The 7th annual National Strip-Tillage Conference (NSTC), held this summer, 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. Here are 4 highlights from this year’s event. 

1. Don’t Bury the Benefits of Banding

Banding vs. broadcast has long been a talking point — and often a motivation — for farmers to switch to strip-till. Scott Foxhoven, University of Illinois graduate research assistant, has led replicated plot research assessing the impact of banded potassium (K) and nitrogen (N) on crop response, including placement in proximity to the seedbed and the safety of applying high-salt fertilizers in the row ahead of planting.

In a 2019 hybrid evaluation study, Foxhoven and the university looked at 10 different hybrids with 110-114-day relative maturity, planting at 3 different populations — 30,000, 36,000 and 42,000 seeds per acre. 

Two fertility plans were tested. “The entire field had a pre-plant application of 280 pounds of N, and we wanted to make sure the N was non-limited,” Foxhoven explains. “We then we either applied 75 pounds per acre of monoammonium phosphate (MAP) and 60 pounds per acre of muriate of potash (MOP) or just relied on that base rate of N.”

The university also compared two different fertilizer placements for the MAP and MOP, as either a broadcast application or subsurface banding with a Montag Gen2 fertilizer cart mounted on top of a 4-row Dawn coulter toolbar. 

“2019 was not a great year for high populations in Champaign, Ill., and we only had about a 1-bushel-per-acre yield increase at 36,000 population and actually lost a bushel per acre at 42,000 population,” Foxhoven says of the trial results. “The reason was because we had excessively wet soils in April and May and then we lost about 4 inches of moisture in the heat of the summer.”

“Not having enough horsepower is going to force you to go slower and shallower, which is probably the biggest limitation to getting beneath that soil profile and creating an ideal seedbed with strip-till…” – Nick Emanuel

Despite not seeing significant overall yield response from the trials, Foxhoven says they saw a 17-bushel-per-acre increase in the plot with the broadcast application and an additional 8 bushels per acre with the banded fertilizer application. 

2. Emerging Yield Advantages

Charles City, Va., farmer David Hula has a reputation for being one of the top-yielding corn producers in the world. He credits his 2018 transition to strip-till 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 he’ll often see a second ear that may have a few kernels on it, but with strip-till was able to maintain 300-600 kernels in many cases. “That’s a lot of free bushels,” he says. “We still had a very good primary ear, with 700-800 kernels, but 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 of 1.2-6.7, Hula says variability is a factor when making nutrient application decisions to push for high yields. Using the baseline of 1 pound of nitrogen (N) per bushel of corn, ¾-1 pound of potash per bushel and about 1/3 pound 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.”

3Be Conscious of Horsepower

Selecting the right strip-till rig to suit your in-field objectives is an important piece of the equipment puzzle when transitioning into or evolving your strip-till system. 

Matching tractor horsepower with your strip-till rig row units is essential to maximize the performance and productivity of the machine, says North Bend, Neb., strip-tiller Nick Emanuel. 

“Usually, it’s going to be about 30 horsepower per row unit, but it depends on the manufacturer and the set up,” he says. “Not having enough horsepower is going to force you to go slower and shallower, which is probably the biggest limitation because getting beneath that soil profile to create a seedbed or place fertilizer is the biggest benefits of the system.”

Emanuel also notes that having too much horsepower can be detrimental because it will be difficult to maintain proper depth if you are running too fast through the field. 

Typically, farmers will have the same number or fewer row units on their strip-till bar relative to other equipment they are running, Emanuel says. Be sure to align the row numbers with the equipment spacing. For example, use an 8-row strip-till rig with a 16-row planter.

“That is the combination we started with on our operation and we actually upgraded to a 12-row strip-till unit and maintained the 16-row planter,” he says. “With auto-steer and RTK, it’s less of an issue, but to be able to make those combinations work, the technology aspect is critical.”

4. Analyzing the Cost of Equipment

For Kentland, Ind., farmer Jesse Stoller, custom strip-tilling provides a profitable gateway into the system for area farmers. 

Stoller breaks down 3 scenarios of per-acre investment in equipment to determine if custom strip-tilling is an economic advantage for farmers. “I didn’t think a lot, initially, about what the cost truly 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, in one scenario, for a 1,000-acre operation, it breaks out to $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 one 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, for a $225,000 investment for example, it would take about 1,500 acres of strip-till to be profitable.”