Re-evaluating fundamentals can result in significant returns on investment year after year, no matter your tillage practice or combination of practices. 

“You can add a lot of profitability to your bottom line by doing the basics better,” says Jim Schwartz, director of research, agronomy and Practical Farm Research (PFR) at Beck’s Hybrids. 

Schwartz and Jason Gahimer, Beck’s PFR manager, have analyzed years of data from the more than 800 acres that Beck’s uses for research. These corn and soybean fields are located in central and southern Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Ohio, with additional sites managed by research companies in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Strip-till sites are in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.

The research recommendations are based on aggregate data from sites using field cultivation, disc-rip, no-till, vertical-till, in-line rip and strip-till. About 75% of fields use conventional tillage with the other methods making up the remaining 25%. Results are reported based on the averages of all the studied acres, and trials must show the same conclusions for a minimum of 3 years to become recommended practices.

While not all of the trials are strip-till, Gahimer and Schwartz say their top nine tips for increasing your ROI by $100 per acre remain the same regardless of tillage type. Here they share those recommendations tailored to strip-tillers. 

Strip-Till Takeaways

  • Aftermarket closing wheels are always worth the investment. Jason Gahimer, PFR manager, recommends Yetter Poly Twisters, Copperhead Ag Furrow Cruisers and Schaffert Zipper wheels.
  • Planting early pays off most years for both corn and soybeans. The optimum planting window for corn and soybeans is April 16-30.
  • Applying fungicide to corn at VT could result in a $20.39 ROI, compared to applying at V5. Applying fungicide to soybeans at R3 results in a $17.68 ROI, compared to losing money when applying at R2 or R4.

General Tips

1. Invest in Aftermarket Closing Wheels

All aftermarket closing wheels outperformed two solid rubber closing wheels in Gahimer’s trials. In a 3-year, multi-location closing wheel study, Yetter Poly Twisters provided a 5.1 bushel per acre advantage over solid rubber closing wheels. Copperhead Ag Furrow Cruisers yielded an additional 3.8 bushels per acre, followed by Schaffert Mohawk with 3.6 extra bushels, Schaffert Zipper with 3.1 bushels more and SI Distributing Finger-Till with 2.7 additional bushels. 

Gahimer’s top three recommendations for strip-tillers are Yetter Poly Twisters, Schaffert Zippers and Copperhead Ag Furrow Cruisers — his same recommendations for a conventional system. No matter which you choose, he says any aftermarket wheel is better than using a solid rubber closing wheel. Start by following the manufacturer’s recommendation on how to space them apart, and adjust spacing, pressure and down force from there. 

2. Plant Early

Dozens of years of research indicate planting early pays off most years for both corn and soybeans. The data used for this conclusion compares each planting date’s yield to the average yield of all planting dates. Timing of planting was reported in 2-week windows from March 16-June 30. 

Based on 21 years of data, planting corn from April 16-30 produced 108% of the mean yield, with yields decreasing as corn was planted later. June 1-15, for example, produced only 87% of the mean yield. 

Planting soybeans in April produces 107% of the mean yield, according to 24 years of data from multiple locations. Soybeans planted from June 16-30 had the lowest yield, just 81% of the average yield for the crop. Planting soybeans early is one of the most important factors in driving high yields because early planting increases node count. Planting corn late doesn’t have as severe of a penalty because achieving a uniform stand is more important than the calendar date. 

Strategies for Corn

3. Apply Fungicide at VT

The most profitable time to apply fungicide is at VT (tassel), according to Beck’s PFR research. You could realize a $20.39 ROI by doing so, compared to applying at V5, or both V5 and VT. ROI is calculated as the bushel per acre difference times the commodity price per bushel, minus the product cost.

4. Place Starter on Both Sides

In a 4-year study, placing nitrogen (N) on both sides of the row increased yield by improving root growth on both sides of the corn plant. In a 2-by-2-by-2-inch configuration, the average yield was 222.8 bushels of corn with 60 units of urea-ammonium nitrate (UAN) applied and 221.5 bushels with 30 units of UAN applied. On the control sample with 30 units applied in a 2-by-2-inch configuration, yield was 215.8 bushels. 

5. Sidedress N at V3

After applying a 2-by-2-inch starter, sidedressing at V3 provides a $72.36 per acre ROI. By splitting N applications, you reduce the risk of loss from early season rainfall. Schwartz recommends adding a urease inhibitor, an N inhibitor or both if you’re sidedressing with the 360 Y-DROP System or using urea. 

Strategies for Soybeans

6. Apply Fungicide at R3

Applying fungicide to soybeans at R3 — when they have a 3/16-inch pod at one of the top 4 nodes — results in a $17.68 ROI, compared to losing money when applying at R2 or R4. After 7 years of trials, Beck’s PFR has found the results consistently showed R3 is the best time to apply fungicide. 

Check If Your Closing Wheels are Set Properly

Jason Gahimer, Practical Farm Research manager, says the best way to check if your closing wheels are set properly is to put a flat spatula into the furrow and dig away from it. While you’re digging, feel for sidewall formation and make adjustments if compaction is present. After you’ve cleared a pocket away from the spatula, lift it out of the ground and observe the flat “window” of soil. If the closing wheels are set properly, there won’t be any air pockets around the seed or in the trench.

7. Use Seed Treatments

Seed treatments deliver an average $47 ROI for soybeans, based on 12 years of trials comparing treated and untreated seeds. ROI varied from as low as $10 in 2018 to as high as $124 in 2014. As you plant earlier, you’ll start to encounter more disease pressure, but using seed treatments is a better strategy than delaying planting.

8. Narrow Down Rows

Narrow rows are important for optimal soybean growth because they allow the plants to capture more sunlight and help shade the ground for improved weed control. Data from 10 years of trials reveals 15-inch rows average an additional $31.09 per acre, compared to 30-inch rows.

9. Optimize Seeding Rate

Researchers evaluated 5 seeding rates (100,000; 125,000; 150,000; 175,000; and 200,000 per acre) planted early (April 16-May 15) and planted late (May 16-June 15) in 15-inch rows over 5 years. In that time, the average of all populations planted early produced an extra $146.49 per acre compared to those planted late. Every population planted early beat any population planted late. 

In addition, replanting a fairly uniform thin stand in the 80,000-100,000 range is usually unwarranted. High seeding rates are likely less profitable, too.