Note: This was originally published August 20, 2020, following our 7th annual National Strip-Tillage Conference.

The 7th annual National Strip-Tillage Conference (NSTC), held August 6-8, may have looked a little different than previous years’ events.

But the idea-sharing and diversity of topics discussed during general sessions, classroom presentations and live roundtables embodied the annual experience attendees have come to expect.

The virtual event assembled strip-till experts sharing high-quality content and opportunities for strip-tillers from across the U.S. — and around the world.

Here 5 highlights from this year’s event and look for continuing coverage throughout the year on www.Strip-Till

1. Cover Crops Accelerate Increasing Soil Organic Matter

Wayne Fredericks, a strip-tiller from Osage, Iowa, has seen a 30% reduction of both nitrogen and phosphorus from using cover crops on he and his wife, Ruth’s, 750-acre operation. Those cover crops, along with his commercial corn crop, sequester carbon.

Fredericks has worked with Jerry Hatfield, retired USDA plant physiologist, since the early 1980s, to collect data on his farm’s soil health. Soil testing has revealed an 2.5% increase in organic matter in 25 years.

Fredericks credits changing the way he does tillage on his farm to the increase in soil organic matter, and cover crops can accelerate the pace of increasing soil organic matter. Previously, Fredericks has used conventional and no-till practices, but switched to strip-till around 2000. According to NRCS, each 1% of organic matter for enhanced water availability is worth $18 per acre.

Hatfield says that growers lose 20% percent of crop yield due to lack of available moisture 80% percent of the time. “When we’re talking 240 bushel corn vs. 200 bushel corn or 60 bushel beans vs. 50 bushel beans, that’s significant,” says Fredericks.

2. Expanding Water Holding Capacity

For Brandon Hunt, Herndon, Ky., using regenerative ag practices to build water holding capacity in the soil on his 11,000 acre farm is critical to getting their operation through times of drought. One way he increases water holding capacity in the soil is by using cover crops to armor the soil on their exclusively no-till acres.

Cover crops also help Hunt to prevent soil erosion, another source of water loss. The topsoil in western Kentucky isn’t very deep, so the water holding capacity is less than ideal.

“Our gas tank is just not very big under the surface,” Hunt says. “So, we’re trying to do things to make that tank bigger, and then we try to work through every year and weather patterns.”

With small planting windows to work in, Hunt says that cover crops add value back to the soil in long-term benefits — like soil moisture retention.

Hunt adds that economics are also important to finding the right balance to make the most profit while not giving up environmental benefits and what the grower is trying to add to make the system better.

“We compared broadcasting and root zone banding,” Hunt says. “There was no significant difference in any of the fields. Those strips had the same plot set up both years, the same passes. There was no statistical difference there and we raised fantastic corn on both setups. It was more about economics than agronomics, because the story is going to be that the strip-till zone banding is going to make us the most economic impact.”

3. Emerging Yield Advantages

While Charles City, Va., farmer David Hula has a reputation for being one of the top-yielding corn producers in the world, he acknowledges the inconsistency that comes with a poorly prepared seedbed.

He credits his transition into strip-till in 2018 with enhancing the conservation tillage benefits he was already seeing after decades of no-till. Through a series of trials in 2019, Hula saw even emergence among his early corn plants, which has contributed to visual evidence of increased yield potential.

“We saw suckers or extra shoots on our cornstalks and almost every plant had a sucker, but most of them had two,” Hula says. “We were able to keep a high percentage of those double ears to where they actually made a grain.”

Hula says often, he’ll see a second ear that may have a few kernels on it, but he was able to maintain 300-600 kernels on that second ear. “That's a lot of free bushels,” he says. “We still had a very good primary ear, with 700-800 kernels, but then when we can see another 300 or 600 on a significant portion of those second ears, that's where the extra bushels came from.”

With cation exchange capacities between 1.2 and 6.7, Hula says variability is a factor when making nutrient application decisions to push for high yields. Using the baseline of 1 lb. of nitrogen per bushel of corn, ¾-1 lb. of potash per bushel and about 1/3 lb. of phosphate to produce 200-bushel corn, Hula says farmers need to determine their own risk tolerance for pushing yields.

“In my experience, I can’t save myself to prosperity,” he says. “I’ve had success raising 400 bushel corn, but it takes the fertilizer to do that. We’re always tweaking our system — fertilizer, hybrids and now, tillage to push those yields and profitability.”

4. Consistent Nutrient Zone with Controlled Traffic Patterns

Gary Gangwer, a strip-tiller from Lafayette, Ind., began exploring strip-tilling as a way to save on tractor horsepower with a 16-row John Deere 8370RT rig while also applying fertilizer. Gangwer also seeds cover crops right on top of his strips.

Another practice Gangwer says he’s considering is applying magnesium, zinc and boron. He recommends working a consistent nutrient zone with controlled traffic patterns.

“We wanted to minimize driving off the row itself,” Gangwer says. “That means you need to look at the machinery ahead of time. It’s a habit I picked up from ridge-till. The number one rule is never leave a footprint in the field. So, you’ll want something lightweight.”

Another obstacle Gangwer has had to deal with is residue in the strips. He came up with a solution to handle that problem.

“I came across a company that has an apparatus that I can attach to the front of my planter row unit,” Gangwer says. “It’s a 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, staggered 4 inches apart so that soil can flow. It doesn’t really throw soil, but it breaks down that hard crust.”

5. Customizing a Custom Strip-Till Business

For Kentland, Ind., farmer Jesse Stoller, custom strip-tilling provides a profitable gateway into the system for area farmers. In 2020, Stoller plans to custom strip-till about 8,500 acres and a detailed cost analysis nets him about $6 per acre in profit.

Stoller breaks down 3 scenarios of per-acre investment in equipment to determine if custom strip-tilling is an economic advantage for farmers. “I know I didn’t think a lot, initially, about truly what the cost is of owning equipment,” he says. “We need to understand the number of acres we need to be running across to justify our investment.” 

He evaluated depreciation, tractor and implement costs, interest and cost per acre for 1,000-5,000 acre operations. For example, the Level 1 scenario, for a 1,000-acre operation, breaks out $63.40 per acre cost for equipment ownership, labor costs and maintenance, repairs and fuel.

“I charge $25 per acre for custom strip-tilling, and for that Level 1 scenario, you’ll need to strip-till at least 3,500 acres each year to justify a $500,000 investment in equipment and other associated costs,” Stoller says. “The lower the investment, at Level 1 for a $225,000 investment, it would take about 1,500 acres of strip-till to be profitable.”