Twenty years after inventing the Corn Belt’s version of the strip-till rig, Richard Follmer shares a few of the practice’s advantages and must-do tips and techniques.
If you haven’t heard of Richard Follmer, just know that you’ve probably used a version of his invention if you’ve used a strip-till unit recently. The owner of Progressive Farm Products in Hudson, Ill., invented the midmount, dual-placement strip-till toolbar that is being used by thousands of Corn Belt farmers.
Honored as a No-Till Innovator at the 2009 National No-Tillage Conference, Follmer’s more than two decades of strip-tilling has taught him a thing or two. During the 2009 event, he shared his insight on how to make the best use of strip-tillage — what works and what will help make producers more profitable.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that not everyone does things the same way in strip-till,” Follmer says. “Depending on where you live, the soil types you have, climate or rainfall pattern, what you do will make a difference in how you are going to make strips in your operation.”
1. Sidewall smearing is not as common a problem in strip-till.
“What you want is for the roots to go straight down in the strip,” Follmer says. “So there’s no real need for roots to move sideways to seek shallow-planed broadcast fertilizers.”
Follmer says that when he started developing strip-till equipment, producers laid down a residue carpet on the bean field.
SPLIT CORN ROWS. When strip-tilling corn-on-corn acreage, build strips down the center of the previous crop’s rows to reduce plugging of row units and compaction.
“The problem was when you went to no-till corn in the spring, it wasn’t warm and it definitely wasn’t dry underneath,” he says.
While some no-tillers added coulters to the front of the planter, they simply didn’t do a good job of drying out the soil, Follmer says.
“Coulters in front of the planter are only about 4 feet away before you drop the seed,” he says. “You don’t get much of a warming or drying effect when you till the ground and 4 feet later you put seed in. That’s about half a second, so the ground doesn’t get much opportunity to warm and dry.”
In fields that were strip-tilled, the strips produced a warm, dry seedbed.
“Our goal was to get a root system going down,” Follmer says. “We saw early on a definite advantage with some of the strip-till equipment.”
2. Never plant in dual tracks.
“One advantage we have seen with strip-till is that we never plant corn in dual tracks. With strip-tillage, it’s basically controlled traffic,” Follmer says. “We lay out our strips, and our tire tracks are between the 30-inch rows. When we come back to plant, we plant right on the strip.”
Follmer says his neighbors travel over the field multiple times with cultivators and soil finishers.
“They run around on an angle, they run straight, they run in all directions,” he says. “A lot of corn in that application is planted in dual tracks, but in strip-till, we never plant a kernel in duals. That means no compaction.”
3. Strip-till is environmentally sound.
“I believe a lot of the environmentalists in Washington D.C. like strip-till because it’s environmentally sound,” Follmer says. “We have improved water quality because we’re using half the rate of phosphorus and potassium than we did when we broadcast.
“We’re also using less nitrogen. And because of that, there’s been a lot of talk in Washington about using strip-till from an environmental point of view.”
From the conservation side, Follmer says that producers using strip-till are only tilling about one-third of the soil. “I think that’s really important because you’ve got two-thirds of the soil, roughly 20 inches of a 30-inch row, that is undisturbed.”
4. You’ll save fuel.
“Strip-till uses less fuel because you make fewer trips over the field,” Follmer says. “You get rid of the chisel plow, the field cultivator and several other tools by combining a lot of operations into one.”
5. You can control where you go.
When strip-tilling in continuous corn, Follmer suggests laying out new strips between old rows rather than going back on top of the old ones.
“This reduces plugging of the row units,” Follmer says. “Also, driving on top of last year’s corn rows reduces compaction.
“I believe that you should put the strips in a continuous cornfield right between last year’s corn rows. The stalk butts create a mattress effect and they limit compaction.”
6. There’s fertilizer savings to be had.
“We’ve seen a lot of our customers go to half or less than half of their phosphorus and potassium requirements than what they were broadcasting,” Follmer says. “That’s very important financially.”
Also, producers are reducing the rate of nitrogen, he says.
“Many strip-tillers are using three-quarters of a pound per bushel of corn produced. Why? Because when you go to root-zone banding, which is what strip-till is compared to broadcast, you have your fertilizer more contained within zones of the soil,” he says. “That means a lot less fixation problems, more breakdown of the fertilizer by microbial bacteria and you concentrate fertilizer in a zone where the roots go very quickly.”
Follmer does not use starter fertilizer in his operation.
“We haven’t seen a significant increase in yield, so we took starter off the planter. It’s one less thing to worry about,” Follmer says. “There are too many things to be thinking about during planting. If you get bogged down in other things, you may actually forget to check things like planter depth, which is much more important.”
