Pictured Above: SPECIALTY STRIP-TILL. Kentland, Ind., farmer Jesse Stoller began strip-tilling on the 4,000-acre family farm in 2014. In 2020, he custom strip-tilled almost 10,000-acres using his B&D Metal Works bar with Dawn Pluribus V row units and a Montag high-output 9-ton fertilizer cart.

For farmers curious about the benefits of reducing their tillage practices, custom strip-till can be an efficient and affordable entry point. For farmers already building strips every year, it can be a lucrative business opportunity. 

Kentland, Ind., farmer Jesse Stoller has spent the last few years perfecting his pitch as a custom strip-tiller and he says it pays to crunch the numbers. The Stoller family started strip-tilling in 2014 on their 4,000-acre operation. In 2020, he custom strip-tilled almost 10,000 acres, advising customers on nutrient placement, precision technology application and berm building.

With increasing interest among farmers looking into alternative tillage practices to widen planting windows and compensate for cool, damp field conditions — it’s no wonder a robust custom strip-till market is starting to develop in certain parts of the country. 

For farmers wanting to try strip-till, start-up costs can be an initial hurdle. Even for established strip-tillers, the costs of owning, maintaining and operating their own rigs may be less efficient than hiring someone to do it. 

Stoller believes demonstrating the value of his services is truly what convinces his clients and offers some experience-based insight into the dollars and sense of a custom
strip-till business. 

By the Numbers

Broken down in 3 separate scenarios (based on level of investment), Stoller has calculated the per-acre costs of farmers operating their own equipment. 

“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.” 

CUSTOM NUMBER CRUNCH. Jesse Stoller explores 3 scenarios in these calculations based on level of investment in equipment to determine a given farmer’s cost per acre of owning their own equipment. He evaluated depreciation, tractor and implement costs, interest and cost per acre for 1,000-5,000 acre operations. Scenario 1 looks at a farmer who bought $500,000 worth of equipment, scenario 2 is based on $350,000 worth and scenario 3 is based on $225,000 worth.

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He evaluated depreciation, tractor and implement costs, interest and cost per-acre for 1,000-5,000 acre operations. Unsurprisingly, Stoller’s calculations show the more a farmer spends on his tractor and strip-till rig, the higher the per-acre cost. 

For example, in a scenario where a farmer has made a $500,000 equipment investment to service a 1,000-acre operation, it breaks out to $63.40 per acre cost for equipment ownership, labor costs and maintenance, repairs and fuel. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Stoller estimated that a farmer who’d made a smaller $225,000 investment to service a much larger 5,000-acre operation would only be paying about $10.74 per acre. Understanding these costs has helped him determine the point at which it’s profitable for a farmer to own his own equipment vs. hiring a custom farmer.   

“I charge $25 per acre for custom strip-tilling and found that 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.”

Banking Benefits

Demonstrating the value of custom strip-tilling to his clients is incredibly effective, but Stoller notes that not all the benefits are monetary. 

“When you’re in the combine and there’s 10,000 things that need to be done, the strip-tilling is one less thing you’ll need to worry about,” he says. “If you’re building strips in the fall yourself, you’ll have to wait until harvest is over to start. But, if you hire me, I’m going in right behind the combine. There is a big timeliness benefit to that.” 

Flexibility is a big selling point too, says Stoller. The cost of the strip-till implement itself is often only the start — fitting it out with various precision equipment, coulters or shanks and fertilizer carts expands the capabilities of the tool as it drives up the cost. By giving a farmer access to a custom operator’s equipment and expertise, they can run trials on their operation they might not have otherwise.   

“If a farmer is thinking they want to just try some corn-on-corn on 60-80 acres, just to see what it does, it can be a real eye-opener for them,” he adds. “If done in the spring, we’ve had some really good results putting nitrogen, monoammonium phosphate (MAP), potash, ammonium sulfate (AMS) into the strip and planting into it. One client even stopped using starter fertilizer on their corn on corn — so it makes a big difference.” 

When a farmer uses a custom strip-tiller, managing the work across fields becomes more arithmetic than logistics. Stoller notes that if a farmer’s strip-till need from one season varied dramatically to the next, they won’t have to scramble to find the necessary time or equipment to fit the need.

“Say your need rises from 500 acres to 1,500 acres from year to year, based on rotation or whatever the cause, you’re not affected by that in terms of what you need to invest in with machinery or labor,” says Stoller. “You’re just looking at it from a per-acre cost. That gives you a lot of flexibility when it comes to management.” 

Field-Level Considerations

Although custom strip-tilling can relieve a lot of logistical headaches for the farmer, there is plenty to plan before offering the service. Prior to pulling onto a client’s field with his tractor, Stoller pulls out his notebook to meticulously plan how his work will be integrated into the operation. 

“My goal is to make the fields I strip-till the easiest the farmer has to plant…”

“First of all, you have to fully understand what customers’ goals in terms of rotation, fertilizer, application rates, blends and all those types of things — and take good record so there aren’t any miscommunications or mix ups,” he says. “Think about how they want the farms laid out. My goal is to make the fields I strip-till the easiest the farmer has to plant. The strips have to be straight, the guess rows need to be right, corners laid out correctly and AB curves done right.” 

There are plenty of practical concerns Stoller needs to be aware of too that will make or break his ability to do the job properly. For these, he stresses the importance of selecting the right tool for the job, and knowing it back to front. 

Stoller uses a B&D Metal Works strip-till bar with Dawn Pluribus V row units and a Montag high-output 9-ton fertilizer cart. Planning for the volume of acreage he’ll pass over in a given season, he notes several considerations a custom strip-tiller should make with their equipment:

✔  Buy quality components

✔  Get standardized parts

✔  Focus on low maintenance, if possible

✔  Get something easy to work on 

✔  Get fertilizer metering capacity to match demand

✔  Easy depth and berm adjustments 

✔  Overall capacity and speed

✔  Good company support

“There are a lot of things that you need to be able to adjust for,” says Stoller. “Capacity and speed for instance; I’m able to run roughly 7-8 miles an hour with my coulter-style unit. Whereas with a shank-style, you’ll only be able to pull 6-7 mph. If you get more done, faster, you’ll be more profitable.” 

Some equipment features will be non-negotiable, says Stoller. 

“High accuracy GPS is a must,” he says. “It gives you the ability to repeat your guidance patterns year after year for your clients. This creates a very seamless relationship between the two of you and is much more efficient. Make sure you understand the RTK coverage in your area as well.” 

Stoller notes that a custom strip-tiller needs to remain versatile enough to meet their clients’ unique needs. This includes things like maintaining the ability to build strips in the fall and spring, run in a wide variety of field conditions and be able to run over standing cover crops. 

Working on someone else’s farm makes it essential to think of inputs ahead of time as well. 

“Luckily for me, I work with a great local co-op because I don’t have my own tender trucks,” says Stoller. “They do an excellent job of keeping me going. But, when you’re designing your toolbar, you still have to pay attention to things like your fill height. I chose to have a single fertilizer bin with just a one blend system to make tendering easier. 

“Also, don’t forget that you’re working away from home, so you can’t just run back 5 miles to the shop to do a repair or fill up with fuel. Bringing a well-stocked service trailer is sort of a way to bring a central hub with you. It’s vital to what I do.”