Strip-tillers share how they boost fertilizer efficiency by varying rates and mixing up timing, placement and equipment.

Whether they’re veterans or rookies, six strip-tillers across the U.S. are paying close attention to their fertilizer programs to maximize profitable production of corn, soybeans and other crops.

By varying fertilizer rates, timing, placement and equipment, strip-tillers have improved early root development, fertilizer efficiency and profitability.

“Fifty percent of the success in strip-tilling comes from agronomy and placing fertilizer in the root zone,” says Steve Lapp of West Liberty, Ohio, who strip-tilled for the first time in 2010. “Success doesn’t just come from tilling the strip of ground in the root zone.”

Jeff Reints of Shell Rock, Iowa, has been strip-tilling for more than 12 years. The corn and soybean grower is also a Dekalb-Asgrow seed dealer.

After using a shank-type strip-till rig for 10 years, Reints started using the Dawn Pluribus coulter system for the 2008 growing season to build berms in the spring.

SPLIT APPLICATION. Lowpoint, Ill., strip-tiller Todd Mooberry applies dry phosphate and potash in the fall, liquid 28% nitrogen in the spring, and follows up by sidedressing nitrogen. Mooberry grows 1,800 acres of corn-on-corn.

“We really prefer to strip-till 1 to 2 days before planting corn,” Reints says. “If we’ve got decent weather, we’ll be strip-tilling on April 15.

“This year, conditions for spring strip-till were excellent. It was probably one of the nicest springs for planting. We were done planting corn in April. Very seldom does that happen. We’re usually shooting to be done planting corn by May 10 to May 12.”

Fertility Changes

Reints has made several changes in his strip-till fertilizer program since 2008. He started using AMS to place sulfur in the root zone, which he says is especially important for lighter soils.

“Corn seems to respond well to having the sulfur,” Reints says. “We’ve taken the sulfur out of diesel fuel and out of the emissions from smokestacks, which reduced sulfur dioxide in the air.

“And with the new Tier IV requirements for farm equipment engines, there’s a further reduction of sulfur in the air.”

Reints strip-tills about 100 acres of soybeans each year, but prefers to no-till almost all of the soybeans on 15-inch rows with a planter. He doesn’t apply any fertilizer for the soybeans. Instead, he relies on the residual from the fertilizer applied for the previous year’s corn crop.

Reints applies a blend of dry fertilizer while strip-tilling, blowing it in from a 7-ton Montag air-delivery cart.

The blend for corn following soybeans consists of DAP, potash and AMS. For corn-on-corn, he’ll add a little more nitrogen.

“For corn after soybeans, we put on 170 pounds of DAP per acre, along with 160 pounds of potash and 75 pounds of ammonium sulfate (AMS). That’s based on a 2-year removal rate for corn and the following year of soybeans,” Reints says. “By concentrating the fertility where the roots are, we apply 66% of the broadcast rate or, as others call it, the removal rate.

“We’re maintaining our soil-test levels and increasing yields.”

Reints sidedresses corn by applying liquid 32% nitrogen with a 16-row Blu-Jet coulter injection rig with 30-inch spacings.

For corn-on-corn, Reints puts down 110 pounds of DAP per acre, as well as 70 pounds of potash, 75 pounds of AMS and 100 pounds of urea (46-0-0).

“When strip-tilling, we’re running the coulters about 5 inches deep, tilling an area about 8 inches wide,” he says. “With the Dawn system, you don’t elevate the soil like you would do with a shank-style strip-till rig. We make a mound about 2 inches tall over the strip. When you come back with the planter, it levels things off.

“We run a Case IH planter with a wide presswheel, which flattens out the mound. This is different than the narrow ‘Vee’ presswheels on the Kinze and John Deere planters.”

The Right Rates

Reints — who spoke at the 2010 National No-Tillage Conference in Des Moines, Iowa — fields many questions from other strip-tillers about fertilizer.

