PLANTING PLANNER. Kent, Ill., strip-tiller Seth Wenzel applies most of the fertilizer on the corn on their 4,000-acre operation in one pass. Their primary planter is a 24-row John Deere 1775 with ExactEmerge row units “Wherever we don’t use a pop-up fertilizer application, we take a yield hit,” Wenzel says. “Three to four gallons per acre has been kind of a sweet spot for us.”
For the past 6 years, Seth Wenzel and his father, Brian, have been transitioning to strip-tilled corn on their 4,000-acre farm near Kent, in northwest Illinois. Wenzel maintains a consistent corn and soybean rotation with approximately two-thirds of his acreage planted with corn annually.
The family farm has long no-tilled their soybeans, but had used a conventional tillage program that included chisel plowing and cultivating for their corn. Although the learning curve has been steep in some spots, says Wenzel, one of the biggest challenges to adopting strip-tilling was just taking the first few steps into the practice.
“Change is hard,” he says. “There’s that convention of having to do things a certain way. When comparing conventional tillage to the first year or two where we were doing corn-on-corn strip-till, there were places where the crop didn’t look so healthy. But our minds changed when we started looking at yields.”
The first indications that the transition was paying off came in the form of the immediate savings. Before switching to strip-till, Wenzel would often have to arrange for up to 3 tillage passes on his fields.
“Take the Iowa state custom rate of $30 per acre to chisel plow — by not chisel plowing, we’re saving that amount,” Wenzel says. “We’re also not cultivating so that’s another $15 per acre in rough numbers. So even without any yield advantages it’s about $45 per acre savings.”
At first, yields were keeping pace with old conventional tillage practices.
“When we started strip-tilling into our soybean stubble, wherever we didn’t plant into the strip it was a 10- to 15-bushel spread right away……”
– Seth Wenzel
“We’d look at the yield monitor and we’d ask each other, ‘Would that have paid to do chisel plowing?’ Wenzel says. “No, because the field next to it was chiseled plowed and we got the same darn yield.”
At the very beginning, Wenzel says they strip-tilled about 60 acres of corn-on-corn for a side-by-side comparison. Each year since, they’ve continued to add acres to the point where now the chisel plow only rolls out of the shed to handle some troublesome end rows or heavy compaction.
Beyond maintaining corn yields, Wenzel says he’s starting to see them climb now. Understanding that some yield increases are likely a result of ever improving seed genetics, Wenzel is still convinced strip-tilling has played a role, especially in some of his fields with marginal soils. Some of his “poorer” fields that would historically yield 170 to 180 bushels per acre are now edging up toward 200.
“On the low end, we’re seeing anywhere from a 5- to 10-bushel yield advantage and on the high end. 15- to 20 on our corn-on-corn,” he says. “The biggest indicator for us was when we started strip-tilling into our soybean stubble, wherever we didn’t plant into the strip it was a 10- to 15-bushel spread right away.”
Initially renting a strip-till rig from a local co-op, Wenzel soon tired of winding up with a different bar each time. Buying a used strip-till rig became the “economical approach.”
“We bought an old 24-row DB60 bar with Redball strip-till units,” he says. “The row units were fairly worn, but six years later, it still works. We’ve added an NH3 Equaply system to it for anhydrous application. Right now, we’re doing only anhydrous in the strip, and are not applying dry fertilizer.”
Wenzel uses the 24-row strip-till unit and applies anhydrous in the fall over soybean ground. He will strip-till corn acres going back into corn in the spring using the same bar as well as a smaller 12-row Case IH NTX5310 strip-till bar with factory row units, applying anhydrous through a Raven dual-cooler setup.
The total anhydrous application usually ticks in at around 160 pounds per acre on soybean stubble and 200 pounds per acre on corn-on-corn fields, Wenzel says.
“If we are building strips in the fall, we try to build them as high as we can,” he adds. “We even take the rolling baskets off the unit for the strips built in the fall. They settle quite a bit over the winter.”
