Results of the 5th Annual Strip-Till Operational Practices Benchmark study, evaluating 2017 cropping practices, reinforce the value of idea-sharing opportunities embraced by strip-tillers 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 Strip-Till Farmer’s Summer 2018 issue print issue — we compare and contrast fertilization strategies, cover cropping techniques and technology strip-tillers are putting to work on their operation.
We crunched the numbers again on the top 10% of respondents by average corn yield (261 bushels per acre) and soybean yield (76 bushels per acre) to see what strategies are separating these strip-tillers from the pack.
As farmers dial into determining where and when to push or scale back on seeding rates, strip-tillers have — on average — consistently planted lower populations than no-tillers for both corn and soybeans.
2017 was no different, as results of this year’s 5th Annual Strip-Till Operational Practice Benchmark study continued the trend. Looking at corn seeding populations preferred by strip-tillers, the average increased slightly from 33,219 in 2016 to 33,494 last year. The 2017 average is generally consistent with those from 2015 (32,970) and 2014 (33,194).
Average corn seeding populations for strip-tillers increased for the second year in a row, while soybean planting populations dropped to their lowest average in the history of the study.
However, the 2017 average is about 2,000 seeds per acre higher than that of no-tillers (33,494) as reported in No-Till Farmer’s 10th Annual Operational Benchmark Study.
While strip-tilled corn seeding rates have been stable during the last 5 years, soybean planting populations have trended downward. Starting at an average of 152,154 seeds per acre in 2013, strip-tilled soybean rates fell in both 2014 (146,114) and 2015 (144,360) before modestly increasing in 2016 (144,360).
Though use of cover crops dipped slightly in 2017, the majority of strip-tillers still utilize them as part of their system. The most popular seeding method is drilling them in with 44% of respondents preferring this method.
Last year, the average dropped by nearly 4,000 seeds to a low of 140,368. This represents a cumulative decrease of nearly 12,000 seeds per acre in the 5-year history of the study.
Ryegrass saw a jump in use by strip-tillers, while cereal rye remained the most popular cover crop, but also saw the biggest year-over-year drop by more than 7 points.
This year’s total was also about 5,000 seeds per acre lower than the average planted by no-tillers (145,225) in 2017 according to the No-Till Farmer benchmark study.
There has been more discussion and interest in narrow-row or even 60-inch row strip-till, and there could also be momentum for twin-row strip-till. Some 6.6% of benchmark study respondents said they twin-row strip-tilled in 2017 — a 5-year high.
While still a small percentage, it will be worth watching to see if some innovative and modified strip-till methods emerge in the coming years.
Cover crops continue to be an essential part of many no-tillers’ farming operations. Recent years have also seen growing interest among strip-tillers in experimenting with and incorporating different mixes and seeding methods to achieve desired results.
Adoption had been on a steady incline for the past 3 years, with several varieties gaining popularity. There were, however, a few subtle changes in 2017, including for the first time a modest decline in cover crop usage among strip-tillers.
The percentage fell about 5 points from a high of 61.2% in 2016 to 56.9% last year, but this total is still ahead of those from 2015 (53.3%) and 2014 (48.4%). Comparing the data to the no-till benchmark study, no-tillers using cover crops continued to increase to a high of 82.9% in 2017, about a 6-point bump over 2016.
For the fourth year in a row, cereal rye topped the list of the most popular cover crop among strip-tillers, with 63% seeding this species. But the 2017 total represented a 7-point drop compared to 2016 and the lowest percentage since 2014 (60.2%).
Interestingly, cereal rye increased in popularity among no-tillers last year, with 73.8% raising the crop, compared to 62.1% in 2016.
The second most popular cover crop among strip-tillers also saw the second biggest decline in usage in 2017, with 46.4% seeding radishes in 2017 compared to 51.9% in 2016.
The biggest gain came in strip-tillers raising annual ryegrass, from 32.1% in 2016 to 38.7% last year. However, the total is still below the high of 46.6% in 2014. Other noteworthy declines included fewer strip-tillers seeding Austrian winter peas to a low of 6.1%, and a 5-point drop in those who raise rapeseed to 23.2% in 2017.