“The biggest question I get from other strip-tillers is how much fertilizer can be applied before planting corn without root injury,” he says. “We’ve gone up to 500, 600 or even 700 pounds of fertilizer per acre and planted corn the next day without any root injury. With the Pluribus system, the coulters are mixing the fertilizer in the moist, tilled soil in the strip. You don’t have a hot zone.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Can you actually apply that much fertilizer without damaging the roots?’ You can. We do experiment with high rates every year, trying to see how much we can put on before killing corn. I don’t think urea carries the salt that DAP and potash do.”

SPRING STRIPS. First-time strip-tiller Steve Lapp of West Liberty, Ohio, opted to make strips and apply fertilizer in the spring of 2010. Lapp opted for spring strip- till because he’s concerned about potential losses of fall-applied nitrogen.

Reints says he wants to experiment with adding calcium — either pelletized lime or a quicklime — when applying fertilizer.

“Doing that could correct a pH problem or provide a maintenance rate of calcium or lime,” he says. “Including lime or calcium every year could save broadcasting it once every 5 years. Instead, you would spoon-feed the soil and maintain a better pH.”

Fertilize In The Root Zone

Tom Oswald, Cleghorn, Iowa, began strip-tilling in 1995. Oswald’s strip-till toolbar began as a DMI 3200, with nine knives and 36-inch-row spacings in a sidedress configuration.

He eventually extended the toolbar to 12 rows with 30-inch spacings and added a liquid application system for 10-34-0 or 7-21-7. That allowed him to dual-place fertilizer with ammonia, or strip-till 28% liquid nitrogen should the conditions warrant.

Oswald pulls the strip-till rig with a 190-horsepower Case IH MX 210 tractor. It’s equipped with Trimble EZ-Steer, EZ-Guide 500 and OmniStar XP correction.

Oswald strip-tills in the fall when possible, applying anhydrous ammonia 8 inches deep. Placing fertilizer in the root zone parallel to the row with strip-till indexes the fertilizer a consistent distance from the plants, he says.

Using Liquid Nitrogen

Sam Krautscheid of George, Wash., who farms with his father, Jim, has been strip-tilling since 2005 after originally having corn custom strip-tilled.

The Krautscheids grow corn for grain, high-moisture corn for feedlots, as well as potatoes, green peas, sweet corn, buckwheat, spring wheat and winter wheat. Sam is a dealer for Yetter Co., Hefty Seeds and Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Krautscheid uses a 12-row Case IH 5310 strip-till bar, which has 30-inch spacings. He installed Yetter row cleaners and a mole knife for each row unit.

In the spring, he broadcasts micronutrients, some dry urea, sulfur and potash, then strip-tills, running the mole knife 8 to 10 inches deep.

He puts down 100 to 125 units of liquid 32% nitrogen. With the planter, he bands 10 to 12 gallons of 10-34-0.

It’s important to put the nitrogen in the band to keep it from being tied up in residue and being released too late in the season — possibly reducing corn yields — Krautscheid says.

“After the corn emerges, I pull petioles each week to decide how much nitrogen to add through the center-pivot irrigation system,” he says. “By doing this, I can see how much nitrogen is getting used or if it’s tied up in the residue.”

Since 2005, the Krautscheids’ corn yields have averaged 6½ tons per acre.

He typically strip-tills 3 to 7 days before planting corn so the soil in the tilled strip can warm up.

“We use 32% nitrogen deep-placed with some phosphate. This is about half of the total fertilizer we use...”

— Joe Brightly

The Krautscheids rent out their corn ground for grazing during the winter, which prevents them from strip-tilling in the fall. But having cows graze cornstalks reduces the amount of residue that must be dealt with when planting corn.

The Krautscheids’ typical 5-year rotation consists of 1 year of potatoes, followed by 2 years of corn, 1 year of green peas double-cropped with sweet corn and, finally, winter wheat or spring wheat.

“I also strip-till the sweet corn behind green peas,” Krautscheid says. “I broadcast enough phosphate and potash for the green peas and sweet corn before planting the peas. After the peas are harvested, we strip-till down nitrogen and plant the sweet corn. Then I follow up with nitrogation for the sweet corn, if any more nitrogen is needed.”

Try Dual Placement

Lapp strip-tilled last spring before planting corn and soybeans.

