Drainage, proper pH, efficient nutrient use and a top-performing planter top Roger Wenning’s checklist for building a successful no-till and strip-till operation.

Water has long been my chief adversary in farming. All of my acres have some roll to them and several areas on the farm are classified as highly erodible.

No matter how the government classifies my acres, I consider erosion to be a concern on my entire farm, and it’s one of the primary reasons I went to no-till. As a kid, I watched gullies wash all over the fields and didn’t like it. As an adult, I did something about it.

Water is also one of the reasons I struggled with no-till in the beginning. My soils are made up of light-colored clay that doesn’t warm up easily in the spring.

The more water that’s in the soil, the more BTUs it takes to heat it up. I didn’t realize how much excess water I had in the soil when I took my first steps toward conservation tillage.

We started off by doing minimum tillage on the hills and eventually rented a drill and no-tilled soybeans in 1990. It worked out OK, so we kept at it. Putting wavy coulters on our planter allowed us to no-till corn, too, but the results were mediocre at best.

No-till corn wasn’t working for us. Not having the right equipment was a challenge — and when we did get corn planted, early rains would drown it out. Getting the soil dried out was going to be necessary to get a good stand of no-till corn.

Tiling Pays Offs

When we decided to get serious about no-till is when we invested in tile to tackle the moisture issues. In the mid-1990s, I grid-tiled the farm on 45- to 60-foot spacings.

Tiling made a huge difference almost immediately. Our stands were better and early vigor improved. It was amazing how the crops responded to the drier soils.

 Roger Wenning found that cereal rye (left) provided nearly complete control of mustards and henbit, while even annual ryegrass (right) offered substantial control of these winter annuals typically found in no-till fields.

In years when water was an issue, we’d see a 50-bushel yield advantage on tiled fields compared to those without proper drainage. On regular years, the difference is 10 to 15 bushels.

When our neighbors saw what a benefit it was to us, we were able to turn tiling into a big side business. We now run successful excavating and farm-drainage businesses.

No-till and tiling go hand in hand. If you’re just getting into no-till, I would say lining out drainage should be your first piece of business. Well-drained soil not only dries out and warms up faster, but it gives soil microbes an aerobic environment to thrive in.

For years, we had a hog operation that made going completely no-till a challenge because we needed to work in the manure. In 2003, we got rid of the hogs and went 100% no-till, and the result was a boost to our earthworm population. Since we aren’t disturbing their burrows by working the fields for manure application — and because the tiling kept them from drowning — the earthworms are thriving.

We have so many earthworm and night-crawler holes that there’s likely more tillage going on in our fields now than if we pulled a plow through them.

Invest In The Planter

Seeing that tiling could make no-till work for us, I invested in a Kinze six-row planter with five splitters, along with Yetter row cleaners, spiked closing wheels and drag chains.

I’ve discovered that your planter needs to be top of the line. My planter may have been new, but we pulled it around the field with a 1974 Massey Ferguson 1135 tractor. My planter was worth four times what the tractor was, but the corn didn’t know the difference.

While the deep roots of annual ryegrass break up compaction and scavenge nutrients, clover is helping fix nitrogen in Roger Wenning’s no-tilled fields.

The new planter worked great for soybeans, too. The splitters let us no-till soybeans in 15-inch rows and gave us more uniform placement.

I upped my planter performance again in 2008 by going with the Precision Planting setup. The Precision finger meter and Bullseye seed tube gave me greater accuracy than I had been getting with my standard Kinze finger-meter units and drop tubes.

My plant spacing and emergence was noticeably more even. I estimate the Precision Planting meter and seed tubes increased my corn yields by 10 bushels per acre.

Steps 2 And 3

After building a good drainage system, my next goal was getting the pH and macronutrient levels in my soils in order. I’ve gathered my own samples in 2.5-acre grids for the last several years.

I figure much of the property has been in my family since the 1940s, so I probably know more about my acres than anyone else. I’m the one that watches the yield monitor, so I know where the spots are that I need to sample.

Soil tests have shown us that some areas needed a lot of lime and others didn’t. Grid sampling allowed us to identify those areas and do some spot treatments.

Initially, we spread up to 3 tons of lime on those areas. Now that we’ve balanced the soil with spot applications, we only need 1 ton of lime at most. Waiting until your calcium is under 70%, or the pH is under 6.3, means the damage is already done.

My sister, Marita Field, does all of our spot spreading as determined by soil testing, so I know fertilizer and lime is going where it’s needed. Sampling 2.5-acre plots helps make sure we’re maximizing efficiency and production on every acre. We don’t want to sample on 20-acre grids and shoot for an average. We want to know exactly where to put nutrients and amendments.

My yield monitor is also a great tool to identify where I should sample. If I go to that area and determine drainage is sufficient and the soil is balanced, I can say it’s not capable of producing as much yield. I can then concentrate fertilizer and nutrients on the areas that might produce 200-plus-bushel yields.

I also believe in fertilizing every year because my soil can’t hold over that many nutrients. We apply 100 to 150 pounds of DAP and potash with strip-till for corn and broadcast those nutrients in soybeans.

Moving To Strip-Till

Strip-till is one of my most recent changes. I’ve got a shop and love to build things in the winter, so I purchased a used Case IH 900 planter and adapted it for strip-till.

We got rid of the hogs and went 100% no-till, and the result was a boom in our earthworm population...

