When I shared our no-till experiences at the 2004 National No-Tillage Conference, we had just made a serious shift from a corn-soybean rotation to. After 5 years, we’ve learned a lot about growing corn on corn. Now we’re evaluating new technology that will take our strip-till operation to the “next level,” as I reported in Indianapolis during the 2009 event.

Our target is consistent 250-bushel continuous corn in the next 5 to 10 years. At some point, we’ll set a 300-bushel-per-acre goal.

A brief history of our no-till operation emphasizes an important lesson to new no-tillers: Success doesn’t come overnight. But if you pay attention to details, no-till or strip-till has the potential for higher yields in rotated or continuous corn and more profitability than any other tillage method.

And at the same time, no-till or strip-till can lead you to fun, soil-saving and even moneymaking conservation and wildlife-enhancement activities.

NO-TILL PIONEERS

We were among the first in Logan County, Ill., to try no-till. That was in 1982, when we typically planted corn into tilled soybean and wheat stubble. More years than not, strong spring winds carrying loose topsoil cut off the young corn plants like a shotgun blast.

We thought we might see yield drag with no-till, so we were careful to make side-by-side comparisons with conventional tillage those first years. Well, as many other no-tillers have seen, we not only maintained yields, but no-till was more profitable thanks to lower equipment costs and less tractor time in the field.

MODIFIED PLANTERS

We didn’t make any drastic changes when we switched to no-till. Row cleaners were our first add-on, and later we also added spiked closing wheels, Keeton seed firmers and drag chains on our John Deere 7000. Today, we have John Deere 7200 and John Deere 1790 split-row machines set up the same way.

SEEKING CONSISTENCY. With the vast majority of his 4,500 acres in continuous strip-till corn, Jeff Martin is striving for consistent yields of 250 bushels per acre and thinks 300 bushels is attainable through twin rows.

In the early 1990s, we had a succession of cold, wet springs that really stymied timely no-till planting. Those years drove our decision to try strip-till and we never looked back.

This year will be our 16th year of fall strip-till and our 6th year of strip-tilling continuous corn. We use a Progressive 7200 16-row application toolbar equipped with mole knives, 24-inch sharp cutting discs and two dull closing discs located 4 to 8 inches behind the mole knife.

Why corn on corn? At that time, experts were predicting Brazil would be growing all the soybeans and we might be raising nothing but corn in Illinois, so we thought we should experiment with continuous corn in case that turned out to be true.

We evaluated continuous cropping for a couple years on 25% of our land, while making side-by-side comparisons with rotated crops. While we still grow a lot of soybeans in the Midwest, we’re now convinced that it’s easier for us to grow 225-bushel continuous corn on our farm than it is to grow 60-bushel soybeans in a rotation.

MAKING STRIP-TILL WORK

“Keep it simple” works best for us to get over the fields on time. Whenever possible, we like to divide our system into four basic steps: fall strip-till/anhydrous application; spring planting; spraying; and harvest.

Some years, if winter annuals green up early, we add a trip with a preplant burndown of Roundup and 2,4-D. We also use N-Serve with all anhydrous applications.


We’re now convinced that it’s easier to grow 225-bushel continuous corn than it is to grow 60-bushel soybeans in a rotation...


We broadcast all dry phosphorus and potassium fertilizer and lime in the fall, based on soil tests. We include 18 units of nitrogen with that application.

After experimenting with sidedressing 28% UAN in the spring, we’ve concluded that applying most of the crop’s nitrogen needs in the fall via anhydrous ammonia fits our system best in most cases. We still sidedress flat, black bottomland acres. We add 5 gallons of 28% liquid nitrogen mixed in with the first herbicide application.

So far, we have not tried zone banding of dry fertilizer with the strip-till rig. We’re concerned about the extra horsepower and time needed (our current tractors range from 235 to 255 horsepower) to carry a dry fertilizer cart and pull anhydrous tanks.

Also, after many years of no-tilling with roots spread out throughout the top few inches of the mellow soil, we like to have plenty of nutrients available between the rows. But variable-rate zone banding is something we’re currently researching.

We’ve never seen an economic benefit from pop-up fertilizer, though we realize some good university researchers and a lot of experienced no-tillers might have opposing views.