He used a six-row Strip Cat from Twin Diamond Industries with 30-inch spacings. He placed a liquid 28% nitrogen mix for corn at 5 and 9 inches below the surface, providing a continuous supply of nutrients throughout those levels.

He used a controller from SureFire Ag Systems, and a tower fertilizer assembly that Twin Diamond installed on the strip-till rig.

“The controller and tower fertilizer assembly worked very well,” he says. “The toolbar has two 150-gallon tanks for the liquid fertilizer.

“When I plant corn with my John Deere 7000, I easily transfer the tower fertilizer assembly to the planter and use the same controller as the Strip Cat.”

The planter is equipped with split Totally Tubular stainless-steel fertilizer tubes, one on each side of the row.

The results of strip-tilling corn and soybeans for the first time pleased Lapp. While little rain fell in western Ohio in late July and August, his corn averaged 173 bushels per acre while soybeans averaged 65 bushels per acre.

“I was always skeptical about no-tilling my corn,” he says. “I have several different soil types on my farm, but strip-till gives me confidence I can plant into residue in those soils and get good emergence.

“I want to strip-till and apply fertilizer in the spring. I’m not comfortable applying nitrogen in the fall because of potential losses.”

Lapp used a mixture of 28% liquid nitrogen, 10-34-0 and ammonium thiosulfate, applying about 40 gallons per acre with the Strip Cat.

The ammonium thiosulfate stabilized the nitrogen put down for corn and provided a source of sulfur.

When planting corn, Lapp applies a mixture of 28% liquid nitrogen and ammonium thiosulfate.

The fertilizer mix is placed beside the seed trench and behind the closing wheels at the rate of 30 units of nitrogen to stimulate the phosphorus concentration in the flag leaf.

Before planting soybeans, Lapp ran the Strip Cat on corn ground to warm up the soil. At planting he applied 9 gallons per acre of a nitrogen-phosphorus-sulfur mix beside the seed trench and behind the closing wheels with the John Deere 7000 planter. Lapp says providing fertilizer early to soybeans helps them grow until the roots develop nodules so they can fix nitrogen.

Starting Out Right

Like Lapp, Joe Brightly and his father Dean of Hamlin, N.Y., are relatively new strip-tillers. He learned about strip-till while studying agriculture at Cornell University, which is promoting conservation tillage.

After graduating in 2009, he convinced his father to try strip-till on a small scale on their farm, where they grow corn, soybeans and vegetables. Things went so well that the Brightlys expanded their strip-till acres in 2010.

“By strip-tilling, I can cut costs, use less diesel and labor, and save time,” Brightly says. “I’d love to be a no-tiller, but going straight from full-width tillage to no-till would cause problems.

“The area gets a lot of rain, with Lake Ontario to the north and Lake Erie to the south.”

The Brightlys farm a few miles south of Lake Ontario and halfway between Rochester and Buffalo. Many farmers in the area call strip-tillage zone-tillage, which tends to be deeper (12 to 16 inches) than strip-till, which is shallower.

“I know about 30 farmers in the area who are zone-tilling — mainly just field corn,” Brightly says. “We’re primarily doing spring strip-till.

“I’d like to do fall strip-till, but we’re not blessed with weather where the harvest is done before the fall rains come. We will do some fall strips, if the conditions are right.”

“The coulters are mixing the fertilizer in the moist, tilled soil in the strip. You don’t have a hot zone...”

— Jeff Reints

The Brightlys strip-till with a prototype of a Brillion Zone Commander. It’s a six-row deep ripper with two wings, which have three rows each on 30-inch spacings.

The strip-till rig has two coulters in front, followed by a shank, two hilling discs and a rolling basket.

“I had real good luck with that,” Brightly says. “It took a while to get the berms where I wanted them to be.”

They strip-till about 14 inches deep, placing fertilizer about 8 inches down.

“The reason for going this deep is to break up the compaction layer,” he says. “Once this is done, we’ll shallow it up to around 8 to 10 inches.”

A Deep Lineup

In addition to the corn and soybeans, the Brightlys grow processing vegetables like sweet corn, snap beans and peas, along with cabbage, squash, cucumbers and pumpkins for fresh markets.

