Although there have been some headaches and learning experiences along the way, Josh Backstrom is very happy with the investment he's made in strip-tilling.
Josh also says being able to work directly with Dean Carstens, co-owner of Twin Diamond Industries that makes Strip-Cat strip-till rigs, helped him be more successful.
The Backstroms grow 2,000 acres of edible beans, hard red spring wheat and corn near Maddock, N.D. They've used 2-year rotations in the past few years, growing corn followed by edible beans or occasionally soybeans, as well as wheat followed by edible beans.
Everything for the corn and beans is strip-tilled. Backstrom primarily custom strip-tills fields where corn will be planted. Depending on soil moisture, he might strip-till fields where edible beans and soybeans will be planted.
"Strip-tilling for edible beans and soybeans conserves moisture," Backstrom says. "On lighter soils, farmers want to conserve moisture. The dark, black strip of tilled soil will warm up faster for the edible beans and soybeans."
But Backstrom might also strip-till fields that are wet to dry them out faster, which he says paid off in the very wet springs of 2009 through 2011.
When strip-tilling, Backstrom runs the knives 7 inches deep, which is where anhydrous ammomia is placed. The dry fertilizer is typically placed 4 inches deep and strips run 8 to 10 inches wide.
Since he began strip-tilling 5 years ago, Josh Backstrom of Maddock, N.D., has custom strip-tilled 20,000 acres, in addition to the corn and bean acres on his family's farm.
All fertilizer is placed directly below the seed so roots can reach all of the nutrients.
"Banding the phosphorus definitely helps because we can cut the overall rate, according to our soil-test recommendations," Backstrom says. "We're usually cutting about 33% of what would be typically broadcast. The nitrogen is not cut in a banded situation because of its mobility."
Variable-rate application of nitrogen has also increased efficiency, Backstrom says. He applies more nitrogen on the best parts of the fields and less in salty areas and on hilltops. He doesn't see much of an overall reduction in the total nitrogen applied, but the variable applications means it's not being wasted and maximizing yields in high-yielding zones.
There are other benefits of strip-tilling, Backstrom says.
"If it's really wet, you can strip-till in the fall," he says."On these fall strip-tilled fields, farmers are planting 7 to 10 days sooner in the spring than in no-tilled fields. The emergence is there and the yields are better."
When it's dry in the fall, waiting until the spring to strip-till conserves moisture, Backstrom says. With really light, sandy soils, some farmers wait until the spring to strip-till and to apply all of their fertilizer. Waiting until spring reduces the potential of leaching, he says.
Some farmers who've been no-tilling corn have seen problems with poor germination due to cold soils, and are becoming interested in strip-tilling corn, Backstrom says.
"By strip-tilling corn, you get the benefits of faster soil warmup and better stands - and you save soil moisture," he says.
A Rocky Start
When Backstrom finished a diesel-mechanics program in 2007 and wanted to start farming, his uncle, Paul Backstrom, recommended that he consider custom strip-tilling as a way of getting into farming.
Josh's father wasn't ready to retire and Josh considered, but decided not to do custom combining.
"Paul recommended strip-tilling because he was already in the custom business of applying nitrogen for wheat, as well as Sonalon, phosphorus, and nitrogen for edible beans," Backstrom says. "He did some reasearch of strip-till and heard some real good things about it.
"And there was a farmer - one of his customers -who was ready to try it, but didn't want to invest in a strip-till machine."
That fall, Backstrom and his uncle and father went to a 2-day strip-till equipment expo in Minnesota and talked to a representative from Twin Diamond Industries. They ended up ordering a Twin Diamond Strip-Cat strip-till rig.
This ground on Josh Backstrom's farm had very heavy soybean residue.
"We went a few hundred feet and broke the shear bolts on the knives," Backstrom recalls.
Since shear bolts were the only solution for rocks at the time, he switched brands that winter and went with another shank-style strip-till machine in 2008 that had auto reset.
After 2 years of battling rocks with that rig, Backstrom heard about a hydraulic option available with Strip-Cat row units. So he switched back for the 2010 growing season.
Three years later, rocks remain a problem but Backstrom says they're more manageable with the hydraulic feature on the strip-till rig's row units.
Backstrom pulls the 12-row strip-till rig, a 2155 Bourgault dry-fertilizer cart that holds 155 bushels and an anhydrous-ammonia tank with a Deere 8410 with front-wheel-assist chipped to 320 horsepower.
It takes all of that power to pull the strip-till rig, fertilizer cart and anhydrous tank in heavier, compacted soils, Backstrom says.
