When Joe Brightly came home to the family farm in Hamlin, N.Y., in 2009 after graduating from college, he and his father, Dean, weighed whether they should replace an aging field cultivator and chisel plow with new ones.

Since Joe Brightly and his father, Dean, started strip-tilling 3 years ago, they've increased the corn acreage on their western New York farm from about 500-550 acres to about 850 acres.

Joe recommended reducing conventional tillage with their corn, soybeans and vegetables by switching to strip-till, and today, Brightly Farms uses strip-till for almost all of its crops — a lineup that includes corn, soybeans, cabbage, squash, snap beans, cucumbers and pumpkins. They also grow winter wheat and apples.

“You can’t pay me to go back to conventional tillage,” Brightly says. “Strip-tilling our crops is faster, it’s cheaper and it improves the soil quality. With strip-till, you can grow as good or better crop as with conventional tillage when it’s dry. And when it’s wet, you have much better drainage and you don’t rut the heck out of fields.”

Brightly estimates that strip-tilling corn cut tillage costs about 50%.

“Before, we would make an average of six passes, including planting and sidedressing,” he says. “Now, we do two or three, although we tend to spray more: The rule of thumb is one more sprayer pass instead of tillage pass. This is done in the form of a burndown before strip-tilling.”

The Brightlys farm flat, fertile fields a few miles miles south of Lake Ontario in western New York.

They spring strip-till because there’s typically little time to do so in the fall. And even if there was time to get into fields, Brightly says that applying nitrogen in the fall to fields so close to Lake Ontario could create water-quality problems.

Breaking Through

Brightly strip-tilled corn for the first time in 2010. To break up the plowpan in fields, he ran the knives on the strip-till rig about 14 inches deep. He could only run about 2 mph because the compaction created a great deal of resistance.

“Think of the plowpan as the bottom of a cast iron tub,” Brightly says. “Once you break through the bottom, then you can let water go through. Today, we run the knives 8 to 12 inches deep, depending on the crop we plant. We go 8 to 10 inches deep in the strip for corn, and place the fertilizer 6 to 8 inches deep. For vegetables, we’ll run the knives deeper.”

After using one strip-till machine in 2010, Brightly switched to a Krause Gladiator 12-row rig with 30-inch spacings.

“We switched to the Krause because it is a simple machine to use and adjust,” he says. “It makes nice berms and allows a great deal of adjusting to create the perfect bed in varying conditions.”

Growing More Corn

The holes in this field, which was planted to corn in the spring, were created by the radishes that Joe Brightly seeded in 2011 to mimic the tillage that knives or coulters on a strip-till rig make.

In the early to mid-1800s, farmers grew so much wheat in the area that Rochester, N.Y., was known as the “Flour City” because of the many mills, Brightly says. These days, you’re more likely to see seemingly countless fields of corn in Upstate New York.

“There is still a good amount of wheat grown in the area, but corn has really taken off in the past 5 years due to high prices throughout the U.S.,” Brightly says. “And an ethanol plant came on board around the same time, which really pushed corn acreage in western New York this year.”

The Brightlys have about 850 acres of corn, up from 500 to 550 acres several years ago. They plant hybrids ranging in maturity from 90 to 105 days, but most are 96- to 100-day hybrids. Depending on the field, he plants 34,000 to 36,000 seeds per acre. For a field that’s near a gravel pit, he plants 29,000 per acre.

Unless there are ruts in the field left by harvesting vegetables, Brightly does not make passes with a vertical-tillage tool. For fields that will be planted with corn, he likes to start strip-tilling ground April 15. This year, he began planting corn on May 6.

“When it’s warm or wet or there are any adverse conditions — especially on tough soils — having the planter following the strip-tiller is essential,” Brightly says. “Many times in warm, dry conditions, we are in the same field with the strip-tiller and the planter. Often in the spring, the soil is slightly damp. Allowing the berm to dry up a bit for half a day to a day is ideal after strip-tilling and before planting.”

When they started strip-tilling in 2010, the Brightlys also began using auto-steer in 2010.

“Using RTK has opened up many doors that were expected and unexpected,” Brightly says. “It is very important to be on the strip when planting, especially with weaker crops like squash.”