Follmer provided an example of the fertilizer savings in his area of central Illinois.
“Last fall, phosphorus and potassium broadcast in our area was $220 an acre,” he says. “On the strip-till program, our customers are doing half of that in dry. That’s more than $100 savings at $220.
“Here’s the best deal about this when you think about it mathematically. If you buy a $75,000 strip-till rig, that sounds like a lot of money. It’s like buying a corn planter. But it takes only 750 acres of corn at these savings to make the unit pay for itself.”
7. Spring strip-till might make sense.
When applying anhydrous ammonia, Follmer says it’s a lot easier to do it in the fall since you greatly reduce the risk of root burn. But on his farm, all of the strips are done in the spring.
“The reason is because we started using 28% nitrogen and it’s prohibitive to do that in the fall in our area. We used to start applying phosphorus and potassium in the fall for strips, but then we’d have to make a second trip in the spring to put the nitrogen on.
“When fuel started getting expensive, we decided to quit doing it.”
So Follmer needed to double-up in one trip.
“What we do is put phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen all in the same trip through the field,” he says. “We use a product from Carbo-Tech called 2-16-14. We put that on at a rate of 15 gallons to the acre. Then we put on roughly 25 to 30 gallons of 28%.”
Follmer uses some ammonium sulfate in the fall.
“We get it as a byproduct. We started applying that in the fall because we needed sulfur. Along with that comes 6% nitrogen. So, we put on some of our nitrogen in January, but the bulk is put on in the spring strips,” he says.
8. Equipment decisions are key to success.
Follmer’s goal is to grow 250- to 300-bushel corn. He says plant population and fertility aren’t the only factors to control in reaching that goal. Another is equipment.
“We have learned a lot from the growers we work with,” Follmer says. “A lot of producers use dry or liquid fertilizer and plow it down along with anhydrous.
“I think you are missing a tremendous opportunity to save money, which helps pay for equipment.
“For strip-tilling, you need to look at dual-placement equipment and try to do phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen placement all at the same time.”
Follmer says it’s critical that equipment puts strips down at least 6 to 8 inches deep so fertilizer and nitrogen is below the seed zone.
“One advantage we have seen with strip-till is that we never plant corn in dual tracks ...”
“You can’t afford to have fertilizer where seed is placed due to root burn and other problems,” he says. “Our company builds five different row units. We offer a lot of ways to adjust things, because we want to ensure we maintain that depth of fertilizer.
“We like to have it at least 4 inches from the seed that we’re going to follow and plant a day or 2 later or hopefully within a week.”
9. Differ mound size by season.
Follmer recommends that when strip-tilling in the fall, producers need to build a mound about 8 to 12 inches wide and 4 to 5 inches high. In the spring, they should build a more shallow mound.
“In the fall, we recommend a mole knife because it can lift the soil and build a better mound,” he says. “We do not use a mole knife in the spring because we have found that it is too aggressive.
“We like to use a standard anhydrous knife. It’s actually a little thinner, but it does not disturb or leave an air pocket underneath, which can ruin germination.”
10. Use rolling baskets in the spring.
“I’ve worked with strip-till for 20 years, and I’ve seen the devastation of what a basket can do in the fall if you don’t know what you’re doing,” says Follmer, who recommends rolling baskets only in the spring to help break up clods.
He says the use of rolling baskets in the fall can leave divots in the strip the next spring. The divots can fill with water. That requires an expensive rescue treatment to get the soil ready for planting.
11. The equipment train doesn’t work.
Follmer warns of “pulling a train” through your field.
“You know what I’m talking about — a tractor, liquid or dry fertilizer, a toolbar and an anhydrous tank. I’ve seen trains 90 feet long from the front of 4-wheel-drive tractors,” Follmer says. “But this amount of equipment is very difficult to keep straight, especially if there is any slope to a field.”
He recalls seeing a long train in a field that was relatively flat. However, the toolbar overlapped in places by 4 feet or more.
“And here’s the funny thing about it that alarmed me — that tractor had automatic guidance on it and it was RTK,” he says. “The toolbar didn’t realize there was guidance on the tractor, nor did it care. Too many hitch pins hooked in the train makes the thing wag. It’s the tail wagging the dog.”
The other problem, Follmer says, is that the toolbar has a tendency to move away from the resistance, meaning it’s constantly moving side to side.
“The way to do it is to have it hooked up to one unit that does everything,” Follmer says. “We’ve come up with toolbars that the tank and the fertilizer — liquid or dry — run behind and the toolbar is in front so you can see all the row units.
“We have large stainless-steel tanks to carry our liquid and 28%. But we have the weight in the back. We never raise the load, only the row units.”