This year, Backstrom will be using a Deere 8520 tractor to strip-till. The tractor has an ILS front suspension, which he says should help handle the Strip-Cat rig a lot better.
The Bourgault cart has two tanks, each with a hydraulic motor so Backstrom can variable-rate each tank independently. He also ahs has a Raven cold-flow controller for the anhydrous tank.
Backstrom has thought about getting a larger strip-till rig to cover more acres in a day, but more horsepower would be needed and he'd have to change to a drawbar-trailing configuration.
"With the strip-till rig mounted directly on the tractor's three-point hitch, it helps with pass-to-pass accuracy," Backstrom says. "If I went to larger strip-till rig with more rows trailing, I'd have to get implement-based GPS to keep the pass-to-pass accuracy. Then I would have to increase my investment."
One of the most common questions Backstrom gets from customers is about their 16-row and 24-row planters matching up to the strips from 12-row Strip Cat.
"My answer is always, 'The strips are RTK. It's all up to you how well you steer and keep your planter on the strips,'" he says.
Backstrom has made some major updates, most of them involving bigger bolts. The tripping bolt for the knives was a 5/8-inch bolt and it was breaking and cost him down time.
This field, planted to corn in 2011, was passed over with a vertical-tillage tool twice before Josh Backstrom strip-tilled the ground in late May 2012 for edible beans.
Backstrom drilled out the holes and put in ¾-inch bolts and he hasn't seen any breaks since. And where the row-unit bolts to the parralel link, the bolt was a ¾-inch bolt. Over time, the bolts would break.
"They would also sieze up to the bushing inside," Backstrom says. "That cost me hours of down time each time one broke, trying to cut the remainder of the bolt out of there and put in a new one.
"I decided to just replace them with 1-inch bolts. I drilled out all the holes and I believe that should be plenty big enough to keep them from breaking. Twin Diamond and I found out that the "U" bolts up front that hold the whole row unit on were breaking.
"The fix was to swap them out for straight bolts and angle-iron brackets on the front of the tool bar."
Backstrom also found that the transition bolts that hold one of the berm-builder arms were breaking. He swapped them out for one long bolt that went all the way through to hold both arms on each row unit. He first used grade-5 bolts and after finding they would bend he replaced them with grade-8 bolts's last fall.
Another problem, he says, was the rolling baskets were plugging up in wet conditions.
"I liked the baskets the best for preparing the seed bed because they broke up dirt clumps and evened out the strip in our soils," Backstrom says. "So Dean Carstens (co-owner of Twin Diamond Industries) suggested I replace the metal vanes with chains.
"I modified the idea a little and only took out 6 of the 9 vanes to keep the rigidity and strength of the basket. Since then I haven't plugged a basket yet and or wasted hours of down time unplugging them."
Being able to run with fewer problems makes a huge difference to Backstrom, who works long days and nights as he custom strip-tills 4,000 to 5,000 acres between fall and spring work. In 5 years, he's custom strip-tilled 20,000 acres.
"As far as rocks go, we're spent years and hundreds of hours pulling and picking them," Backstrom says "Now, most of rocks you can't see, but the frost keeps bringing them up every year so we pull them when we see them and pick the small ones on top.
"Strip-tilling will pull some of them and then we come behind and pick them before panting."
Managing crop residue is crucial to successful strip-tilling, Backstrom says.
In wheat, he highly recommends fine-cut straw choppers and spreading residue out as wide as possible behind the combine. Then he harrows the wheat stubble at an angle to more evenly spread out the straw and get rid of that mat of chaff that builds up behind the combine.
"Some farmers use their vertical tillage tool behind the combine and that helps, too," he says.
For soybeans, Backstrom says running a vertical tillage tool over the stubble really helps to chew up tough soybean residue, which likes to wrap on the coulters and berm builders on the strip-tiller.
This field was very black because it was planting was prevented in 2009 and was going tocorn in 2010, Josh Backstrom says.
In corn, he recommends two passes with a vertical tillage tool - first at a 45-degree angle, and a second time at a 90-degree angle to the first. The two passes seem to knock down the corn stubble and size up all the stalks and residue on the ground, he says.
Backstrom says the worst thing farmers can do before strip-tilling fields is to bury the residue because it will wrap around the shank and plug up the row units.
"The ideal machine to use with strip-till is a vertical-tillage tool," he says. "You're tilling vertically instead of horizontally, so you aren't ripping roots out. Strip-till works best when as much stubble is left intact as possible."
But it's also important to manage the large volume of residue in corn. Josh recommends vertical tillage after harvesting corn and before strip-tilling it.
