Growers using rows less than 30 inches are preserving residue and still getting the many strip-till benefits they’re accustomed to.

Whether it’s strip-tilling on 20- or 22-inch rows, a small, but dedicated number of strip-tillers are making narrow rows work for them.

For farmers who’ve used 22-inch rows and conventional tillage for dry edible beans and sugarbeets, going to a 22-inch strip-till system seems like a natural transition.

Increasingly, these farmers are also growing corn on narrow-row spacing. Whether raising sugarbeets, dry edible beans or corn, these strip-tillers all agree that residue management is challenging, but doable.

Why Narrow Rows?

After growing sugarbeets on 22-inch rows for years, growers in North Dakota, Minnesota and Idaho have been moving to narrow-row strip-till for beets and have also been growing more corn that way, says Mike Petersen, Orthman Mfg.’s precision-tillage agronomist.

“Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta now have 88-to-90-day, relative-maturity hybrids adapted for that northern region that can average 220 bushels per acre,” Petersen says. “It’s a no-brainer. Up north, growers have much more sunlight per day — 14 to 15 hours — since the Earth is tipped toward the south during the summer.

RESIDUE ADVANTAGE. Switching to 22-inch strip-till allowed Hysham, Mont., grower Bart Icopini to leave more residue in his fields.

“But they also take the chance of frost in early September and on the 1st of June.”

Some growers in eastern Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada, are also turning to narrow-row strip-till.

“They’re all looking at harvesting more sunlight with the narrower row spacing and getting ground canopy as soon as possible to suppress weeds, reduce evaporation and hold moisture within that canopy,” he says.

But the challenge for many strip-tillers is how to handle the residue in narrow-row continuous corn — primarily, how to get it to flow through strip-till rigs without plugging, Petersen adds.

Manage The Residue

In some respects, 22-inch-row strip-till seems like a natural fit for sugarbeet growers who traditionally have used 22-inch-wide rows in conventional farming, says Jodi DeJong-Hughes, University of Minnesota Extension strip-till expert.

MANAGING THE RESIDUE. Bart Icopini added trash cleaners to his Monosem planter. However, he removes them in front of the Orthman 1tRIPr shanks when strip-tilling into wheat stubble to cut down on residue plugging up the strip-till rig.

But weather and residue cause problems, she points out. The wet weather in northwest Minnesota and eastern North Dakota prevented many farmers from planting their crops.

In southwest Minnesota, the fall of 2010 was favorable — but in fall of 2009, corn didn’t mature and growers were harvesting until Christmas.

“Growing corn on corn on 22-inch rows in heavy soils is the most difficult challenge there is for strip-till,” DeJong-Hughes says. “In one of our field trials — with 22-inch-wide rows for fall strip-till in corn on corn — we stopped every 30 or 40 feet to pull out ‘muskrat huts’ of cornstalks that built up under the strip-till rig.”

The field trial compared fall strip-tilled continuous corn versus fall strip-tilled continuous corn with a spring pass with a Salford RTS. There was 74% residue remaining in the strip-tilled plots versus 54% with plots that received the Salford pass.

“With 74% residue, there was just no place to put the cornstalks in the 22-inch strip-till trial,” she says.

Farmers who want to strip-till continuous corn on 22-inch row spacing with fall fertilizer placement need to do two things, according to DeJong-Hughes.

“The row units need to be on a staggered bar to allow the residue to flow through,” she says. “Narrow-row strip-tillers also need a Plan B if the fields are really wet in the spring, if residue blew and stacked up during the winter or if the soil is really chunky.

“If any of these things happen, strip-tillers should make a secondary pass in the spring to freshen up the strips using dual or triple coulters instead of shanks.”

Narrow-Row Acreage

The growth of narrow-row strip-till acres, and potential for future growth, may depend on geographical factors.

“The row units need to be staggered to allow the residue to flow through...”

