

With additional N applied at planting and sidedressing, as needed, Neidlinger builds some flexibility into his program to accommodate for extremely wet years. When planting with his Case IH 1250, he applies about 8 gallons per acre of Nature’s Release starter fertilizer in 2-by-2 inch placement. As for sidedressing, he often bases rates off his 4-year cycle of soil tests.

“With corn-on-corn, we’ll usually put 100-150 pounds of MAP (monoammonium phosphate) down, depending on what my soil tests show,” says Neidlinger. “This year has been different. If we have an early wet spring, we’ll come back and sidedress some 28% if we feel like we’ve had a significant loss. We haven’t had to do a lot of that, but we try to do a few early tissue tests in wet springs to find out what we need.”

8 Managing P and K. Mazeppa, Minn., strip-tiller Rod Sommerfield says being vigilant of healthy mycorrhizal fungi populations in his soil has changed both where and how much added P he applies.

“If there is a plentiful supply of phosphorus for a young corn plant during early development stages, the plant often will reject mycorrhizal fungi’s attempts to form a symbiotic relationship with it,” says Sommerfield. “We now try to limit phosphorus applied in the top 2-4 inches to no more than 16 pounds actual per acre. For this, we use liquid 10-34-0. Our main phosphorous dry fertilizer is 18-46-0 and we don’t put down more than 100 pounds per acre total.”

For K, not burying residue with conventional tillage again helps compound the nutrient conservation, he says. With more K available in the soil naturally, Sommerfield feels comfortable adding less.

“Strip-tilling keeps a lot of recycled potassium on the surface due to its high levels on the hard outer layers of decomposing crop residue,” says Sommerfield. “With what we do apply, strip-tilling potassium in a band helps keep it more available as it raises base saturation in the band area. This way, the soil deeper down is less likely to dry, which is important because potassium is only available when it’s soluble.”

On soybeans, he’ll apply up to 200 pounds per acre of 0-0-60, and on corn he’ll only go up to 100 pounds. In some of his closely watched test areas, though, he’s seen his regenerative practices pay off and he’s able to apply significantly less.

“The cover crops have helped with nutrient sequestration, too, but some of our management zones are getting around 300 bushels of corn per acre with only 150 pounds of applied nitrogen with only 16 pounds of phosphorus and no potassium,” says Sommerfield.

9 Fertilizing for Efficiency. Kevin Kennedy has shaken things up on his 3,200-acre farm in Walnut, Ill., over the last few years and runs 100% of his dry fertilizer, through his strip-till bar in both the fall and spring.

During planting, he applies 3½  gallons per acre of 6-24-6 pop-up starter, 6.8 ounces per acre of Capture insecticide and 1 pint per acre of Accomplish. Following that, he sprays herbicide with 30-50 units of anhydrous ammonia and the growth hormone Radiate. During sidedress, he completes his N program with a variable-rate application of anhydrous ammonia.

“Our seeding rate and N rate are based off of soil type, historical yield and green biomass index from previous years,” says Kennedy. “We aim for 8-tenths of a pound of nitrogen per bushel and that puts us anywhere from only 100 units on our sands to 190 units through our lower ground. We’ve seen a huge efficiency boost doing it this way.”

10 Making Use of Manure. Grand Marsh, Wis., strip-tillers Eric and Megan Wallendal admit that they’d love to be building strips after harvest and applying N, but their sandy soils won’t hold the nutrients.

The Wallendals prefer to build strips as early as possible in spring, and plant the following day, but Megan says that’s not always possible.

“If we build strips and get a big rain 2 days later, we can’t put those bands down because they will wash out with our sandy soils,” she says. “When we strip-till, it’s not just thinking about where that frost layer is, or if we’ve applied manure on the field.”

They’ve applied manure on 80% of their fields going to forage corn and have to wait until it dries before they can build strips. Overall, the Wallendals apply manure on about 40% of their acres through a dragline, semi or chisel plow on the back of a truck.

“We want to incorporate the manure as deep as we can within the ground so we’re not losing the value of the application,” Eric says. “The manure application gives us about 100 units of N and is increasing the nutrient-retaining capabilities of our topsoil.”

11 Window of Opportunity. By building strips exclusively in the spring, Janesville, Wis., strip-tillers Dan and Doug Rebout feel they avoid having 200 pounds per acre of banded anhydrous ammonia leach from the soil over the winter. However, strip-tilling in the spring puts them at risk for increased compaction and a frenetic planting widow.

“A lot of people ask me how we can even think about spring strip-tilling when we don’t know what sort of planting window we’ll get,” says Dan. “Sure, we’ll get a little compaction if the soil is still too damp, but it’s usually just in the tractor tracks. We just have to start strip-tilling as soon as possible in the spring.”

To head off the time crunch, the Rebouts know they have to hit the field hard as soon the opportunity arises. They use long hours and seasonal indicators to ensure their strips are built quickly and properly.

“Once I start strip-tilling, my average days are 6 a.m. till 10 p.m.,” Dan says. “I start with a test pass and I look for three factors to tell me it’s time to start. First, that the soil is dry enough to the point where I won’t be leaving a lot of compaction. Second, that the anhydrous is sealing. Third, that the berm I’m building isn’t lumpy.”

To further hedge against an unpredictable spring, the Rebouts have a 16-row Progressive strip-till rig on standby that can be run simultaneously with their 16-row Kuhn Krause Gladiator to cover ground faster.