Strip-Tillers Increase Adoption of RTK and Take Flight with UAVs
John Deere maintained its stronghold as the most popular system by nearly a 2-to-1 margin over second place. Some 49.3% of strip-tillers utilized Deere systems, a record high in the history of the study.
Accuracy is an essential part of a strip-till system, for berm-building, fertilizer application and planting. Strip-tillers often speak of the consequences of seeding plants off the strip and the negative impact on corn yields.
The increasing emphasis on precision farming practices continued to bear out in 2017, with a record high 86.1% who used RTK-level correction GPS in their strip-till system. This marks a gradual 4-year increase of nearly 7 points, coinciding with a decline in strip-tillers relying on WAAS (5.2%), Glonass (4.9%) or no GPS correction signal (3.8%).
For the fourth year in a row, John Deere was the most popular brand of GPS guidance, with a record high 49.3% running the system in 2017. This was followed by Trimble (22.9%), Ag Leader (19.1%) and Case IH (12.5%).
On the rise was use of unmanned aerial vehicles as a technology tool from 22.1% in 2016 to 24.1% last year. This will continue to be a technology worth watching as aerial imagery becomes more valuable as an in-crop analytical tool to identify nutrient deficiencies.
Slightly fewer strip-tillers used implement guidance in 2017 (26.1%), compared to 2016 (27.5%), but both totals are well ahead of 2015 (17.8%) and 2014 (19.7%).
The Top 10%. Use of RTK was even more prominent among the top-yielding strip-tillers with 96.8% utilizing the GPS correction level in 2017. John Deere was the brand of choice among this group as well, albeit by a wider margin than the overall group, with 62.5% using the manufacturer’s GPS system.
One-quarter of the top strip-tillers ran implement guidance in 2017, down from a high of 37.5% in 2016, but still ahead of the 2015 total of 21.9%.
Use of UAVs by the top strip-tillers was consistent with the overall group, as 25% took flight with the technology last year.
Use of RTK-level GPS correction for strip-till operations increased to a record high of 86.1%, a more than 15% bump over 2013 data.
A new species added to the list this year included triticale, which 12.2% of strip-tillers seeded last year.
Array of Applications
In last year’s benchmark study, strip-tillers using cover crops were asked for the first time to select their method of seeding and the majority (45.5%) preferred drilling. The same was true in this year’s analysis, with 44.8% saying they drilled in their covers in 2017.
Use of a drill was also the most popular method for seeding cover crops by no-tillers last year (53.6%) according to the 10th annual No-Till Farmer Operational Benchmark study.
The second most popular seeding method among strip-tillers was aerial, at 24%, largely consistent with 2016 (26.7%), followed by spreading seeds at 18.6%, down about 5 points year-over-year.
Increasing in popularity was interseeding (14.8%), high-boy application (14.2%) and planter (8.7%). A new option added this year was seeding with a strip-till bar, and 4.9% chose this method in 2017.
The Top 10%
There were some dramatic differences in seeding and cover crop strategies between the top-yielding strip-tillers and the overall group in 2017.
The top 10% were far more aggressive with both their corn and soybean seeding rates, averaging 37,632 for corn, about 5,000 seeds-per-acre more than the overall group. For soybeans, it was 144,300 seeds, about 4,000 seeds-per-acre higher than the larger group.
Some 9.3% of the top-yielding strip-tillers utilized a twin-row system in 2017, slightly ahead of the overall group.
Cover crops were part of 65.5% of the top strip-tillers’ operations in 2017, about 5 points below this group’s 2016 total. Fewer top strip-tillers drilled in their cover crops, dropping from 60% in 2016 to 57.1% last year, but it remained the most popular seeding method.
Cereal rye proved to be the most popular species seeded by the top-yielding strip-tillers, at 57.1%, followed by ryegrass (47.6%), radishes (33.3%), oats (28.6%) and winter wheat (28.6%).