After strip-tilling corn on soybeans for the first time 6 years ago, Newton, Iowa, farmer Will Cannon tried strip-tilling corn-on-corn in his second season and has continued ever since.
Since he started strip-tilling, Cannon says his yields have definitely increased, but says it’s hard to determine how much is due to strip-till because he feels he’s learning and becoming a better farmer.
Cannon’s corn-on-corn yields are more variable than corn on soybeans.
“I have fields that yield better than corn on beans and I have fields that have taken a 50-bushel yield hit,” he says. “On average, I’m going to estimate corn-on-corn acres are yielding 15 to 20 bushels less than corn on soybeans.”
With 5 years’ experience, Cannon cites three keys to successfully strip-tilling corn-on-corn.
No. 1: How easy will it be to strip-till the field?
“How many guidance lines will the field take? Can they be straight lines? If it’s a field with contours around terraces, that’s not one conducive for corn-on-corn,” he says. “Ease of managing guidance lines is important because you need to have repeatability and return to the same place.”
No. 2: What’s the quality of the soil?
“Soil quality includes the cation-exchange capacity (CEC), the drainage and the fertility,” Cannon says. “The higher the fertility and the higher the CEC, the better.
“These kinds of fields have the capacity to hold that much more nitrogen and feed it in corn-on-corn systems. I much prefer a well-drained soil for corn-on-corn.”
No. 3: The hardest period for corn-on-corn is the early season.
“The heavy mat of residue and cool, wet soil can create seedling disease problems and uneven stands,” he says. “I’m always looking for even emergence. I want to get every seed out of the ground at the same time. Seeds that emerge even a day or two later are weeds rather than corn plants because they will never catch up.
“For hybrid selection, I look at the disease package on the hybrid. I also look at corn-on-corn test plots to see how it fared and I look for advice from my seed dealer, too.”
He started farming when he was 16 years old with a field for an FFA Project. Several years later, Cannon rented equipment from his father and land. Cannon has worked for Ag Leader for about 10 years, after graduating from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s of science degree in ag systems technology and agronomy.
“I owe everything to my Dad, who was a school teacher, because he made us think for ourselves,” Cannon says. He has a brother who primarily raises cattle and farms some corn and soybeans as well.
“We learned independence, my brother and I,” Cannon says. “And strip-till has worked with my values. I haven’t been constrained by tradition. And I have made mistakes.”
By the time he was 22, Cannon owned farm equipment and rented land, running modest equipment. He planted with six-row International Cyclo planter and combined corn with a three-row head.
“When I started out, I couldn’t afford a heavy no-till planter, so I had a neighbor no-till my corn and soybeans for a number of years,” he says.
From the outset, Cannon wanted to grow higher yields with fewer trips and less fertilizer. When he heard about strip-till, the system struck him as combining the best of no-till and full-width tillage.
Newton, Iowa, strip-tiller Will Cannon likes how the soil and corn stalks flow — especially in corn-on-corn — with the row units on his Soil Warrior strip-till rig from Environmental Tillage Systems,Faribault, Minn.
“The whole idea fascinated me,” Cannon says. “I love to learn. I read everything I could get my hands on. I also went to strip-till field days and talked to strip-tillers. Seeing strip-till in practice helped quite a bit.”
Built From Scratch
Because he wasn’t farming many acres, Cannon built a strip-till rig to save money. He bought used strip-till row units and attached them to a six-row toolbar on 30-inch spacings. He also purchased a used Montag dry fertilizer cart that held 4 to 6 tons.
“We just tried a proof-of-concept, ‘Does this strip-till even work?’ approach,” Cannon recalls. “Then crop prices got better and we were encouraged by the results, so we bought some Yetter Maverick strip-till units. The next year, when I used mole knives, we saw quite a bit of erosion up and down hills, even when the slopes were long and not that steep.”
The erosion caused Cannon to research alternatives to moleknives and shanks. About 3 years ago, he tried out a set of Soil Warrior units from Environmental Tillage Systems.
“They were good, heavy units and we didn’t see the erosion that we had before,” he says.
Today, Cannon uses a 12-row Soil Warrior unit set to 30-inch spacings that has two tanks to hold dry fertilizer. He pulls the unit with a New Holland T8010 front-wheel assist tractor with 215 horsepower.
Cannon says the coulter system on the Soil Warrior requires a lot less horsepower than a 12-row strip-till rig with knives, he says.
“I pull the Soil Warrior at 9 mph. I can cover a lot of acres, and the flexibility of the coulters frees me up to do things in the fall and the spring,” Cannon says. “The faster you run the coulters, the better. In the fall, I can go through corn-on-corn with no fear of plugging. Shanks or knives can act like a rake and they plug up with corn stalks — especially in damp or wet conditions.”
After strip-tilling in the fall, Cannon returns in the spring to fluff up the strips. He uses RTK and a full complement of precision agricultural technology for strip-tlling, planting and sidedressing.
Cannon uses a White 8222 12-row planter with 30-inch spacings.
Cannon says the ETS Soil Warrior system consists of both fall and spring strip-till passes.