Nationally, there has been no gain in corn acres with row widths of less than 30 inches, says Steve Butzen, agronomy information manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

Narrow-row corn production is well below 5%, perhaps as low as 2% nationally, he says, adding that years of research data has failed to show a consistent yield increase with that method.

Pioneer conducted replicated plot research on narrow-row spacing in corn from 1991 through 1999, and 2003 through 2006, and found an average yield increase of 2% in Iowa and Illinois. For yields that average 200 bushels per acre, that’s 4 bushels per acre more.

“Yield data simply has not motivated many farmers to move to narrow rows in the central Corn Belt,” Butzen says. “However, Pioneer data shows that the northern latitudes — such as Minnesota and the Dakotas — do produce a more consistent yield response to narrow-row corn of about 4%.”

Twin-Row Strip-Till Attracts Farmers

Strip-twinning helps farmers increase in-row spacing between corn plants, exposes corn to more sunlight and can increase yields.

Argyle, Iowa, grower Brian Klemme began twin-row strip-tilling corn in the spring of 2009 because he wanted to increase plant populations and spacing within rows and, hopefully, increase yields.

Klemme farms with his stepfather and an uncle, growing 1,100 acres of corn and 700 acres of soybeans. On 200 to 300 acres, Klemme has used 7½-inch row spacing on 30-inch centers, for corn on corn and corn after soybeans.

On irrigated, sandy ground he pushes the corn population to 35,000 per acre. On dryland acres he plants 25,000 seeds per acre.

“We want to place fertilizer in a zone in the spring because of the loss of fall-applied nitrogen due to large amounts of rain,” he says. “We don’t apply anhydrous ammonia anymore in the fall.”

Klemme’s strip-till rig consists of an Elk Creek caddy for a 6-ton Montag dry fertilizer skid, Yetter Maverick row units on a Moore-Built toolbar and Raven Precision equipment that controls the anhydrous ammonia.

He uses RTK for the 12-row toolbar and for the 16-row, twin-row planter with 7½-inch row spacing.

Klemme advises spring strip-tillers wait at least 10 days after applying anhydrous ammonia to plant corn.

“In 2009, we followed too closely with planting and the anhydrous burned off corn roots,” he says. “This year, we waited at least 10 days to plant.

“The twin-row, strip-tilled corn looks really pretty good as of mid-June,” he adds. “On low spots on our fields and in our area, the corn is yellow. But on the high ground, the corn is nice and green.”

Whatever row spacing strip-tillers use, Klemme recommends using RTK guidance and a strip-till rig and planter with the same number of rows.

Even with RTK, it’s possible to get off center after making many passes in the same field, he says.

“Getting off a little bit from the center of the strip-tilled berm in 30-inch rows would be a whole lot more forgiving,” Klemme says. “I was watching one side of the planter and the rows were on the centers, but the other side was off.

“But if I had moved, then the other half of the 16-row planter would have been off. That’s a problem that can happen with a 12-row strip-till rig and a 16-row planter.”

Making Adjustments

Scott Setniker of Independence, Ore., decided to try twin-row strip-tilled corn in 2010 after reading about it on the Internet.

He thought that using twin rows would create more space between corn plants, exposing them to more light. In addition to field corn, Setniker and his father, David, grow sweet corn for a processor in the area.

A GOOD SIGN. Increasing the plant spacing produces more twin ears on the sweet corn that Scott Setniker of Independence, Ore., grows for processing. “The processors have said the ear size in the sweet corn that’s twin-rowed is really good,” he says.

“I get more plants with twin ears of sweet corn by increasing the spacing with twin-row, 7½-inch row spacing,” Setniker says. “The processors have said the ear size in the sweet corn that’s twin-rowed is really good.”

In 2010, Setniker had twin-row, strip-tilled corn that yielded 225 bushels per acre. His best conventionally tilled corn on 30-inch spacing yielded 220 to 230 bushels per acre, and the average was 180 bushels per acre for conventionally tilled corn.

