Pictured Above: MINIMUM STRIP-TILL. Trent Profit uses a Dawn 6000 minimum disturbance strip-till unit to variable-rate apply a prescription rate of dry fertilizer as determined by soil testing. The coulter-style strip-tiller leaves barely a trace in the field compared to the old shank-style machine he originally used.

I was born into no-till and there’s a running joke I wouldn’t know how to drive a tractor straight if I had to thanks to the family’s quick adoption of guidance technology. 

That’s what happens when you’re brought up by early adopters and farming innovators. Now it’s my generation’s turn to continue pushing the farm along its upward trajectory. 

Our flat, heavy soils made going 100% no-till a formidable challenge. So my father, Dale, and uncle, Charles, settled on the compromise of strip-tilling as they’d seen the value of not disturbing the soil. Strip-tilling allowed them to essentially trick their corn seedlings into thinking they were being raised in a conventionally tilled field while most of the field remained untouched.

Like with no-till, they were somewhat alone in their strip-till adventure. There wasn’t much for equipment on the market, so they built their own strip-till rig — a 12-row shank unit. It was my job in the late 1990s through early 2000s to follow the combine with the strip-till unit. I’m still running the strip-tiller, but we’ve since upgraded to a faster unit that disturbs far less soil. 

Follow the Line

Precise, or as close to it as we can get, is our goal for placing seed, fertilizer and nutrients. The same is true for where our tires fall. Strip-tilling, spraying, planting corn or planting beans, we want to stay on the same path. 

We’ve used controlled traffic since 2000. It serves to reduce compaction, minimize soil disturbance and get our inputs in the best spot to do their job. We never plant something where we’ve driven equipment and we only place fertility in the zones where plants are growing for maximum efficiency and responsible nutrient use.

Our planter and strip-till bar are both 3-point mounted to provide better control of the equipment and more maneuverability. We adopted the Trimble auto-steer system very early in the game, but there are some challenges.

Even with guidance, we have to work to keep the corn row perfectly between our 40-foot Great Plains 30-inch twin-row no-till planter. There’s also a little more row unit bounce due to the corn stalk residue, which slows down planting.

Another tradeoff we make due to twin rows is running a narrower tire on our Hagie high clearance sprayer. We run a 380/90 RSY (about 15-inch) tire to fit the 22-inch gap between soybean rows. 

While our soils hold up decently because they’re never tilled where we drive, we do end up with some sprayer tracks in our field when conditions get tough due to the skinny tires. We address severe rutting when it makes sense, such as when installing tile. 

In those instances, we plant wheat in the field, harvest, install tile and address ruts, then plant a cereal rye cover crop. However, the further along we come in our minimal disturbance system, the less we seem to notice the sins of years past. Our soils hold up better.

Tread Softly

Ohio has recently stepped up efforts to reduce phosphorus loading in Lake Erie, putting forth best practice guidelines and economic incentives. Right now, it’s a freebie. 

It’s a chance for farmers to adopt these practices, see if they work with their farming system and if they can have an impact on the alga blooms. Banding nutrients with strip-till and rarely putting any nutrients on top of the soil is one of the best practices we’ve followed for decades already. More recently, we developed a farm nutrient management plan. 

For the past 8 years we’ve soil-sampled all our acres every other year. Typically, we’re sampling corn stalk fields in the spring to make a variable-rate nutrient plan for our fall strip-till application. We also document everything from the soil sample results to planting, nutrient placement, spraying, etc.

We’re also more careful in the placement of our nutrients. In 2013, we replaced the homemade strip-till unit with a 40-foot Dawn 6000 minimal disturbance strip-till machine. Instead of tearing up the soil with a shank, it uses a coulter to cut a slot, injects fertilizer and then closes the slot. 

While we still call it strip-till, there’s no more disturbance than what we make with the planter. The Dawn 6000 can also be used for high speed anhydrous ammonia sidedress applications. 

We used it to sidedress for 5 years, but in our challenging soils we felt we weren’t getting a perfect seal, which resulted in some vapor loss. As a result, we went back to using a Blu-Jet shank unit for sidedressing anhydrous on popcorn. It creates more disturbance, but seems to do a better job of getting and keeping our N in the soil. We also use N-Serve to stabilize the N and keep it in place longer. 

An aNH3 Company EquaRow monitor lets us know immediately if we have a plugged knife and the super cooled controller is supposed to be far more accurate for our variable-rate application.

Precision at planting is also improving. We built our own 45-foot, 18-row planter using John Deere row units on an Orthman toolbar. It has a Precision Planting AirForce down force system, eSet meters and a 20/20 seed monitor. 

We’re singulating and placing seeds at a higher rate of accuracy than our previous system, though we could probably do even better with the new hydraulic systems. In 2019, we added a Precision Planting Conceal system to improve accuracy of starter fertilizer placement as well.

The Conceal system integrates a fertilizer knife with the planter gauge wheel for consistent accurate placement of the fertilizer in relation to the seed. Running on the front side of the gauge wheel, it applies starter fertilizer about 1½ inches below the ground and uses a splitter to also place starter 2 inches on either side of the row. 

Due to the configuration and connection to the gauge wheel, the precise 2-by-2-by-2-inch placement is always achieved no matter if we have row unit bounce or are turning, for example. This is ideal placement for the growing plant and it’s done with less disturbance than our old fertilizer placement system. It certainly cleaned the planter up, too. 

Produce Quality

The crops we grow are also a result of some forward thinking of the past generation. They saw popcorn and seed soybeans — among other crops tried over the years — as niche, higher value crops. 

Those crops do require some more intensive management as quality is a significant factor. Everything is identity preserved, so we must clean our planters, combines, trailers and grain sites.