Strip-tillers are innovative and push the envelope by nature. That’s just how they are wired. Growers who use strip-till and also plant cover crops take that drive to the next level, as we discovered in the first-annual Cover Crop Strategies Cover Crop Benchmark Study. 

The study included responses from more than 1,400 growers from 45 states and 24 countries. Data from the 2019 cropping year was used in the data set, and responses were collected during February 2020.

Part of that independent attitude manifested in the responses to a question asking strip-tillers about their economic entry point into seeding covers. The majority of strip-tillers, at 48%, stated that don’t receive incentive payments for seeding covers. 

Another 40% of strip-tillers received federal payments from programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), while 15% of strip-tillers received payments from state-
level programs.

Species Selection

While cereal rye was by far the most popular cover crop used by growers who primarily strip-till, several other cover crop staples rounded out the top 10, including radish (55%), oats (46%), crimson clover (27%), annual ryegrass (26%), rapeseed (26%), turnips (26%), wheat (26%), red clover (22%) and
vetch (20%). 

Although strip-tillers use a variety of cover crop species, almost two-thirds of strip-tillers (62%) seeded only a single species of cover crops on some fields. 

Some 75% seeded a multi-species cover crop mix on at least one field, with 38% of growers using a cover crop mix with at least 2-3 species. Strip-tillers who seeded a cover crop mix with 4-9 species made up about 36% of the results.

Timing and Tillage

Strip-tillers fell into alignment with growers who use other types of tillage when it comes to the timing of seeding cover crops. Seeding cover crops in fall or winter was the top timing choice for 85% of strip-tillers, followed by summer at 53%. Spring seeding for covers is done by only 18% of strip-tillers.

Some 60% of strip-tillers prefer to use a drill, followed by 39% who broadcast cover crop seed. Rounding out the top 3 seeding methods was aerial application, preferred by 27% of strip-tillers.

Planting green continues to grow in popularity with strip-tillers. In 2019, 53% of strip-tillers said that they planted green cash crops into a living cover crop. Of that group, 67% planted soybeans, while 53% planted corn for grain as their cash crop of choice. 

Cover Crop Objectives

Strip-tillers desire the soil health benefits that cover crops have to offer, as evidenced by their stated reasons for planting covers. Some 27% cited soil erosion as their primary reason for seeding cover crops. Another 22% use cover crops to improve soil biology, while 19% of strip-tillers utilize cover crops to increase soil organic matter.

Some 58% of strip-tillers indicated that they have seen maximum benefit from cover crops preventing erosion, with another 44% citing better soil biological activity as their primary benefit followed by improved rainfall infiltration at 39%.

Seasonal Challenges

The biggest cover crop challenge for strip-tillers is a short growing season, noted by 21% of respondents. Dealing with a short seeding window is the main challenge for 14% of strip-tillers who use cover crops, while time and labor is the primary struggle for 15% of strip-tillers. 

The majority of strip-tillers who chose to interseed cover crops did so in 3 different ways. Some 27% of respondents used a highboy applicator or self-propelled sprayer, an airplane or helicopter or interseeding device or toolbar.

Consistent with the broader group of respondents, herbicides were the cover crop termination method of choice for strip-tillers at 83%. Another 27% said they allowed cover crops to winterkill, followed by using tillage to terminate covers at 13%. 

Some 60% of strip-tillers who planned to plant corn as a cash crop terminated their cover crops before planting, followed by 32% of strip-tillers who terminate cover crops after planting corn.