Yield tests on our farms over several years never showed a distinct yield advantage for pop-up. We think that keeping soil nutrient levels consistently high, as we do, might diminish pop-up results.

We run two planters and don’t like to do anything that might slow us down, unless it’s clearly making us money.

GOOD GENETICS; FEWER PESTS

Triple-stack varieties carefully selected for seedling vigor in cool or wet soils and resistance to seedling diseases have dramatically lessened corn rootworm, corn borer and disease risks on our no-till continuous corn acres. We currently use all Roundup Ready corn, picking high-yielding — though not necessarily all racehorse — numbers that yield consistently in tests.

CONTINUOUS CORN. A Progressive 7200 16-row application toolbar equipped with mole knives, 24-inch sharp cutting discs and two dull closing discs located 4 to 8 inches behind the mole knife help Jeff Martin strip-till continuous corn.

We’re in a high-risk corn rootworm area, so we routinely use soil insecticide on refuge acres. All corn seed is treated with Poncho 250 for cutworms, wireworms and other secondary insects and we have been pleased with consistent early seedling vigor.

So far, we haven’t seen an economic advantage to an in-crop fungicide such as Headline, but it could pay off in any given year.

We like to work with our local seed dealers to identify hybrids that are not only rated for corn-on-corn, but have specifically yielded better in strip-till conditions.

Staying ahead of weeds is a key to continuous corn success. If winter annuals show up early, we go in with a burndown of Roundup and 2,4-D. More often, we use a half rate of a residual herbicide, such as Harness Extra, mixed in our first Roundup application right after planting. Then we hit weeds with another shot of Roundup when corn is about knee-high.

Over many years of no-tilling, we have seen a reduction in tough winter annuals, such as henbit and wild lettuce, in our continuous corn. We’re not sure why, but it could be because the lack of tillage helps keep weed seeds buried and we are probably getting some residual herbicide carryover.

CUTTING BACK ON NITROGEN?

When we went to strip-till continuous corn, we upped nitrogen rates by 40 pounds per acre in the second year of corn, as recommended by the University of Illinois and other soil research centers.

Check The Specs...

NAME: Jeff Martin (Partners With Son, Doug)

LOCATION: Mt. Pulaski, Ill.

YEARS OF NO-TILLING: 26

ACRES NO-TILLED: 4,500

NO-TILLED CROPS: Corn, Soybeans

Each year, we cut nitrogen by 10 pounds until we were back to our normal rate of about 200 pounds per acre in the fourth year of continuous corn. By that time, organic nitrogen had built up enough to provide any extra nitrogen needed for residue breakdown.

Using that program, yields stayed consistent with corn in a rotation with soybeans.

We have worked with CropSmith, Inc., in Monticello, Ill., for the past couple years to explore ways to reduce nitrogen rates and costs. We’ve cut back to 160 pounds of nitrogen in our fourth-year, corn-on-corn, and are evaluating going lower than that.

Based on results of the Illinois Soil Nitrogen Tests (ISNT), the company’s agronomists think we could cut back to only 120 to 130 pounds with no loss in yield. That would be a big shift in our nitrogen management. We will be analyzing each field’s nitrogen needs with grid soil sampling maps.

EVALUATING THE ISNT

The ISNT is a relatively new test developed by the University of Illinois that measures potentially available nitrogen that is released via mineralization from organic matter in the soil.


We’re convinced RTK will pencil out in the first year...


CropSmith agronomist Tim Smith says it’s likely that most Illinois soils will provide 50% or more of the corn crop’s nitrogen needs. If that holds up on our farms, it will make a huge difference in fertilizer costs and our personal impact on the environment.

Based on our preliminary results, we’re optimistic about the validity of the ISNT.

On one new farm we rented last fall where we didn’t get any fall anhydrous applied, we compared 100, 150 and 160 pounds of nitrogen last spring. At harvest, we got basically the same yield from all three rates — and it was about equal to fields where we had applied 200 pounds of anhydrous.

One thing we’ve learned already is that the more dry-wet cycles you have, the more nitrogen mineralization there is likely to be in a given soil.