Setniker staggers the planting of sweet corn, green beans and peas for the food processor. After harvesting peas last summer, he planted the last of the sweet corn on July 1.

“It grew slowly because the summer was cold,” Setniker says. “It finally warmed up at the end of September.

“Moisture in strip-tilled corn was a bit of an issue last year. It was 28% to 32% for most of the harvest, and the moisture level of the strip-tilled corn was 3% higher across the board versus corn planted at the same time in conventionally tilled fields. I don’t know why there was a difference.”

When Setniker tried strip-till for the first time in the spring of 2010, he planted twin-row corn on 7½-inch centers, as well as corn on 30-inch row spacing. But last spring, Setniker reduced the amount of twin-rowed corn and he strip-tilled more corn on 30-inch rows.

Even with RTK, it’s a challenge planting corn right in the 10-inch-wide strip, he says.

“That’s why I planted more corn in single rows on 30-inch spacing,” Setniker says. “To meet the NRCS definition of strip-till, the strip may not be wider than 10 inches.

“I’m making a strip 8 inches wide and 8 inches deep. That’s why it’s a challenge to plant twin-row corn with my Monosem planter, where there’s just 7½ inches between the rows.”

Setniker has Dawn Equipment row units on a toolbar for strip-tilling. After a recent winter with lots of rain, Setniker made a shallow pass with the strip-till rig to open up and dry out the soil. Then he made another pass with the strip-till rig.

To cut fuel costs, Setniker would like to make just one pass with the strip-till rig instead of two. But that wasn’t possible last spring because fields were saturated and full of clods.

“Strip-till is still a work in progress,” Setniker says. “If we can go across the fields in the spring, running the strip-tiller shallow, the fields should be nice before we plant.”

Narrow-row strip-till offers a better fit for crops that have less residue, like vegetables and dry edible beans, than for corn, says Andy Thompson, Yetter Mfg. Co. regional sales manager.

“Because of the trend to continuous corn, it’s becoming more difficult to strip-till on row spacings of less than 30 inches,” Thompson says. “We’re making strip-till work better for growers on 30-inch row spacing, but strip-tilling on narrower rows may be more of a challenge because our new row units are wider.”

While Twin Diamond Industries works with narrow-row strip-tillers, co-owner Dean Carstens says he doesn’t understand why some farmers use the practice for corn and soybeans.

“I find no reason to strip-till on narrow rows other than the sales increases for seed and fertilizer suppliers,” Carstens says. “Those advocates say narrow rows increase the light exposure, which allows for higher plant populations and increased corn yields.”

Carstens says he believes more plants in higher populations on narrow rows diminishes the effects of added sunlight from the increased spacing.

Higher corn populations also require more fertilizer and water, which is already in short supply in the West and the Great Plains.

“In my opinion, a 5-bushel pop from narrow rows doesn’t warrant the investment required,” Carstens says. “I am not a proponent of narrow-row strip-till.”

Straight Coulters Work

In spite of skeptics of narrow-row strip-till, some growers report success with the practice.

Eden, Idaho, farmer Doug Carlquist switched to narrow-row strip-till 3 years ago for growing sugarbeets, dry edible beans, field corn and silage corn. He uses a 12-row Strip Cat with 22-inch row spacing.

“We went to a Twin Diamond field demonstration in Idaho and liked what we saw,” Carlquist says. “I liked the potential of saving time, money and inputs.”

There are more problems with 22-inch strip-till in corn, he says, because there isn’t as much of a place to put the trash.

“We’re still learning how to strip-till well. When we strip-tilled into cornstalks, we needed help with some modifications to the Strip Cat,” Carlquist says. “To make cornstalks flow through the rig better, we replaced the curved hillers with straight coulters. For other crops, though, the curved hillers work well.”

Carlquist bales small-grain straw and kills volunteer grain growing up from rows of chaff left from combining.