“We have strip-tilled all these crops, except peas and cabbage,” Brightly says. “All of the crops that we strip-tilled received some sort of fertilizer deep-placed, with the exception of snap beans.

“In general, we use 32% nitrogen deep-placed with some phosphate (10-34-0). This is about half of the total fertilizer we use. The rest is through the planter, or we potash broadcast where it needs to be. The vegetables get different amounts of fertilizer, but the concept is similar. We apply the fertilizer in the spring.”

SPOON FEEDING. Including lime or calcium every year in a fertilizer program could save broadcasting it once every 5 years, says Shell Rock, Iowa, strip-tiller Jeff Reints. Annual application would spoon feed the soil and maintain a better pH.

For field corn, the Brightlys put down about 100 units of liquid 32% nitrogen when strip-tilling, placing it about 8 inches deep. With their 12-row Case IH 1240 — which has 30-inch spacings — they apply about 60 units of liquid 32%.

“It does take longer to plant because of all the product being put down, but it allows me to be doing other jobs like planting vegetables in early summer, rather than sidedressing the corn,” Brightly says. “Liquid nitrogen is easily accessible to the crop.

“I also foliar-feed the corn with a herbicide application in early to mid-June with micronutrients of zinc, manganese and magnesium.”

This spring, Brightly plans to increase the nitrogen rate for corn by 10 units per acre to offset the additional carbon from the residue.

He also plans to switch to 28% liquid nitrogen to get some sulfur.

“We averaged close to 200-bushel-per-acre field corn in 2010, which is good for this area, but we also had a very good growing season,” he adds.

Focusing On Corn

While many farmers like Brightly grow a variety of crops, veteran strip-tiller Todd Mooberry of Lowpoint, Ill., concentrates on corn.

Mooberry, who began strip-tilling about 10 years ago, grows 1,800 acres of corn-on-corn. He’s been using an Orthman 1tRIPr for about 5 years. Mooberry is an Orthman representative and a co-owner of DM Precision Ag.

A DRY RUN. For the 100 acres of soybeans that Jeff Reints strip-tills each year, he applies a blend of dry fertilizer while strip-tilling, blowing it in from a 7-ton Montag air-delivery cart.

“I’m applying dry phosphate and potash in the strip in the fall with the strip-till rig, blowing it in from a 6-ton Montag tank,” Mooberry says. “We’re getting away from fall-applied anhydrous ammonia, although we’re still doing some. Last winter, we lost a lot of anhydrous that was applied in the fall of 2009. We’re moving to spring-applied 28% liquid nitrogen, and then sidedressing.

“We don’t apply any anhydrous in the spring. Orthman offers a shallow-tillage attachment to run in the spring that replaces the shank with two coulters. This past spring, we used those coulters to apply ESN (polymer-coated urea) and ammonium sulfate in the strips. That let us use one machine for deep tillage in the fall or shallow tillage in the spring.”

While Mooberry isn’t putting down any micronutrients in the fall, he’s considering applying some liquid lime for calcium, as well as sulfur and zinc. This summer, Mooberry will put in a research plot to compare strip-till rigs, forms of nitrogen, plant populations and twin rows vs. 30-inch spacings for corn.

The strip-till comparison will include strips made with a mole-knife, as well as those with Orthman’s 1tRIPr, a Blu-Jet ripper and twin-row strips made with a modified Great Plains Turbo-Till.

Mooberry usually runs the 1tRIPr shanks about 9 or 10 inches deep. But because of compaction from the wet harvest in 2009 and with dry soil conditions in the fall of 2010, he ran the shanks to a depth of 10 to 11 inches.

Depending on weather and field conditions next fall, Mooberry plans on returning to the 9- to 10-inch depth for fertilizer placement.

“In the spring, I’ve been freshening up the strips with the 1tRIPr and putting on 10 to 15 gallons per acre of liquid 28% nitrogen, which is about 45 units,” he says. “Then I come back and sidedress about 150 units of nitrogen. I’m shooting for 200 units of total nitrogen for the corn.”

This winter, Mooberry plans to build a rig from a John Deere cultivator that will have three coulters per row, with a 1,000-gallon tank for liquid nitrogen.