Pictured Above: CLEAR PATH. For Mount Pulaski, Ill., farmer Jeff Martin, strip-tilling created a little bare soil that could dry out, creating a much better seedbed and stand and also allowing him to plant corn earlier.

When Jeff Martin added strip-tilled corn his 8,000-acre operation in the early 1990s, one of the motivations was to clear a path for his no-tilled soybeans. When the Mount Pulaski, Ill., operation switched to drilled soybeans, two wet springs followed, making it difficult to no-till into the damp, matted bean stubble. 

Strip-tilling allowed Martin to create a little bare soil that could dry out, creating a much better seedbed and stand. They could also plant earlier when strip-tilling. 

“Once we started drilling beans and getting higher yields, we had a lot more residue,” he says. “We started strip-tilling to clear most of the residue, but we like to leave a little on the strip in the fall.”

A small amount of residue left in the strip protects the soil from winter moisture, explains Martin. In the spring, the residue is cleared by his John Deere 1770NT 24-row planter.

“Our planter is really pretty simple,” he says. “We have Precision Planting CleanSweep hydraulic row cleaners, Martin spiked closing wheels, chains on the back end, nothing special. We have not used a coulter for 20 years. The soils are so mellow that all the coulter seemed to do was get down in the muck and make it worse.” 

Chains on the back end of the planter help smooth out the soil. “If it is a little bit wet, the chains kind of cover that trench in a little bit,” he says.

Eight-inch wide strips are made using a 16-row Deere 25S strip-till bar after cover crops are seeded in the fall, a practice the operation has been using for about 12 years. “We no-till our beans and go right down the middle of the strip. We’re getting in the same row every year, in that root zone.”

Strips are not made before no-tilling beans in the spring, a choice that Martin says has never caused a problem for the soybean seedbed. But he is considering a strip-till bar that does not have a mole knife. Changing the configuration of the row units would allow them to get out earlier, follow the combine with a strip-till pass, and not go as deep as the mole knife, and destroy as much aggregate
soil structure.

The biggest benefit Martin says he gets from strip-tilling is erosion control. In the last 2-3 years, he has been trying to make his strips on the same strip as the year before, using a Deere GPS system and auto-steer to create the strips and plant in the same spot.

“We used to move 15 inches, back and forth each year,” he says. “It is harder to do in corn-on-corn, but we are trying to go in the same strip.” 

Profitable is Primary

The synergy between no-till and strip-till plays into Martin’s top priority of being profitable and ideally, cutting $100-150 per acre from his expense ratio. 

“How are we doing this? Nutrient cycling,” he says. “We are creating available plant nutrients and the soil biology is taking those nutrients that are locked up in the soil. We are also accessing free nitrogen (N).”

The operation has tried to eliminate salty fertilizers. He estimates that they will have cut out anhydrous on their farm in 2-3 years, saving money in the long run because they are not killing beneficial biology in the soil while still achieving strong yields.

“Some of the products we’ve been using have been killing our soil biology,” he says. “Our fungi to bacteria ratio should be 1:1, but a lot of our Midwestern soils have a ratio of 100 bacteria to 1 fungi. Fungi cannot live in a liquid in a jug. Bacteria can, but it will not work for fungi.”

Martin applies microfungi in a talc form that is applied to seed. After planting, he applies 50 units per acre of 28% N on top with humic acid as a stabilizer. A burndown application follows 3 weeks later, including a foliar product. 

He also applies gypsum, sulfur and thiosulfate. Another experiment Martin’s operation is trying is sidedressing with 28% N combined with humic acid as a stabilizer. The operation also applies liquid boron in a foliar application. 

“This is not going to happen overnight,” he says. “When we first started on our program, we started taking Brix ratings, and we were at a 5. After 5 years, we are up to 11-12. We can visually see that we are doing a better job of photosynthesizing. We have to look 100 years down the road, and we have to start somewhere.