“Mound height is the key to successful strip tilling, but I see a lot of people who don’t pay a lot of attention to the mound height,” says Jim Kinsella, who’s been making strip-till work for more than 20 years on his farm in Lexington, Ill.
“The higher the mound the better. Make it as high as you can,” he adds. “We usually start with about a 4-inch mound in the fall. They settle down over the fall and winter.”
Kinsella says the height of the strip directly addresses the biggest problem facing no-tillers: wet, cold soil in the spring.
“It’s the amount of water in the mound that controls the temperature of the soil, not the residue cover on the mound. The soil will not warm up until you get that water out of there. You’ve got to get that water down. Water moves down with gravity, so making the mounds high enough is key to moving that moisture,” he says.
“Wet soil conditions mean cold soil conditions because when it’s wet, I don’t care how warm the rain is, it’s going to stay cold,” he adds. “Also, if you plant when it’s a little wet, you pack the sidewalls and it’s not a really good seed environment.”
Kinsella disagrees with the belief that removing residue from the strip will help warm the soil.
“It doesn’t make much difference whether there’s residue on it or not, especially early in the year when you don’t have a very strong sun. I put a thermometer in a saturated strip on Feb. 17, and it was 44 degrees Fahrenheit. Where the water had gone out of the mound, it was 59 degrees,” he says.
In fact, he keeps his mounds covered with about 85% residue.
“It help keep them stable and keeps them from washing out in heavy rains,” he says. “We have almost as much residue on the mound as before the mound was there.”
Expect fluctuations in the height of the mound after fall stripping, he says. “If you get some rain on it, you might think your mound height is not very good. But during the winter, you get more moisture in there and the freezing and thawing will heave it back up.”
Kinsella’s beliefs about strip-tilling evolved after he started no-tilling and learned a few lessons the hard way.
A No-Till Start
“We moved back to the farm in 1975 and made a pretty radical switch on the 440 acres that we owned at that point. We made the switch from reduced-tillage chisel plowing to 100 percent no-till. Half the crop was corn and the other half was no-till soybeans,” he recalls.
“Dad still had a field cultivator, and he would go out and do the ends and some wet areas. He was always out there with a field cultivator until I could get the keys out of the tractor,” he says. “We had a couple of warm, dry springs and we weren’t planting quite as early back then. The first couple of years, I guess it was beginner’s luck. I thought no-till was a snap.”
But 1977 brought a wet spring, and things changed.
“I planted too shallow and I made a lot of other mistakes. We had coulters, but I ran them too deep. I planted too wet because the neighbors were already out there planting, and we had sidewall compaction.
“Dad was pretty upset about it, and we had a lot of neighbors coming by and talking to my dad about renting the farm. I think Dad was pretty tempted to rent it to them, but I finally talked him out of it. We kept no-tilling.”
He remembers that in 1981, “We put down anhydrous with a regular applicator, but my applicator kind of went on an angle 4 or 5 degrees off the row, and the result was a strange pattern in the crops. There’d be about 20 feet of good corn in one row and then it would skip over maybe two rows.
“I staked those green areas versus the next row over, then we came in and hand harvested those rows. Those strips where we went right over the top with the nitrogen and the strip that was in the middle averaged about 22 to 23 bushels better than the rest of the field. And it wasn’t in strip till, it was just an old, dull nitrogen dull knife and no mound or strip,” he says.
“I thought if we can do that and get 20 bushels more by planting over the row, there’s got to be a way I can do that on the whole farm. So the light bulb came on about strip-tilling in 1982.”
In the decades since, Kinsella has honed his ideas.
“My concept of strip-tilling is making strips in the fall with a knife and coming back in the spring to plant over the top of that strip,” he says. “The primary objective is creating a better seedbed environment within no-till. We get all the benefits of no-till by getting and keeping a lot more moisture in the ground, but we also warm the seedbed. We’ve got the residue in the middle. We can keep the earthworms and all the microbes. It really is the best of both worlds.”
His advice to other strip-tillers includes:
The Best Knife
“We’ve learned a lot about building strips and getting mound height, and we’ve pretty much settled on the B33 mole knife. The little boot on the front is really important. There are some similar models out there.
