On this edition of the Strip-Till Farmer podcast, brought to you by Sound Agriculture,Purdue University cropping systems and tillage specialist Tony Vyn reacts to results from the 2023 Strip-Till Benchmark Survey.
Strip-Till Farmer’s 10th annual benchmark study of strip-till practices conducted in early 2023 shows that strip-tillers continue to have the upper hand over their counterparts when it comes to corn and soybean yields.
Tony Vyn, one of strip-till’s foremost authorities and experts who has studied the practice from its earliest days, reacts to the results as they’re revealed publicly for the first time. Vyn also touches on what’s changed in strip-till since he started studying the practice 30 years ago, the challenges strip-tillers face today and what to expect during his upcoming 10th anniversary lecture at the National Strip-Tillage Conference, August 2-4, in Bloomington, Ill.
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Full TranscriptNoah Newman:
Come on in. Welcome to another edition of the Strip-Till Farmer podcast. Great to have you with us as always. My name's Noah Newman. The results are in from the 2023 strip-till benchmark survey, and we've got one of strip-tills four most authorities, Tony Vyn to break down some of the numbers as revealed for the first time. Tony also touches on what's changed in strip-till since he started studying it over 30 years ago, the challenges strip-tillers face today, and what to expect during his upcoming 10th-anniversary presentation at the National Strip-Tillage Conference August 3rd in Bloomington, Illinois. And before we get started, a big thank you to our sponsor, Sound Agriculture. Let's jump right into the conversation. Well, Tony, great to see you. Thanks for joining us, I know it's a really busy time of the year for you in general. Just people who aren't familiar with your work, why don't you introduce yourself to our audience who's tuning in right now?Tony Vyn:
Well, thank you for this opportunity. Yes, I've been a early researcher in the area of strip-till starting actually ... Strip-till research at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada before I went to Purdue University in 1998. I've had the pleasure of working on corn primarily in strip-till systems for approximately 30 years now. And I've also just had the opportunity to mentor young people as graduate students, and to always get them to think about the combination of management practices that can be used with today's genetics in order to produce results that are sustainable, that are profitable, that save soil, and at the same time are good for air quality and the rest of the environment that we so much are responsible for in our farming activities.Noah Newman:
I mean, there's probably so much information you're learning every year, something new. 30 years, that's a long time to be studying strip-till, probably longer than almost anybody else out there. What comes to mind when you think about how strip-till has evolved over the years? Just, in general, what's the state of strip-till right now?Tony Vyn:
Well, the state of strip-till is that it is still expanding. I haven't seen your latest survey results so I don't know just-Noah Newman:
That's coming up. Later in the podcast we're going to reveal some of those results for the first time so stay tuned for that.Tony Vyn:
Right. Well, thank you. Those are always exciting numbers for me because I've been an advocate of the system. But really my roots in this started as a result of doing no-till research in a fairly northern production system and facing challenges with everything to do with no-till, especially when corn followed corn, and even to some extent when corn followed other high straw-producing crops like winter wheat, especially if the straw itself was not veiled. The initial thought was that we could use strip-till as a way of having the soil warm up faster, dry out faster so that your first operation following a single pass in the fall of strip-till would be to do planting in the spring. And that technology took off as an alternative to no-till.
And I've always found it surprising over the years that strip-till adoption is coming both from those who I have had some frustration with continuous no-till in very high residue situations as well as from conventional farmers. When I initially thought about strip-till I was facing an obstacle in certain soils, and especially in this corn on corn, and I just thought that strip-till would be the answer for that situation. But today, I think a lot of adoption is coming from those who have given up on full-width conventional systems because of the fact that it takes time, delays planting when spring full-width tillage is required, costs money, and contributes to soil erosion problems.Noah Newman:
What do you think is the biggest challenge or the biggest reason why strip-till adoption rates, even though they may be on the rise, aren't as high as they could be, especially when you take the perspective that you think strip-till is, as you put it, 10 years ago ... And we'll get into more in-depth about your presentation at the first strip-till conference. I think you call it the near-ideal tillage system. Why aren't more people doing it would you say?Tony Vyn:
Yes. 10 years ago when I spoke at your conference I said that this strip-till system is almost perfect. I still believe that to be the case but we are not at a perfect system that can be used on all soils, all confrontations, all environments and so we need to be realistic about that. There is a continued reluctance from some in the ... Especially in the conventional till history group that are concerned about weed control, especially with herbicide-resistant weeds, and who just like starting with a clean field, in quotes, with ... That has not necessarily been created by a burn down as it would be a no-till or in strip-till but has been mechanically generated for them with some full-width tillage pass. It's strange to me.