Last fall, the Backstroms started using chopping rollers from Calmer Corn Heads on their 8-row corn head.
"I think they are the most effective chopping rollers on the market," Josh says. "They chop corn into little bits of chips and pieces."
Starting last year, the Backstroms variable-rate applied both nitrogen and phosphorus on all of their corn ground.
The phosphorus was variable-rate applied on all of their edible-bean ground, and just a small amount of flat-rate nitrogen for the edible beans because the plants don't need much.
For Backstrom's customers, almost all of them have nitrogen variable-rate applied, and now all of those same customers have phosphorus variable-rate applied.
"My uncle Paul, who works at Precision Ag Results in Maddock, N.D., has been grid soil testing their fields for phosphorus and zone soil testing their fields for nitrogen," Josh Backstrom says. "But a couple of my customer are still flat-rating fertilizer.
"Some customers also want to add AMS or potash, but that's usually flat rated, too."
Precision Ag Results sells Ag Leader equipment and does grid and zone soil testing and mapping for farmers.
"We're doing a lot more variable-rate application with phosphorus," Josh Backstrom says. "I'm set up to variable-rate phosphate as I strip-till. We plant on our farm with RTK and control the planter and tractor steering with Ag Leader.
For controlling the dry and liquid fertilizer on the strip-tiller, Backstrom uses Ag Leader's DirectCommand system, which can variable-rate apply up to 5 products.
"Until this year I had Ag Leader's Insight monitor that controlled a Trimble Autopilot for the steering," he says. "This year we'll be using Ag Leader's ParaDyme and an Integra monitor for steering both the Deere 8520 tractor for strip-tilling and the Deere 8410 tractor to run the planter."
The planter will have Ag Leader's SeedCommand for row shutoff and seed-tube population monitoring.
"Next year, we plan on adding variable-rate capabilities to the planter," Backstrom says. "That will be run by the Integra and maybe Dawn's hydraulic-downpressure system for the row units on the planter. The Integra also will control that."
Backstrom uses My Way RTK, which is a cell-based RTK signal that Precision Ag Results supplies the server towers for.
"Since my customers are about 25 miles away from me in all directions, this works nicely," he says. "Before this, I had a Trimble RTK Radio portable tower that I brought with me for the custom strip-tilling work. We had a permanent tower near our farm that we used for our fields. When we put anhydrous on for wheat, that's all variable-rate applications."
Backstrom says most of the farmers for whom he strip-tills like everything being done in one pass.
They understand all of the advantages and efficiencies of banding fertilizer and the ability to just go out and plant without having to do many processes.
"These farmers get the advantages of conventional tillage by getting a black strip of soil to warm up faster, to get the fertilizer banded right below the seed, and the ability to use anhydrous ammonia and not worry about seed burn because of the deep placement," Backstrom says.
"I've had guys planting 1 hour after I've strip-tilled their fields in the spring and they've never had a problem with anhydrous burns. They also like strip-till for getting rid of compaction and providing some no-till benefits because only a narrow strip is tilled."
Backstrom says his customers can typically see a yield increase in corn of 5 to 10-bushels per acre.
"This last year, one customer was seeing a 20-bushel increase on his farm," he says. "But even if they yield remains even, they like all the other benefits they're getting."
Years Of Learning
Backstrom says switching strip-till rigs 3 years ago really helped him turn the corner to make strip-till work.
"Definitely changing to a Twin Diamond gave me a much better starting point, because there was a less of the row unit that was tripping and putting a lot less stress on the overall machine, Backstrom says. "Also, the hydraulic reset was far superior, because you could adjust the down pressure from the cab, according to the changing conditions from field to field.
"All of the shock from the row-unit tripping is cushioned, because every cylinder is plumbed into a big nitrogen accumulator that absorbs the shock and then gentlly resets the knife into the ground."
Backstrom says he's also learned a lot by working with many different farmers, by seeing how they do things and by helping them implement strip-till on their farm.
"The biggest thing we realized is that if it's too wet to strip-till, vertical tillage was the key to drying fields out enough without ripping all the stubble loose, to then run the strip tiller though."
On wheat stubble, discing and cultivating were not going to work at all in front of the strip tiller, Backstrom says. The exception is if the field is chisel plowed with spikes in the fall and then the fields firm up over the winter. Another alternative is chisel plowing early in the fall and let the ground firm up by late fall.
But Backstrom says that he has not found found any time that conventional tillage in corn stubble will work with strip-till. The corn stalks and root balls are too tough to get through the strip-tiller without plugging up.