“The boot is the key. It runs through the soil and fractures it down low. And the wings make a little hole, just like a mole hole, in the ground. I haven’t found anything even close to being as good.”
The Right Speed
“The best speed for strip-tilling is between 5 1/2 and 6 1/2 miles per hour. If you run too fast, the soil mound flattens out. It’s like a snow plow, if you get it going too fast, it blows it all over the field. If you run any slower than 5, you just heave the soil and it will come out the front. If you lose soil out the front, you lose mound height.”
Ban The Bounce
“Our new planter has airbags on it instead of springs. I’ve worked with a couple of other strip-tillers using airbags, and I looked at their planters and how the bags really controlled the bounce. I think planter bounce is our biggest problem as far as seed spacing. You can sit there and watch the seedboxes bouncing, and then you have to slow down. The airbags cushion the ride and control it so much easier.”
“One problem I see is no-tillers with down pressure springs on their planters. They put them in the highest down pressure they’ve got, and they start strip-tilling and put all that pressure on that loose mound. They pack it back down, and then it’s just about like planting in hard ground.
“We run the lightest possible pressure we can. If we get a nice, loose field in our old no-till fields, we might run only 10 pounds of pressure on our gauge. If you see your gauge wheels start flopping in the breeze, you’re not firmly on the ground. I like to see them flop once and a while though, so I know I’ve just got the right amount of pressure.”
Discs To Close, Not Cut
“We use 18-inch straight blades that are dull, unsharpened from the factory. The 22-inchers are too big; we can’t get them high enough. The dull blades are important because you don’t want them to cut in the ground. We’re just heaving up the soil with the mole knife and getting it back in the row with double-disc blades.
“It looks like they’re going in the ground, but they’re not. We run absolute minimum pressure on them just to keep them from bouncing.”
“We like a straight, sharp coulter out front. If you have an option, get the biggest coulter that will fit. We’re running 24-inch coulters. You can run them for 10 years; then they’re still 18 inches and you don’t have to replace them, so they’re the best investment.
“But if you run them too deep, within maybe an inch or 1 1/2 inches of the boot on the mole knife, the mole knife will not make a mole hole. The coulter will fracture the soil before that knife gets there, and it will not make a mole hole, which is important to hold the nitrogen in place. and it will tend to not seal your nitrogen; your nitrogen will come up. So it’s important not to run them too deep.”
Use Potash Cautiously
“We gotten some response to the phosphorus, but just about every time we’d get over 100 pounds of murated potash, we would either not gain any yield or we would lose yield. If we got up to 200 pounds, we would almost always lose yield.
“George Rehm, a soil fertility at the University of Minnesota, has a theory. He says that if you get too much available potash in a concentrated band underneath the seed early, the plant will tend to luxuriously consume the potash instead of taking up nitrogen.
“The nitrogen uptake is the most important thing for your seedling. I would be very cautious about putting anything over 100 pounds of potash in the strip.
“The other part of that equation was that even at the higher rates of potash, my yield seemed to be leveling off for my drilled soybeans. But I could kind of see a little band where the beans were a little taller and I could see my 2-year old, 38-inch row strip. So I was probably not getting enough uniform application of potash. I decided that it wasn’t a good concept to try to feed the corn crop and the whole 2-year rotation by putting everything down in that band.”
Invest In Auto Steering
“We spent a lot of money on auto-steering, but I think it will pay for itself. We saved about $4,500 by not needing to pay for markers for a new applicator. Plus, I look backward most of the time; I don’t even look forward till I get to the end and need to wake up.”
He plans to decouple his strip-till bar from his planter and go to 16- row corn on corn. “We could go to 20; we could go to any row spacing. We could go to whatever we could pull with the tractor. And we’ll save about $8,000 on a 16-row planter by not having to buy markers. And the whole system would only cost about $32,000 at this point.
“Of any investment we’ve made, that was the best thing we’ve ever done. It’s like, why didn’t I have this 10 years ago? The first time you have auto-steering, it makes farming fun again.”
(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of No-Till Farmer.)