Of all of the things that corn and soybean farmers have done over the years: new genetics, new management practices, one of the things that has changed the most has been the push towards earlier planting systems where ... Unless we have a late spring like we did in 2019. And that push to early planting has been helped by installation of tile drainage systems on those soils that are poorly drained naturally. And it has been helped by much bigger equipment. And it has been helped, in my view, by strip-tillage operation, especially where strip-tillage was done in the fall, although now we're also seeing some success with earlier planting being enabled by certain spring strip-till operations on certain soils.
Why isn't strip-till even more popular? I suppose it comes back to the same question that dominated the early uptake of no-till. And that is that if you're going to be geared up for no-till and strip-till, the thinking is that it's going to be most economical in a situation where it can be reliably used on all of your acreage, and where it replaces the conventional tillage lineup that farmers own. If a strip-till system is an add-on to a whole suite of conventional tillage equipment, then it is less affordable because there is a significant investment cost not just for the strip-till machine but also for the fertilizer delivery systems that are associated with it.
There is this concern, you might say, about its reliability and its ability to do all of the crops on all of the slopes that a farmer's fields may have, and in all weather situations. If I could control the timing of and the amount of rain after harvest, I think I would have much more success in having strip-tillage reliably used by many more farmers. Over the years, especially on higher clay content soils, there's been concern for how do I implement strip-till. Because the soil moisture range in which you can successfully, not just do a deeper loosening but also create a berm, that is going to settle down to the point where you still have some fraction of that berm height left when you're planting into it is still a challenge. And the higher the soil moisture contents are in the fall, the earlier that frost sets in, et cetera, the less flexibility there is to create an ideal berm with fall strip-tillage. And then if you're dedicated to the strip-till system, the more dependent you become on spring strip-till as your backup.Noah Newman:
Well, I know you'll be touching on a lot of the topics that you first talked about during your presentation 10 years ago at the very first National Strip-Tillage Conference. And we're excited to have you back this August in Bloomington, Illinois for the 10th anniversary lecture where you'll be talking about, is strip-till still the near ideal, near perfect tillage system which you just answered there. If you can, just maybe give us a little preview of what you'll be covering during the presentation, what people there will really take away from you taking the stage 10 years after your initial presentation.Tony Vyn:
I think a couple of things have changed significantly. Number one has been the fact that a larger fraction of the strip-till producers are now ... Are regularly putting banded fertilizer down at the same time. Number two, a much larger percentage of the producers using strip-till are doing so with RTK, and those costs were higher proportionately than they were 10 and 20 years ago. And so I think the advent of much more frequent use of RTK has enabled what is really important which is to plant the rows right in the center of the zone that you loosen.
Another thing that's happened is that our ... On a crop like corn, our plant populations have gone consistently higher, especially in targeted environments for high-yield production systems. That, in a way, has meant that there is increased competition from plant to plant. And that is also the reason why strip-till continues to perform well because it does a great job of creating a consistent soil physical and soil nutrient environment in the root zone of plants that are closer and closer together. So these plants are in tremendous competition with each other. One of the reasons why I still believe that strip-till is a near-perfect system is the fact that it provides the opportunity to control where the wheel traffic goes relative to where the roots are, and it provides an opportunity for every plant to compete with equal resources compared to its neighboring plant. Because we will not get to higher yields unless we increasingly think about systems where there's no plant left behind.Noah Newman:
There's just a taste of what you can hear at Tony's presentation kicking off the conference August 3rd in Bloomington, Illinois. Can't wait for that. Strip-tillfarmer.com to register if you want to see Tony speak. All right. So I know you've been waiting for this. The strip-till, the 10th annual benchmark study in my hands hot off the presses, still hot to the touch. So I pulled up a couple numbers and we'll just get your reaction to this. This is live so I know ... So we'll see what your spontaneous reaction is. So the yields on strip-till acres ... And again, most of the respondents to this survey, about 61% were in the corn belt so keep that in mind. Average strip-till yields, 207 for corn and 61 for soybeans. Both ahead of US averages and also ahead of no-till counterpart. I bet you're not surprised by that.Tony Vyn:
