Pictured Above: NATURAL BORN TILLERS: After 20 years of strip-tilling, Seguin, Texas, farmer John Friesenhahn says his increasing earthworm population is doing his deep tillage for him, assisting with water infiltration.
When I first started strip-tilling in 2000, my soil organic matter content levels were about 0.5% to maybe 1%. Now, I’ve gotten them up to 0.8%-1.5%. When we were full-width tillage, with plowing equipment costs, it seemed like I was always just fixing what was breaking.
We looked into no-till, but the problem is if we would dry out, which we do, the ground gets so hard because we’ve got a pretty high clay content in a lot of our soils. By ‘pre-tilling’ a little bit, I can move what I like to call a dry soil mulch, that I can push out of the way to get to wet soil underneath. Strip-tilling gives me options.
There’s still a lot of skepticism in our area. In my county, there’s really three of us that are trying no-till or strip-till. People are always asking me if it works. I tell them ‘It’s been 20-plus years now and I’m still in business. I don’t think I need to justify if it works at this point. It works.’
Proof of Concept
As far as benefits, I’ve been able to get smaller, lower horsepower tractors, going from 250-plus horsepower to now, my biggest tractor is a 210 Case IH Magnum. But we also went from all 8-row to 12-row equipment, which allows me to cover more acres faster and more efficiently. The strip-till rig is a used 12-row Orthman toolbar with Yetter Maverick row units.
Initially, I tried using a mole knife, but it really tore up the ground too much. So, I went back to just a straight low-profile knife. I’ve also added rolling baskets to help firm the strip back up after I make the strip-till pass. I ended up adding two sets of downforce springs because the low-profile knife doesn’t pull down deep enough.
How I’ve compensated for that is by adding another set of downforce springs so I can use the weight of the toolbar to push the row units into the ground to get to a depth that I want for fertilizer application, which is usually 3-4 inches in the strip. We variable-rate apply, all based off of soil samples, and control different sections I turn on and off and have the flow monitors so that if a row plugs, we can see that. There’s not a lot of maintenance.
“If I could engineer a way to attach mini hay rakes behind the rolling baskets, which would gently pull residue back on top of the strip without disturbing the soil, that could keep that soil cooler and hold moisture better ahead of planting…”
I also use a ribbed coulter because it helps get through our sticky soils and it seems to self-clean better than just a straight coulter. That setup also allows me to strip-till when we get into some wetter weather.
I tried row cleaners and found out I didn’t need them. One of our biggest challenges is actually residue decomposing too quickly and it’s extremely dry at planting. By late spring, whatever residue I have in the field is gone. What I’d like to do is design and test an attachment on the row units that could sweep residue back on top of the strips ahead of planting.
If I could engineer a way to attach mini hay rakes behind the rolling baskets, which would gently pull residue back on top of the strip without disturbing the soil, I think something like that could keep that soil cooler and hold moisture better ahead of planting.
This year, I planted about 800 acres of strip-tilled corn, 450 acres of strip-tilled cotton, and about 250 acres of no-tilled wheat.
I usually try and get started a little earlier than I did in 2020, but for corn, I’ll typically variable-rate apply half of my nitrogen (N), which is 15-20 gallons per acre of 27-6-0-0-5 when I strip-till, and about one-third of the phosphate and sulfur in the strip.
Then when I plant with the 12-row John Deere 1720, I’ll variable-rate apply a starter package with 12-24-0 that usually has the remainder of my phosphate and a little bit of N, along with all my micronutrients like magnesium, zinc and manganese, at about 3-5 gallons per acre. It’s all applied in-furrow, through the Valion seed tube guard.
Since we’re all dryland, if the weather looks like we’re going to have a good year, I’ll come back and sidedress additional N, to split those applications up throughout the growing season, to avoid leaching. We have pretty heavy, high cation exchange capacity (CEC) soils, so I try use low-salt fertilizers, but I’ve not had any germination problems.
If we can average 100-bushel corn, that’s pretty good for us. In 2019, we hit 150 bushels in some fields, but that’s not typical for us. For milo, we’re shooting for 4000 pounds per acre and then with cotton, if I can get a bale-plus per acre, I’m making money. We’ll average about 40 bushels per acre for wheat. In 2019, we made 60-plus bushel wheat, but the weather conditions were right.