“The strip-till in the fall is more of a primary tillage pass that opens up the soil and allows it to freeze and thaw more easily,” he says. “And it also creates the black strip. In the spring, we shallow up, tilling 2 to 4 inches deep. This is more soil fluffing so it warms up faster.”
The depth that Cannon tills in the fall depends on how loose the soil is. He typically tills 6 inches deep in the fall, but it varies from 4 to 6 inches, depending on soil conditions.
“Even if the soil is chunky, the tilled soil will almost be level in the spring,” he says. “I don’t necessarily need a berm. With the Soil Warrior, the soil slabs up and then settles down in the tilled zone.”
The fall strips are 5 to 6 inches wide in the fall. In the spring, he strip-tills 3 to 4 inches deep and about 8 inches wide.
Freezing and thawing throughout the winter fractures and loosens the soil. When the machine runs the same soil in the spring, a larger strip is created because the soil moves much easier and expands the width of the tilled strip, he explains. This depends on field conditions.
It’s ideal to operate the Soil Warrior at higher speeds to get the soil moving and fluid, he adds.
“The coulters lift the soil up, and then it’s fluid and rolling,” he says. “The Soil Warrior blows the fertilizer into the tilled soil and distributes it through the zone. As a result, you don’t have hot spots. The coulters are like beaters in a mixer you’d use for baking. The fertilizer disappears into the soil and it’s distributed throughout the entire profile of the tilled zone.”
When selecting hybrids for corn-on-corn, Cannon scrutinizes its disease package, looks at test plot results and seeks input from his seed dealer.
By contrast, knives with fertilizer tubes blow fertilizer to the bottom and there’s more of a V-shaped profile of tilled soil, Cannon says. With the coulters on the Soil Warrior, the tilled zone is more U-shaped. The bottom of the U-shaped zone is rougher, which he says eliminates the washing that happens with strip-tilled zones on steep slopes.
Knives smear the soil and the smooth surface is susceptible to washing and erosion during spring rains, Cannon says.
Cannon relies on auto-steer with RTK for all of his field operations — strip-tilling, planting and sidedressing — and he uses controlled traffic. He also uses an Ag Leader Integra display in the cab for all operations, and Ag Leader Paradyme for the steering.
“I use the strip-till module on the strip-till machine,” he says.
“For planting, I use the clutch-control module for swath control and the seed-tube monitor module for population monitoring, including singulation. And I’m adding the hydraulic drive module for variable-rate planting.
“I have a liquid-product control module on the sprayer for spraying and sidedressing, which allows me to vary rates and use swath control.”
When he no-tills his 30-inch row soybeans, he shifts 15 inches over from the previous year’s corn crop. He also shifts over 15 inches when strip-tilling corn following soybeans, and with corn-on-corn.
Soil Tests Key
Cannon’s fertilizer program depends on soil tests and other factors.
With that caveat, he may apply 100-200 pounds of MAP and 100-120 pounds of potash per acre, and perhaps some AMS for corn-on-corn strip-tilled in the fall.
“My goal is to feed the corn crop,” Cannon says. “I apply removal rates of P and K, along with 50 pounds per acre of AMS. I use the AMS for the sulfur, but the nitrogen is also good fuel for the bacteria that will feed on and break down residue remaining in the tilled zone.
Cannon likes the flexability of the coulters on his Soil Warrior. In the fall. "In the fall, I can go through corn-on-corn with no fear of plugging up," he says. "Shanks or knives can act like a rake and they plug up with corn stalks, especially in damp or wet conditions."
“In my experience, it’s the lighter stover — the leaves and chaff — that end up in the tilled strip in the fall.”
When strip-tilling corn-on-corn in the spring, Cannon applies 50 units of nitrogen, along with micronutrients. He’s considering switching from urea to 32% in the spring.
It’s important to feed nitrogen to corn-on-corn, especially to the seedlings.
“I will probably continue to apply 50 pounds of nitrogen in the spring to the whole field,” Cannon says. “My crop consultant compares corn seedlings to baby calves. A baby calf needs all the nutrients it can get with that first drink of milk. The corn seedling is just the same. It imbibes water and it needs those nutrients to start to grow.”
Cannon also sidedresses nitrogen on the corn.
“I use my sprayer with drop nozzles and apply the 32% liquid nitrogen between the rows,” he says. “I include calcium sulfate to stabilize the nitrogen.”
Four Strip-Till Benefits
After 6 years strip-tilling corn, Cannon sees a number of benefits on his farm. The first of which is slowing erosion.
“Strip-tilling helps me get as close to no-till as I can,” he says.
“Second, I don’t want to invest a lot into fertilizer because I rent farmland. By strip-tilling, I can apply the fertilizer in a zone instead of broadcasting. I want to maximize my efficiency.
Third,” he says, “strip-tilling helps me get my corn yields closer to those from full-width tillage. And fourth, I have less machinery cost vs. full-width tillage, so my net income is more.”
In the future, Cannon would like to fine tune the strip-tilled corn with VR fertilizer and seeding populations. He has all of his fields broken up into management zones.
“This fall, I plan to variable-rate fertilizer, basing the rate on my yield goals,” he says.