Not at all. Those numbers are right in line with where I think strip-till producers are on average even if you assume there was no advantage in terms of earlier planting. My experience is that we're gaining at least five, maybe 10 bushels on corn from strip-till compared to full width let's say disc chisel plowing. Those numbers are in line with what I'm expecting. And then if you add to it the earlier planting opportunities that for soybeans, for instance, increase a number of nodes that can set pods, there's just an opportunity there to gain yield. And so I'm pretty excited about those numbers, they're solid. They could go even higher, and that's what we need to be thinking about. 207 impressive but perhaps not enough.Noah Newman:
207 is actually the second-highest total we've got gotten in the 10 years of this survey. 2017, 209 was the corn yield. Let's burn a quick time out and here's a message from our sponsor. Source provides 25 pounds of nitrogen and 25 pounds of phosphorus leading to more productivity and supporting your fertilizer reduction goals. This foliar applied biochemistry has a low use rate and is tank mixed compatible getting a free ride into the field. Check out Source, it's like caffeine for microbes. Learn more at www.sound.ag. Now back to the conversation. So as you said it could go higher. And you just touched on the advantages of strip-tilling soybeans so perfect segue into this next one. Survey respondents strip-tilled an average of 933 acres of corn and 586 acres of soybean. That's the highest soybean total in the 10-year history of the survey. So maybe more people are catching onto the advantages of strip-tilling soybeans.Tony Vyn:
Yes. And I think that's a good thing. It's also come about though with a sort of a pulling back a retrenchment of narrow-row soybean production in the Midwest. Now whether that's always a good idea or not, that's still up for debate. I remember working with systems of twin-row of soybeans 25 years ago or something like that, and I still think on the soybean side, especially in earlier maturing regions, that we have to be thinking about doing something other than wide-row. Fortunately, there are strip-till toolbars out there that'll do 20 or 22-inch row widths, and those are ideal I think for that production system. But if we're going to rely on strip-till for 30-inch soybeans, then we need to be thinking in terms of optimizing the rest of the management system to get those soybean yields even higher.Noah Newman:
Next question. Survey respondents were asked, when do they build their strips? 48% build them in the fall, 31% in the spring, 20% said they do both. Is there a best time to build strips or does it depend on where you are, the weather, et cetera, et cetera?Tony Vyn:
I think it depends. First of all, on the soil. If I were farming high clay content soils, and especially if my drainage system wasn't 100%, I would definitely want to say only in the fall because really what you're looking for is the first opportunity to plant into that stale seedbed type of berm. I'm not surprised by those numbers because they're ... Certainly, if you move towards sandier soils or long textured soils, the more moderate texture environment, and especially if you have good systematic drainage systems in regions of the country where that's needed, it's possible to get satisfactory results with spring operations. It's also, I think, a opportunity for people on the corn side of things to be banned applying some of their nitrogen. And so sometimes you see it married together with anhydrous ammonia applications, sometimes with urea. The closer that is to planting and the sandier the soil, the more I'm concerned about what that does to possible toxicity to the first corn roots that come out. On the whole, there is this opportunity for expanded strip-till weather fall or spring.
However, I will say that my preference has historically been fall ahead of spring. I've become an accepter of spring strip-till operations for those situations where the fall strip-till wasn't possible in the first place because there was way too much rain and soils were too wet to create a satisfactory berm. It's acceptable to me to do spring strip-till if you are on slopes that are above 5% and where there's too much danger of having really erosion form in the loosened berms if you're doing that strip-till in the fall. I think though we need to be thinking critically about if we're doing strip-till in the fall or the spring, what does that mean for us in terms of how much of our traditional macronutrient application should occur at the same time as we're doing the strip-tillage operation? And I'd be curious from your survey now in terms of just how many strip-tillers are applying fertilizers at the same time that they're doing that. My guess would be 75% but I could be wrong.Noah Newman:
Do you use variable rate seeding for corn? What's your guess? Do you think most people said yes or no? It's close.Tony Vyn:
I would think that the majority of producers today are using variable rate seeding.Noah Newman:
It's 41% for yes, 52% no, and 6% ... A little over 6% no but planning to next year. It's split right down the middle right now.Tony Vyn:
Wow. Okay.Noah Newman:
How about our cover crops? 61% seeded cover crops in strip-tilled fields, that's pretty consistent with recent surveys, but eight points higher than the first survey we did in 2015. What's your take on that, more strip-tillers using cover crops?Tony Vyn:
I think it speaks to the fact that dedicated strip-till producers are soil health conscious more so than those that rely on conventional tillage. And so I think that speaks well to the soil stewardship factor that features prominently in the minds of strip-till producers so I think that speaks well. What I'll also say, that it has been promoted strongly. And I would also say that when it's well done, strip-till helps the crop to establish itself well compared to a pure no-till situation on some soils and in some springs.