In the spring, they apply most of the fertilizer and seed corn in one pass. Their primary planter is a 24-row John Deere 1775 with ExactEmerge row units. A Deere 2630 display controls the main planter functions, while an Ag Leader InCommand 1200 controls the RTK-level correction guidance, in-furrow starter fertilizer application and a 2-inch-by-2-inch starter application.
They also apply ammonium polyphosphate (10-34-0) or a starter fertilizer package (6-24-6) in-furrow and 32% nitrogen (N) in a 2-inch-by-2-inch application from the seed.
“We have found, wherever we don’t use the pop-up, we take a yield hit,” Wenzel says. “Three to four gallons per acre has been kind of a sweet spot for us and we’ve been very happy with it.”
Wenzel knows that concern over a large initial investment in equipment can have farmers second guessing a switch to strip-till. However, he believes that farmers can be thrifty with some careful shopping.
“You don’t have to go out and spend $3,000 per row, plus a new bar to get going,” he says. “Our Case IH bar we bought used for around $12,500 and we added the Ag Leader control system. I understand to do strip-till properly, there’s concerns about guidance and RTK and there’s an expense there, but you don’t have to go out and get a huge loan to get started with strip till.”
Costs associated with guidance and precision can often add up quickly, Wenzel admits, but for him they’ve been easy to justify because of savings.
A Shock to the Soil – New Tool Electrically Stabilizes N
A believer that innovative farmers should be trying something new on their farms every year, Seth Wenzel’s Kent, Ill., farm is one of the select few running an experimental nitrogen (N) stabilizing prototype system called Stable’N.
The Stable’N system was developed several years ago by engineer/farmer Bryan Tomm of Carmi, Ill. The principle behind the system is using an electrically charged coulter to deliver high-voltage pulses to the soil that sterilizes or weakens bacteria with the intent of slowing down nitrification. The hope is that the implement can eventually reduce or eliminate the use of more traditional chemical N inhibitors.
Noting that his personal experience with Stable’N is still limited, Wenzel is optimistic about its potential.
“The goal is to stabilize N and make it available for the crop when it needs it later in the growing cycle,” Wenzel says. “By electrically sterilizing the soil to kill bacteria, and potentially nematodes too, we may not need to use chemical stabilizers as much, or at all.”
Last spring, Wenzel ran the system intermittently over approximately 500 acres attached to his 12-row Case IH NTX5310 strip-till bar with Case IH row units. The electrical charge is run through the lead coulters on each row unit, Wenzel explains.
“There is a control module for each row that generates the electrical field,” he says. “There is a standard 12-volt electrical generator that simply charges a battery on the bar.”
If Stable’N works as intended, Wenzel says he would realize an immediate savings of up to $10 per acre by not having to purchase chemical stabilizers plus any resulting yield boost. Assessing the effectiveness is something Wenzel says will take a few years. To gather data, he’ll be looking directly at yield.
“We have several fields where we did side-by-sides,” he says. “We’d have the system wired to an Ag Leader Application Rate Module so it actually logs it in the background as a separate product. It’s kind of treated as two separate implements — the strip-till bar and Stable’N. The goal this fall when we take it to yield, will actually be to overlay where we used it to pull some comparisons.”
“Our 24-row strip-till bar needed a little work when we bought it, so it ran us about $60,000 total,” says Wenzel. “Adding the NH3 system added an extra $25,000 or so. I admit these are two large investments, but looking back on the yield advantages, fuel savings and labor savings we’ve seen, I would argue that we’ve easily paid for the bar and then some over six years.”
Pleased with the return on investment, Wenzel plans next to consider adding an implement steering option to his setup. “We’re happy with how RTK is working, but we’re at the point where we might invest in implement steering,” he says. “We’re heavily invested in Ag Leader hardware and currently they don’t have a factory-supported option for that.
“There’s a couple third party vendors that could integrate with Ag Leader that we might try, but it’s not cheap. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s next on our radar.”