I actually tried no-till when I came home from the University of Illinois in 1973, and it gave my neighbors a good laugh because we were way ahead of the curve. I rented an Allis Chalmers “no-till planter” from the conservation department. 

When I took over the farm in 1994, we went to strip-till and we’re still do, but we don’t apply any dry fertilizer or anhydrous. We run a 12-row Redball strip-till unit in the fall for tillage, but we’re applying fertilizer with our 12-row John Deere 7200 planter, sidedress bar and Hagie sprayer for a foliar feeding. 

With our CSP plan, we don’t put any phosphorus (P) on top of our ground. It has to be incorporated and cover crops are a main part of that system, too. It’s been my feeling since I started with strip-till that I didn’t really like bulk spreading fertilizer with all of its salt, the unevenness, and not getting the nutrients in the root zone. 

The whole idea is getting it right there, so we use a dry soluble, low-salt fertilizer in-furrow with a full complement of humates and biologicals and dry humates applied in furrow through the insecticide boxes on the planter. We apply nitrogen (N), humics and sulfur in a 2-by-2-by-2-inch system. 

Corn, especially at V5 stage, is when it decides what yield to shoot for. If it’s got all the nutrients there it’s looking around in a cold soil it might say “Hey, I’m in the land of milk and honey, I’m going to go for 600 bushels.” 

ROI keeps me in business. The best corn I’ve ever raised was about 284 bushels per acre and in 2014, but I will put ROI up against anyone. We have hit 80-bushel soybeans, and we’re working on blowing past that, but in an economic way. We have customers with our nutrient management business who are getting higher yields, but more important to me is the return on investment. 

Mix & Match Bio-Benefits

I like strip-till and no-till  because those systems disturb less microbes. Microbes have a “Dracula complex” and don’t like sunlight. They don’t like to be exposed and hate having their houses torn up every year with deep tillage. They develop symbiotic relationships among themselves and whenever you till the soil, you break up those relationships.

One product we’re really excited about is a vermicompost tea. This compost is actually made from organic dairy manure from 5 organic dairies. It’s lightly composted to control the temperature and not burn up a lot of the microbes. The product is then run through worms, which can concentrate by 7 times the nutrient density in there, while still maintaining the microbial activity.

We ship the compost product in, and I bought a tea brewer that is a 500 gallon “hot tub” with 16 bubblers in it. I drop in 4 cannisters with about 20 pounds in each and then add 9 pounds of a carbohydrate food source as a catalyst, and bubble it for 18-24 hours.

When our agronomist first tested it under a microscope, he thought he could identify between 350 -1,000 different families of colony-forming fungal units, and we thought that was really good. But another DNA analysis was done and found to have 4,000 distinct families of colony-forming fungal units.

We are using the compost tea in furrow, in foliar applications and in our residue digester program. When it comes out of the batch and we strain it, it has about 92% aerobes and 8% anaerobes. But if we let is sit for a while without oxygen, a lot of aerobes die and the anaerobes increase.  


TEAING OFF. Strip-tiller Larry Tombaugh invested in vermicompost tea, a biological stimulant which simmers in a 500 gallon hot tub with 16 bubblers in it for 18-24 hours. When it comes out of the batch and he strains it, it has a bout 92% aerobic bacteria and microbes, and 8% anaerobes.

We are only applying about 2 gallons per acre, but we need get it on within 48-60 hours. That is a major concern for “bugs in a jug” products. A Washington study of 100 samples from around the country showed that 90% arrived DOA.

When applying a residue digester, we actually let it sit a little because anaerobes are the ones that tear down the residue like corn stalks. There is such a high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio that one has to add more N. Otherwise, the microbes are going to rob it out of the soil.

UAN and 10-34-0 kill 100% of the microbes in compost tea. Roundup only kills about 25%, but if left standing in a tank for several days, the surviving microbes will completely neutralize the Roundup. For our residue digester program, we won’t combine the tea with the N, but we’ll still apply N, humic acid, sugar and water for a total mix of about 10 gallons per acre.  


Stirring Up Biological Benefits

Streator, Ill., strip-tiller Larry Tombaugh took Strip-Till Farmer editors into his farm “laboratory” to discuss some biological solutions he’s experimenting with on his corn and soybean operation, including Compost Tea, a biological soil stimulant which has 4,000 different strains of colony forming fungal units. Visit www.StripTillFarmer.com/Tombaugh to see the video.

When we put humates in the soil, they have the ability to break the clay particle bonds that are tying up some of the N, P, K and magnesium in the soil. We apply the biologicals separately.

For our mollisol prairie soils, we have about 9,000 pounds to the acre of N. So, why are we adding more N? If the air is 65% N, why can’t we just harvest it? Some plants can and more will be developed. Humates feed the microbes to harvest nutrients from the soil and the residue. 

One other component that comes out of the humic acid is fulvic acid, which is used in chemotherapy. It has a small molecular value, and it can take medicine right through the cell wall, but it also does that for nutrients and herbicides. We’ve had instances where we’ve had just two-tenths of an ounce of fulvic added to a full rate of Roundup PowerMax herbicide, and it took out 4-foot tall water hemp in 3-foot tall soybeans with no yellow flash.

