A 3-year onfarm study in Minnesota shows that strip-tilling corn and soybeans saves $14 per acre vs. disk-ripping and chisel plowing, says Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota Extension crops educator.

And the study, conducted by a southwest Minnesota strip-tiller from 2010 to 2012, also shows that strip-tilled corn yields never yielded less than those with conventional tillage, she says.

The economics in 2012 particularly impressed DeJong-Hughes because GPS connectivity problems caused the tractor and strip-till rig to wiggle their way across fields. For 2013, the farmer is switching systems and upgrading to RTK.

The variation in the strips was a particular problem after the farmer switched from an 18-row corn planter with 22-inch spacings to a 24-row planter with the same spacings. The narrower row spacing is common in Southwest and western Minnesota with farmers who either grow sugar beets or who are former beet growers.

During the 3-year study, the farmer compared strip-till with other tillage systems in a corn-soybean rotation. The other tillage systems for soybeans included one with a pass using a Salford vertical-tillage tool, followed by a pass with a chisel plow.

Strip-Till Works With Soybeans

Farmers in Minnesota are often reluctant to try no-till, so strip-tilling soybeans is an easier transition for them from full-width tillage, De Jong-Hughes says.

“In a good year, no-till soybeans can yield well,” she says. “But when it’s cool and wet, which it often is in the spring, then the yields of no-till soybeans will suffer.”

In the 3-year study, the farmer looked at many costs, including that of the tractor, wear and tear, the points on tillage equipment and fuel use.

“He got essentially the same yield with strip-till and the other three more conventional tillage systems,” DeJong-Hughes says. “But strip-tilling soybeans saved $5.10 per acre vs. two passes with a Salford vertical tillage tool and $6.90 per acre where the field was chisel plowed and then field cultivated.

“Strip-tilling saved $13.55 per acre vs. the cost of disk ripping and field cultivating.”

The 2-pass system of disk ripping and field cultivating cost $28.15 per acre.

Research on this farm from 2010 to 2012 found that strip-tilling corn and soybeans saves $14 per acre vs. disk-ripping and chisel plowing, says Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota Extension crops educator.

“This shows that strip-till can reduce your tillage trips, fuel use, machinery wear and tear and labor costs and still maintain yields,” DeJong-Hughes says. “In west-central Minnesota, there’s a lot of disk ripping. In this area, the ‘conventional tillage’ consists of chisel plowing.”

The strip-tiller in this onfarm study has fields south of the Minnesota River that consists mostly of heavy clay-loam soil. There’s some drainage tile in the fields, but they’re not pattern tiled, DeJong-Hughes says.

He first tried strip-tilling with corn-on-corn on 22-inch rows. After 2 years fighting heavy residue in narrow rows, he decided to lessen the load of residue and he switched to a corn-soybean rotation.

Strip-Till Interest Expands

An increasing number of farmers in Minnesota are interested in strip-till, DeJong-Hughes says. It’s something she hears from equipment manufacturers and she finds pockets of strip-tillers whom she hadn’t known about before.

The emphasis of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on soil quality also has stirred up interest in strip-till, she says.

There are many meetings this winter in Minnesota and neighboring states on soil health, cover crops and reducing tillage, DeJong-Hughes says, and strip-till ties into soil health in many ways.

“Leaving corn stalks standing in strip-tilled fields not only reduces erosion, but also creates a more even blanket of snow,” DeJong-Hughes says. “Chopping or burying the stalks with tillage means there’s less residue to catch the snow, which allows it to drift. In the spring, the drifts will melt into ponds, while the bare areas of the fields warm up more quickly.”

“In a good year, no-till soybeans can yield well,” she says. “But when it’s cool and wet, which it often is in the spring, then the yields of no-till soybeans will suffer...” 

    — Jodi DeJong Hughes

Strip-tilling allows farmers to combine the best of faster soil warm up in the spring in the tilled strips along with the residue protection of no-till, DeJong-Hughes says. By letting the corn stalks stand in the fall and winter, strip-tillers can hang onto the snow and the moisture.

“We are definitely in need of moisture, so the residue’s a huge benefit,” DeJong-Hughes says. “Where fields aren’t strip-tilled and there aren’t stalks in the fields, the soil is blowing and farmers are definitely losing topsoil.”

Soil Health A Focus

With NRCS stressing soil quality and soil health, there are more questions from farmers about just how these ideas work out on their own farms, DeJong-Hughes says.

“The No. 1 thing that tillage does is to destroy soil structure,” she says. “But soil with better structure and aggregation allows water to infiltrate better and it holds more water, which the crop especially needs during stress.

“Soil structure is like the oil in your car. If you don’t have it, you aren’t going anywhere.”

Soil biology is another part of the discussion about soil health.

“Unlike soil structure, you can’t see what’s going in with soil biology, at least without a microscope,” DeJong-Hughes says. “Soil biology involves diverse micro-organisms that protect plant roots, decrease diseases and increase the mineralization of nutrients.

“These soil mycorrhizae — the soil micro-organisms — help bring 7-9 nutrients to the crop. The top nutrient is phosphorus.”

Soil fungi need oxygen and water, DeJong-Hughes says. They thrive in soils with good structure and water infiltration. They don’t want to be drowned out, she says. While it may not be easy to quickly define soil health, it’s easy to recognize healthy soil.

“Healthy soil has a fresh, earth smell,” she says. “Where the soil isn’t healthy, it may smell old or like rotten eggs.”