“If we don’t control the volunteer grain, it can be hard for the strip-tiller to go through the field in the fall. And then we might have problems with seed-to-soil contact when we plant corn,” he says.

Carlquist has strip-tilled dry edible beans into fields where triticale had been grown. He chops triticale for local dairies and irrigates to get volunteer triticale growing.

Next, he kills the triticale with herbicide and strip-tills and plants dry edible beans as a double crop.

“With conventional tillage, we would plow, harrow once or twice and then plant,” Carlquist says. “With strip-till, we can often make one pass with the strip-till rig and then plant.

“We’re using less fuel and have reduced our use of tractors by at least 33% with strip-till.”

He adds that being able to plant Roundup Ready sugarbeets helps make strip-tilling an attractive practice, and with dry edible beans, strip-tillers can clean up weeds with a post-emergence herbicide application.

But old attitudes die hard.

“With strip-till, your fields have a trashy look for a while and you take some ribbing from neighbors,” Carlquist says. “But when you harvest, your yields are right there, so the ribbing is worth it.”

Working With Residue

Bart Icopini of Hysham, Mont., has been using 22-inch rows to strip-till sugarbeets, corn and pinto beans since the fall of 2008.

He uses a 16-row Orthman 1tRIPr strip-till rig with 22-inch spacing, along with a 6-ton Atlas dry fertilizer cart and tanks holding 1,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer.

The liquid-fertilizer point on each 1tRIPr shank runs 8 to 9 inches deep. There are two tubes that run directly behind the shank and fertilizer point.

The tube for dry fertilizer is set 4 to 5 inches deep, and releases the product 2½ to 3 inches below where the seed is placed. The tube for liquid fertilizer runs directly behind the shaft and places the fertilizer at the bottom of the 8- to 9-inch-deep strip.

Icopini farms about 950 acres with center pivots and linear irrigation and about 300 acres with flood irrigation. He also farms 900 dryland acres.

Depending on his allotment from Western Sugar Cooperative, he grows about 400 acres of sugarbeets, 200 acres of corn, 100 acres of pinto beans and 100 to 400 acres of winter and spring wheat. He also raises alfalfa.

Icopini switched to strip-till from conventional tillage when he stopped flood irrigating and started using center pivot and linear irrigation.

Icopini prefers to strip-till in the fall, but will strip-till corn on light ground in the spring.

He typically strip-tills corn into wheat or sugarbeet fields since those crops leave little stubble.

“We wanted to leave more residue on the fields and strip-tilling allowed us to do that,” he says. “Roundup Ready sugarbeets also make strip-tilling work well. On our heavy, sticky soils, it would be difficult to cultivate to control weeds.

“We switched to 22-inch rows about 10 years ago. On corn, we had used 28- and 30-inch row spacings. But if you travel 50 miles from here, all the sugarbeet growers use 24-inch row spacing.”

Icopini says he hasn’t seen a huge increase in corn yields with 22-inch spacing, but it depends on the year.

Weather in Montana is more variable than in the Corn Belt, but with enough heat units, he says he can grow good corn yields.

Narrow-Row Rules

Since Icopini began strip-tilling, he’s learned several lessons.

“In the fall of 2010, there was quite a bit of tough wheat stubble left, so I shredded it before strip-tilling last fall,” he says. “Our heavy soils tend be cloddy, so after strip-tilling I use a 45-foot-wide Mandako roller on all the fields. This firms the soil, which mellows over the winter.

“We’ve found that rolling the fields and the loose soil in the strips keep the wheels of my sprayer from drifting into them,” he says.

Because there are more rows with 22-inch strip-till than with 30-inch row spacing, the wheels of a sprayer are more likely to drift into the tilled soil in these strips, Petersen says.

Icopini added trash cleaners to his Monosem planter, and he removes them from the front of the shanks of the 1tRIPr when strip-tilling into wheat stubble. Icopini says removing the trash cleaners reduces the amount of residue that plugs up within the strip-till rig.