Joe Brightly says they use a Krause Gladiator strip-till rig because it's simple to use and to adjust for the many crops they grow and it because it makes nice berms

They pull the Krause Gladiator strip-till rig with a 9882 New Holland tractor with 425 horsepower. As he strip-tills, Brightly applies 30 gallons per acre of liquid fertilizer consisting of 27 gallons of 28% nitrogen, 1 gallon of Black Label and 2 gallons of water.

Brightly plants corn with a 12-row Case IH 1250 planter on 30-inch spacings pulled with a Case Puma 210. The planter is equipped with Yetter Sharktooth floating row cleaners and Yetter Viper coulters to band fertilizer. Brightly applies 20 gallons per acre of 28% liquid nitrogen with the planter in a 2-by-2-inch placement.

He also applies 4 gallons per acre of 10-34-0 and 2 gallons per acre of Black Label with the planter. The latter is a 6-22-0 fertilizer and humic acid liquid fertilizer.

“We used 30% liquid nitrogen and then switched 2 years ago because of the ammonium thiosulfate in 28%,” Brightly says. “For corn‑ and almost everything for that matter — we apply fertilizer with the strip-tiller and the planter. In the future I’d like to investigate adding a sidedress pass, if it is worth it. That is, will the yield offset the cost of running across the field an additional time?”

The Brightlys’ corn yields have stayed the same or improved since they began strip-till 3 years ago.

“It’s very difficult to quantify, since the past few years we’ve seen both the most ideal conditions and the complete opposite,” Brightly says. “But in general, yields are not worse and if anything, they are better.”

Role For Cover Crops

Brightly sells Tillage Radish and other cover crops for Cover Crop Solutions and has been experimenting with seeding radishes and other crops for 4 years.

In the August 2011, he tried “bio strip-tilling” for the first time. The intent of “bio strip-tilling” with radish is to mimic the tillage of the knives or coulters on a strip-till rig. The idea is that the voids left by the radishes after they die and decompose will be similar to the strip that’s tilled by a strip-till machine.

“You can’t pay me to go back to conventional tillage. Strip-tilling our crops is faster, it’s cheaper and it improves the soil quality...”

Brightly seeded radish on 30-inch rows at a rate of 2 to 2½ pounds per acre, which is 50,000 to 55,000 seeds.

“I used a corn planter with discs that had a 2-millimeter hole and 60 cells,” he says. “A sugar-beet disc works. I used cucumber plates. After that, I broadcast 1 bushel of oats and 1 bushel of Austrian winter peas per acre along with 200 pounds per acre of potash.

“I would like to have a grass with a fibrous root system like oats, so we cover more than one level of the soil. Radishes go deep with a taproot and a grass crop tends to be shallower with a fibrous root system.”

Last spring, Brightly planted corn in this “bio strip-tilled” field, where the decomposed radishes left holes.

Brightly says the important lesson he learned was to plant corn in the loosened soil near the holes that the radishes left, but not into them. He found gaps in the rows where corn was planted into the voids, but did not emerge.

Future Goals

After 3 years of strip-tilling, Brightly has fixed his sights on three goals.

“I would like to band all of the fertilizer for the corn and the vegetables, either applying dry fertilizer with an air cart like a Montag, or liquid, when I strip-till in the spring,” he says. “I also want to continue working with bio strip-till with the Tillage Radishes and I really want to refine strip-till for cabbage.”

Strip-tilling cabbage would require another strip-till machine, along with an air cart for fertilizer delivery, that would be specifically set up for cabbage. This strip-till rig might also be integrated into other vegetable production, Brightly says.

He also wants to see which cover crops work best in each field, whether it’s using wheat, cereal rye or a mix of cover crops like the Tillage Radish and Austrian winter peas.

“I am always dabbling with cover crops,” he says. “I am interested in sunn hemp and phacelia, which I haven’t tried yet.

Three years of strip-tilling have given Brightly plenty of perspective.

“We have had many highs and lows from directly seeing benefits and rewards of the new practices,” he says. “But they also have come with headaches. Anytime you try something new you have to plan on setbacks, but I would say the frustrations and second-guessing by other people — and yourself — are easily outweighed by the benefits.”