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Results of the 5th Annual Strip-Till Operational Practices Benchmark study, evaluating 2017 cropping practices, reinforce the value of those idea-sharing opportunities, as corn yields, per-farm strip-till acre averages and precision farming technology adoption continued to grow.

Strip-till is often equated to a puzzle, with farmers having to assemble aspects of equipment, fertilizer application, technology, seed selection and soil health together. When one piece is missing, others don’t often fit.

But the challenge for strip-tillers is that the size, shape and availability of those pieces can change. Perhaps more than any other farming practice, strip-till requires a willingness to adapt, experiment and learn.

Says veteran strip-tiller David Legvold, “Each person has his or her own specific needs so I have learned to keep still and listen to their adventures. I always believe I benefit the most from these conversations as we share ideas. To be sure, strip-till will build soil health and save money. But a bigger reason is to share the commonalities with other producers and continue the learning adventure.”

Results of the 5th Annual Strip-Till Operational Practices Benchmark study, evaluating 2017 cropping practices, reinforce the value of those idea-sharing opportunities, as corn yields, per-farm strip-till acre averages and precision farming technology adoption continued to grow.

More than 300 farmers from a record 27 states and Canada who identified themselves as strip-tillers responded to the 40-question survey from No-Till Farmer’s sister publication, Strip-Till Farmer.

In the following pages — and also within the pages of No-Till Farmer’s Summer 2018 issue of Conservation Tillage Guide — we compare and contrast fertilization strategies, cover-cropping techniques, equipment setups and technology strip-tillers are put to work on their operation.

We also crunched the numbers on the top 10% of respondents again this year by average corn yield (261 bushels per acre) and soybean yield (76 bushels per acre) to see what strategies are separating them from the pack.

Regional Shift

When breaking down study participants by region, not surprisingly the Corn Belt continued its strip-till stronghold with nearly ¾ of respondents coming from these states. However, the 74% total was down more than 6 points from last year, highlighted by the lowest total in the history of the study coming from the Eastern Corn Belt (27.4%).

Totals from the Western Corn Belt (23.5%) and Great Lakes (23.1%) were consistent with prior years. For the fourth year in a row, Illinois lead the way in most respondents by state with 58, followed by Iowa (44), Minnesota (42), South Dakota (20), Nebraska (16) and Wisconsin (16).

Worth noting is the year-over-year strip-till growth in several other regions, led by significant spikes in the Plains states. The Northern Plains percentage, which includes the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho) nearly doubled from 6.8% in 2016 to 13% last year, while the Southern Plains (Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas) also increased by nearly 2 points, year-over-year.

Talking with Colorado-based soil scientist and agronomic consultant Mike Petersen, he’s anticipating continued strip-till growth in the coming years, as he’s seen a renewed commitment by universities and colleges in educational programs surrounding strip-till. He cited states including Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky as those ripe for growth.

STRIP-TILL SHIFT? Breaking down study participants by region, the Corn Belt maintained its stronghold with 74% of strip-tillers located in the Eastern and Western Corn Belt or Great Lakes region. However, the total coming from the Plains states increased to nearly 20%, a nearly 8-point increase over 2016.

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“I’m working on a project with an Eastern Corn Belt school putting value to what goes on with the strip-till system in looking at root penetration resistance,” he says. “While it’s still early, we’re seeing change, and at the very least, the university is realizing ‘Hey we can make a plant do better when the season comes along that it works on all cylinders firing,’ and we can show that we can have big growth and much more potential.”

Youth Movement

Much has been reported about the demographic shifts taking place on North American farms, as the next generation gradually establishes themselves as the farmers of the future.

This transition is represented in this year’s analysis of the ages and experience levels of strip-tillers. While 41.6% of respondents reported being at least 55 years old, it’s the smallest percentage in the history of the study, including an all-time low of 13.8% for those strip-tillers 65 and over.

It’s possible the ag economy has prompted some strip-tillers to modify long-term plans for their operation, possibly passing along decision-making power to offspring or younger managers. This could correlate to an increase in the percentage of strip-tillers under 45 years old who participated in the study.

Some 38.5% of respondents were under 45 — the highest total in the history of the study — including a 4-year growth trend in those strip-tillers 35-44 years old.

But the age shift could also represent a new wave of farmers practicing strip-till. Some 42% of respondents have been strip-tilling less than 5 years, tying the highest total in the history of the study.

About 30% say they’ve been strip-tilling more than 10 years, tied for lowest historical total.

We’ll continue to see if strip-tillers continue to skew younger and more inexperienced, or if those numbers will flatten out if the new generation settles in to become long-term strip-tillers.

The Top 10%

Midwestern dominance was reinforced by the top 10% of strip-tillers participating in this year’s benchmark study, with 77.5% of the top strip-tillers were from either the Western Corn Belt (40%) or Eastern Corn Belt (37.5%).

Both percentages were consistent with the 2017 study, but 15% of last year’s top-yielding strip-tillers were in the Great Lakes region, and less than 1% were from those states this year. Interestingly, while the Northern and Southern Plains saw strip-till growth as a whole, less than 1% of the top strip-tillers were from those states.

On the state level, Illinois led the way with 10 representatives, double the total of the next two states combined — Nebraska (5) and Iowa (5). Overall though, 11 different states were represented among the top 10% of strip-tillers in the 2018 study.

Looking at the age breakdown, the majority (52.8%) of the highest yielding strip-tillers were under 45 years old, including 31% in the 35-44 range, more than double the total from last year’s study (15.4%).

This represents a dramatic shift year-over-year, with 69.2% of highest yielding strip-tillers in the 2017 study being at least 45 years old, including 46.1% who were 55 or older. Only 21.8% of respondents to the 2018 study were 55 or older, and less than 1% were 65 or older.

The range of experience for top-yielding strip-tillers also saw some significant changes, with 74.8% having strip-tilled 10 or fewer years, compared to 58.6% in last year’s study.

Some 42.8% of the top strip-tillers have been strip-tilling at least 11 years, including 10.2% for more than 20 years in last year’s study, compared to just 25% in the 2018 report.

Read: Corn Yields, Average Strip-Tilled Acres Continue to Climb

Read: Shifts in Row Unit Size, Setup & Timing of Strip-Building