I added a cutter, mole knife, disc closers and a crumbler on the back to crumble clods and smooth everything back down. The row cleaners on my planter move aside any cover-crop roots that get pulled up by the strip-till rig.

I usually strip-till 1 week to 2 days before planting. The unit tills a 5- to 6-inch strip and it usually helps get me in the fields a little sooner. I use cover crops extensively, and without strip-till, they can keep the soil cooler, longer.

Strip-till allows me to get in the field and plant quickly — even quicker than conventional tillers. It also lets me place a band of fertilizer 6 inches deep, which works perfectly with my starter fertilizer program.

Starter fertilizer is a necessity, with or without no-till. Plants need plenty of nutrients early on because that’s when ear size is determined. With a starter, the plant thinks it has an unlimited food supply, so it puts on a big ear.

My planter is set up to band liquid nitrogen 2 inches beside and 2 inches beneath the row. I also add a gallon of thiazole for sulfur and a quart of zinc per my soil-test recommendations.

If one row of starter fertilizer ever became plugged, I could definitely tell once the crop got growing. To prevent those losses, I added a Redball system to the planter so I can be confident every plant gets starter fertilizer.

Corn plants are fed constantly when using this system. One time — 8 days after a late-May planting — the corn had come up quickly, so I dug up a plant and saw that the root was already 6 inches deep and into its second zone of fertilizer. The deeper those roots grow, the more nutrients they get.

I also believe in sidedressing nitrogen. Applying it only when the crop needs it reduces your risk of losing it and I don’t want to contribute to global warming or hypoxia in our watersheds. We try to sidedress when corn is 4 to 10 inches tall to avoid knocking down plants.

Roger Wenning says the Precision Planting seed tubes and finger units make the biggest difference on his Kinze 2000 planter. “The accuracy really amazed me. I went to those 3 years ago and you can see the difference walking in the field,” he says, adding that the Great Plains spider closing wheels also work well in his soils.

Full-Time Roots

Around the same time I started experimenting with no-till, I also began trying cover crops.

Initially, I ran strips of wheat around hills that I noticed were eroding and in some waterways. We noticed that the wheat strips slowed down the water after we harvested soybeans and corn.

It wasn’t until about 2005 that I started reading up on other cover-crop options. Annual ryegrass looked promising for building organic matter and loosening up our clay soils.

We tried it after soybeans and saw a 6- to 7-bushel increase in corn the next year. Now cover crops are part of our regular management plan.

Conditions often dictate decisions on establishing ryegrass, or whether it’s even our best option for a cover crop. I prefer to drill in covers if I can get in the field by October 1. Aerial seeding worked well in 2009 because our harvest was late and we had good moisture.

A dry fall in 2010 pushed us to broadcast cereal rye late on our corn acres and work it in with a Phoenix harrow. Our plot work had determined that cereal rye could effectively be planted into November, and it did work well.

The snow cover helped keep it growing when it might have otherwise winterkilled.

But annual ryegrass is the cover crop we use most. Killing annual ryegrass properly is important. There’s little room for error, so you have to do it right. Use a fan-type nozzle and don’t apply herbicides with too much water.

I apply glyphosate at the labeled rate of 32 ounces per acre with 8 to 9 gallons of water. Make sure the temperature is 50 to 60 degrees F, and that the annual ryegrass is actively growing. Don’t cut corners and you won’t have any trouble.

I usually kill the cover in early April before it gets too big — especially before no-tilling corn.

If it gets too big and fibrous, it won’t release nitrogen back to the corn in time. If killed early, it will release nitrogen back to the next crop in early June.

Killing annual ryegrass properly is important. Use
a fan-type nozzle and don’t apply herbicides with too much water...

As the supervisor of my local soil and water district, my duties include looking into things like cover crops, which has helped me expand my program.

One-hundred percent of our acres are planted to cover crops every year now, and we put out plots with various cover crops. The Midwest Cover Crops Council helped get me started with the plots, and we hold a demo day every August.

It’s a great way to get the experts to my farm, where I can show them what I’m doing and get their advice.

Cover crops and no-till have brought my soil to a point where I can easily dig into it. There are no hard layers. I can dig 4 feet deep and the soil structure is the same the whole way down.

My soil is at 1% to 1.2% organic matter and I’m working to push it to 3% with cover crops. I also want to improve the biology of my soils by having live cover-crop roots in the soil all winter.

They say we need to hit 300-bushel corn yields in the future, and I think building soil health will play an important part in reaching that goal.

More No-Till Benefits

Our yields are pushing forward, so we must be doing something right. In 2009, we averaged 205-bushel corn, and in 2010 we were in the 185-bushel range despite a wet planting season and a dry growing season. These past two seasons have yielded the best corn crops I’ve ever raised.

No-till has helped me rent more acres, too. When I approached my potential landlords, I shared with them how no-till and cover crops help improve soil quality, reduce erosion and build soil organic matter. It was a big selling point for me and earned me another 160 acres.

My neighbors talk about our fields a lot, especially in the summer of 2010 when it didn’t rain.

Our no-till fields conserved moisture and our roots were able to access deeper moisture. The difference between no-tilled and tilled fields was impressive under those conditions.

I’ve installed several million feet of tile in the area over the last few years and I can determine, as soon as we start digging, whether the field has been no-tilled. You can tell by the tilth and structure of the soil.

And, in long-term no-till fields, there’s no sign of hardpans. Seeing that soil difference job after job pushes me harder to make no-till and cover crops continue to work for me.