In a way, if you're going to do cover crops, and if you can successfully do strip-till ... You can't do this with all cover crops, okay. This is something that I think is by and large a ... Are limited to fall rye and other cereal-type of cover crops. It doesn't suit itself well to let's say a leguminous cover crop situation where you might have a lot more challenges with roots preventing the creation of the solution strip. I'm a little surprised actually, even with all of that said, that 60% were combining cover crops and strip-till. That's a higher number than I anticipated but I think it speaks well to the people that strip-tillers are.Noah Newman:
What is your typical corn planting population with strip-till? So 22%, the highest number, said 33,000 to 34,000, 17% said 34,000 to 35,000, and 20%, for typical corn planting population with strip-till, said 35,000 or more. What's your reaction to that?Tony Vyn:
They're all in the ballpark. There is lots of evidence out there that suggests that's what we should be planting today's hybrids at is something in the neighborhood of 32 to 35,000. It's all in the ballpark. I'm curious as to where that's going to go in the next 10-year period. I don't know if this survey asked that same question 10 years ago, but my experience in the Midwest is that the growth of plant population, in terms of what planting density do corn farmers actually use, has plateaued somewhat. And part of that is driven by seed costs, but part of it is also driven by the fact that it's not always the case that more is better.Noah Newman:
For soybean planting populations 42.6% said 120,000 or less which is pretty consistent with last year. I don't know if the numbers were off in 2019 or not but this is a big, big difference. In 2019, only 8% said their typical soybean planting population was 120,000 or less.Tony Vyn:
Once again those are in the ballpark. What are we trying to achieve? You're trying to achieve a final stand of 90 to 100,000 seeds. And I think that makes sense. I think higher seeding rates would be required if you were planting later, but since most strip-tillers are also planting earlier I think that this is right in the ballpark. It's interesting to me, just in the scheme of things, how much soybean seeding rates have come down in the last 20 years?Noah Newman:
How is fertilizer placed if applied during strip-till operations? 61% banded below the berm, 42% mixed into the berm, and 6% between the berms. About what you expect?Tony Vyn:
Well, in a way what that does, as much as anything, is that it identifies the equipment that you're using for strip-till, whether you're using a shank-based system or a coulter-based system. So I think it says a lot about which manufacturers have sold the equipment to the farmers that are using these alternate placements. Those things will always be subject to modification. My thoughts are that there still is an advantage for more separation between high nitrogen and high potassium from the seed at higher rates of nitrogen plus potassium. So a little bit of the placement depends on the extent to which you are meeting crop removal values of those nutrients with that single banding opportunity during strip-till and how much you're relying on other timings of application perhaps in season or perhaps foliar to meet the nutrient demands of the crop.Noah Newman:
It's really interesting just going all over all the data. I mean, there's about 50 questions in here so we could spend hours doing this. We could cut it off there and maybe in the future we can go over some more of those data points. I can get you these too after the recording if you want to take a look.Tony Vyn:
Yes, highly.Noah Newman:
Oh, yeah, I'll send them your way. I figured you'd want to get your hands on that data. Well, Tony, I really appreciate the time I know you're busy. But before we let you go, anything else you want to add or something exciting coming up that you're focusing on in your studies? Just what's next on the horizon for you?Tony Vyn:
Well, what's next on the horizon is retirement. What does that mean for me? I'm still trying to figure that out. But one of the things I will clue you into is that I love farming, and so perhaps this is the time for me to focus with family members on doing something in much larger fields than the smaller plots that I have traditionally done research on. That's not been the only place I've done research, I've also done research in large on farm strips, replicated strips. I'm looking forward to continued growth in strip-till. This conference is a great way of having people visit with each other about what works for them. I'm looking forward to meeting the farmers as well as those who supply this industry because it's a dynamic forward-thinking industry.Noah Newman:
And that'll wrap things up for this week's Strip-Till Farmer podcast. Thanks to Tony Vyn for joining us, a great perspective there. Now we'll have an article with the full breakdown of the survey soon on Strip-tillfarmer.com so be on the lookout for that. Thanks for tuning in, thanks to Sound Agriculture, and until next time have a great day.