Last year, for example, where we got an excess of 56 inches of rainfall, the yield spread from lower-lying fields to upland fields was more than 100 bushels per acre. Even though we applied 200 pounds of nitrogen, only a certain percent was available to plants because the saturated fields (no wet-dry cycles) restricted nitrogen mineralization and the crops suffered.

NEW “RESIDUE MANAGER”

One of our challenges of doing all rows visually with markers is keeping the strips off the top of the old stalk rows. That can really mess up getting a clean, mellow planting environment.

We ran a rotary harrow a couple years ago, but that machine didn’t work well to chop stalks. Last fall, after comparing a couple of newer-type residue conditioning machines, we bought a 24-foot Salford Residue Tillage Specialist (RTS).

The RTS has wavy coulter blades with a coil tech design that handles high speeds. We ran it about 9 mph with a 250-horsepower tractor and liked the way it chops up the residue and old stalks, while barely moving any soil.

RTK PROMISES FAST PAYOFF

RTK (real-time kinetics) guidance may reflect best what I mean by “taking strip-till to the next level.” Even though the RTS stalk conditioner was a good investment, we’re hoping RTK will make strip-tilling so accurate that planting on old rows will no longer be a concern. After John Deere recently completed a network of about 50 towers in our area, we installed compatible guidance systems in all three tractors last fall.


We are currently researching how narrow rows will fit with strip-till and think twin rows might be the answer...


We feel RTK technology offers so many benefits — including more uniform stands, less stress, more efficient planting and spraying — and the potential of handling more acres that we can’t afford not to use it.

We’re convinced RTK will pencil out in the first year. Last fall, it allowed us to put down nitrogen late at night. Without that flexibility, we would not have been able to cover all the acres in the limited time we had.

Another obvious benefit from RTK should come this spring when, for the first time, we are assured of staying on the strips we created in the fall. Whenever we’ve missed a strip in the past, corn came up later, stands were uneven and yields were hurt.

300-BUSHEL FUTURE?

With no-till continuous corn yields consistently running more than 200 bushels per acre, and with our yield monitor often reading 240 and sometimes as high as 280, we’re convinced 300 bushels across our farms is achievable — and hopefully soon.

Our consulting agronomists advise that “sooner” will be more likely if we go to narrower rows and higher plant populations — boosting plants per acre from our current 35,000 per-acre level to 40,000 or more. So, we are currently researching how narrow rows will fit with strip-till and think twin rows might be the answer, providing we can create a strip wide enough to handle both rows.

Precision planting with RTK will be a critical tool if and when we make these changes.

WILDLIFE NO-TILL BONUS

We’re avid sportsmen, so we’re pleased to see booming wildlife populations during the years we’ve no-tilled. In fact, fee hunting for pheasants, doves and quail on our Prairie View Acres preserve and leasing of land for trophy deer hunting provides a sizable supplemental income. Turkey numbers also are rising.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE. Rather than zone banding dry fertilizer, Jeff Martin broadcasts dry phosphorus, potassium and lime in the fall, and injects anhydrous ammonia behind his toolbar. He sidedresses nitrogen on his bottomland.

To encourage game populations, we plant sunflower and other feed plots, use prairie grass on CRP acres, create feeding and bedding areas for trophy bucks and have installed filter strips along the four creeks that pass through our farmland. On one Mississippi River watershed area, we’ve planted 400 acres to native hardwoods.

It’s a lot of work and we probably don’t want to know how much we’re actually making on a per-hour basis. But it’s a nice way to fill in any extra time we have when we’re not busy growing grain.

In my partnership with Doug, we’re proud to be the ninth generation of Martins to farm this land. We’ve been pleased to be recognized for combining high-tech no-till farming with a desire to take care of the soil.

We were named the Illinois DNR Wildlife Landowner of the Year in 1995 and in 2004 received the No-Till Innovator Award from No-Till Farmer and Syngenta Crop Production for adoption of no-till practices.

I think it’s ironic that I was the first actual farmer to be president of The Chicago Farmers, an organization formed in 1935 to advance production agriculture and agribusiness. I had a great opportunity this year to serve as chairman of our Farmland Investment Fair in February.