We’re applying a combination in-furrow in the starter package I use on my planter that has about 10 components. One yield test in 2018 with a 2-gallons per acre compost tea application yielded a 6.2 bushel increase on soybeans at R3 and cost me about $5 per acre. My tests with 10-15 pounds per acre of dry humate in-furrow through the insecticide boxes yielded a 5.2-5.8 bushel soybean increase for about $5 per acre. Any time I can spend $5-$6 and get a $40 or $50 return, I’m all over it.

Keep Faith in Your Crop

Looking at the 2019 crop year, we think farmers who gave up on their crop found that their crop gave up on them. We had a number of customers that had all the right things going, but did not respond as the season changed. 

Now they are saying, “Wow, my corn has a lot smaller girth than it usually has.” I ask them what they did after the spring, and, oftentimes, the response is, “Well, nothing because we applied all of our N up front.” The truth is that they lost most of that.  

My wife, Kathy, thinks I have an ongoing affair with a gal named Hagie because many nights I was out in the field spraying rescue treatments until about 10:30 pm. We’re applying biologicals and microbes when and where the crop needs them, and we’re hoping to make a difference. 

Tissue tests tell a lot. Boron is essential and actually opens the stomata for late potassium (K) feeding. Secondary (adventitious) roots are a sign of trouble. They act like stents when the plant is short of water and nutrients and the phloem is plugged. Corn plants can regulate P and K, but not N. Corn goes hog wild, and excess N plugs the phloem.


Being Choosy but Comprehensive with Planter Performance and Fertilizer Application

While Larry Tombaugh is constantly experimenting with different nutrient combinations, he also seeks improvement with its application. This includes extensive modifications to his 1994 12-row John Deere 7200 planter with the help of Bottom Line Solutions to sufficiently cover his 440 strip-tilled corn and soybean acres on his Streator, Ill., operation. 

Front-to-back, Tombaugh has updated  or enhanced almost every part of the implement. On the row units, he’s modified the Martin spike wheels to accommodate the soft soils on the farm. 

Tombaugh points out that he can pull up a corn stalk in December with 24 inches of roots. “We didn’t want to run too aggressively, so we cut the spike wheels down to about 1¾ inches and welded a ½ inch rebar around it to act as a treader wheel,” he says. “We’ve got spikes on one side and then rubber wheels on the other side. This works in covers and different tillage.”

The units also feature Yetter Mfg. Dual 2968 coulters for 2-by-2-by-2-inch fertilizer placement system. “Randy Dowdy cost me a lot of money a few years ago,” Tombaugh jokes.  “I had a 2-by-2-inch system, and he said I needed to switch to the 2-by2-by-2 system so application is even on each side of the plants and the roots are formed evenly.”

In 2019, he added Precision Planting vSet seed meters (replacing eSets), Delta Force automated down force system (replacing AirForce), Clean Sweep, RowFlow electric motors on both the seed boxes and the insecticide boxes. 

“We got new seed boxes which allows us in the future to put the divider in and have multiple hybrid capabilities,” Tombaugh says. “We also put electric clutches in the insecticide boxes. We haven’t used insecticide for a number of years now, but we do apply dry humates.  Now, we can variable-rates or do test plots easier.”

In the  2-by-2-by-2 system, Tombaugh applies about 18 gallons per acre of 28% UAN 1, gallon per acre of 12% humic, and 2 gallons per acre of ammonium thiosulfate. “We really believe in having a little bit of N early, but I don’t want it in the row,” he says. “We’re really big believers in trying to protect the biology in the soil and what we are adding.”

Tombaugh says he found an economic advantage in applying 10-15 pounds of a medium grained dry humate right in the row at planting. “That expenditure of about $5 an acre has returned about $45 per acre,” he says.

Tombaugh also added reduced diameter press wheels, TFC serrated coulters, Totally Tubular fertilizer tubes in the row, Keeton seed firmers and drag chains. 

“We’re applying a fertilizer cocktail in the row that has about 10 different products in it,” Tombaugh says. “We’re putting the compost tea, dry soluble fertilizer, concentrated seawater biological, a seaweed biological, sugar, fulvic and humic acid, essential oils and some proprietary products that we have.” 

Full-year nutrient feeding is important. There are a lot of misconceptions about that approach. Beck’s, in their annual reports, says the best time to do foliar is 8 a.m., but we haven’t found that to be true. Michigan State did some tests 25-30 years ago, and they found that plants absorb for only 25-45 seconds at a time. You don’t want to apply a foliar application with 15-20 gallons of water.  

The plant needs the nutrient load, not the water. Instead, we are looking to mix a 3-7 gallon per acre load to have a higher concentration of nutrients and biologicals. Timing is critical.  

Plants harvest sunlight in the morning and process sugars in the afternoon, when they need those nutrients. The best time is when the ambient temperature has dropped at least 5 degrees, but before the dew comes in. Overcast skies are even better.

Case in point, we treat about 500,000 pounds of edible beans for Jack’s Beans in Holyoke, Colo. They asked us to do a foliar application on 160-acre center pivots right across the road from each other. At 7:30 pm, they did the first field application. 

The second field was supposed to be the next night, but the farm manager came by about 10:30 a.m. and found the spray rig pulling out of the second field. He asked why they were out there so early and the operator told him he had a gap in his schedule, so he was able to get the field done early.
All of the costs were the same. At harvest they found that the first field with the night application yielded 600 pounds per acre more at $0.50 per pound or a total of $300 per acre difference.