With corn, milo or cotton, I’m in 30 inch rows and I’ll move off of that old row to the side and come back and strip-till — at most — 6 inches from the old row. I’m not getting too much into the equipment traffic, because I can tell where the edge of those tire marks are, and that’s where it gets cloddy. I try to stay out of that area as much as I can.
But the strip is still within the width of my rolling baskets, and I’ll take my A-B lines from fertilizer application with the strip-till pass and adjust them for planting, to be about 2 inches off the middle of that berm, either to the left or right. I’m not planting that seed right in the middle because it can get extremely dry and there’s a cavity in that trench.
I usually try and get out to strip-till in December because we don’t ever freeze and sometimes we’re not done with harvesting cotton, but in 2020, I didn’t really start until February and finished in March.
Pest & Weed Management: From Cactus to Coyotes
While many strip-tillers have to control invasive weeds and crop-damaging pests, Seguin, Texas, farmer John Friesenhahn battles everything from cactus invasions to coyotes to combatting pigweed in cotton. Below he shares his pest and weed
“I’ll always have weeds, but with strip-till, it’s definitely less. But there has also been a weed shift. One of the unintended consequences is that we’d never seen cactus in our fields before. We suspect coyotes are grazing the residue. They eat the berries off cactus and then defecate in our fields, which has resulted in some small cactus plants sprouting up.
“Really the only good way to remove them is to go out with a shovel, dig them up and put them in a basket because they’re full of thorns and carry them off. It’s getting to be every year and I won’t even notice them until they get big enough.
“Most of the trouble spots are in pasture, and we’d have to apply some pasture herbicides that have too long a residual that just aren’t going to do it, so we’ve got to manually get out there and remove them.
“Another pest we deal with in our area is fire ants. If we don’t have properly treated seed, they can get into the milo and eat the germ out of the seed, to the point where you’d have to replant. I don’t know if it is because the Gaucho and Poncho insecticide seed treatments don’t do a good enough job. We’ve been fortunate that our milo stands have been pretty consistent.
“Generally, for our weed control program, we’ll do a post-planting herbicide application, depending on what we’re seeing in the field. I like to do it after I plant because then I don’t have to worry about driving on my strips.
“For corn, a lot of times I’ll come back at the end of March or into April and apply a pound per acre of atrazine for some residual control and probably two-thirds to a quart-per-acre of Roundup to get what little second growth of weeds, especially pigweed, that are
“Johnson grass used to be our number one weed we had to deal with, but now it’s not a problem because Roundup has taken care of that. Pigweed and ragweed are showing up more in the cotton. That’s why I plant with the Enlist technology, the cotton that’s actually 2,4-D tolerant. It’s just like when I first started spraying Roundup on corn, I was just as scared spraying 2,4-D on cotton and it works beautifully.
“Usually just one application does the trick. Then we follow up with just some Roundup because the cotton does a pretty good job once it shades out everything and by April, we’re drying out by then and not that many weeds are coming up.
“We’ve had weeds that were probably a foot tall knocked out. I’ve been really impressed with Enlist technology on the cotton.”
Even though it is in the winter, it’s more like a spring strip-till because we’re a month away from planting. I just finished at the end of February and I will be planting in the next week or so.
One thing that I’ve found is we get a lot of our rains after fall harvest. They can be torrential rains, 3-4 inches in an hour, even though they don’t last that long.
But it can be a gully-washer, so to speak. When we leave the corn stalks and roots intact, they hold that soil so much better than if we plowed it under.
In 1998, we were just starting to play with some no-till, but we were still conventional tillage for the most part and had sheet erosion, losing layers of top soil. I remember we got close to 60 inches of rain in two days. It was just terrible.
Going into the field, I realized I’d just lost 3 inches of my top soil. We still have erosion, but it’s confined. It’s mainly in our tire tracks because it’s firmer and that’s where the water doesn’t penetrate as quickly. But still it’s only maybe 4 rows out of 12, instead of the whole field, so I know we’re saving soil.
After some rains, I can look in my fields and I have clear water running out, while my neighbors have muddy water. Our water infiltration rates are definitely higher because if we get a heavy rain, 80% will be soaked into the soil in a short amount of time. I figure my increasing earthworm population is doing my deep tillage for me, assisting with that water infiltration.
But 8 out of 10 years, it’s going to be hot and dry during the growing season. In 2019, if we could have just gotten a middle-of-July rain for the cotton, it would’ve added probably another half a bale to our yield. It rained into April, but after that, it was almost September before we had another good rain. Aside from the cotton, the crops had already pretty much matured and were drying down anyway.