Cover crops offer a unique solution for keeping field residue where you left it after your strip-till pass, while also providing benefits like breaking up soil compaction and nutrient cycling — but is adopting them the right call for your operation?

The answer is a resounding yes for southeastern Minnesota strip-tiller Justin Krell, who shared his cover cropping journey during a Strip-Till Farmer webinar, co-hosted by Environmental Tillage Systems and ForGround by Bayer.

Krell farms 800 acres, 230 of which are irrigated, producing corn and soybeans in a rotation with peas and sweet corn near Blooming Prairie, Minn. He began the switch from conventional tillage to strip-tillage in 2016, hoping it would help solve his time management challenges.

“I farm with my dad, so labor was a big issue because there’s only 2 of us,” Krell says. “How can we simplify things and make fewer passes while maximizing our return on investment? Strip-till looked like the potential answer.”

Krell started small — strip-tilling for the first time on experimental ground that he calls his “guinea pig” farm.

“We hired a local co-op that did custom strip-till,” he says. “It was a natural fit for them to come in and try strip-tilling on our farm. That first year, I remember how nice it was in the spring to be able to just pull in and plant. During the day I could work my job as a full-time agronomist, and then jump in the planter at night.”

Krell transitioned his entire farm to strip-till in 2017, around the same time he started incorporating cover crops into his system.

“Cover crops and strip-till go together very well,” Krell says. “There is nothing more rewarding than in the spring when you see a black strip and green cover growing in between the rows, when the grass has barely greened up in the ditches. You know you’re protecting the soil and not limiting yield." 

Krell has tried almost every cover crop application method in the book, from aerial applications to vertical tillage tools.

“The aerial applications worked really well for us,” Krell says. “The strip-till machine is aggressive enough to kill the cover crop when the pass is made, so you have a clean strip in the spring to plant into. I’ve had good luck using the vertical tillage tool to apply covers as well. You could barely tell the machine was out there — low soil disturbance but great seed to soil contact.”

Krell plants a variety of species, with cereal rye and kale being the most common. Cover crops help improve his soil health, reduce erosion, scavenge nutrients and improve water quality. 

“Our farm is located by a lake, so obviously we’re sensitive about nitrates,” Krell says. “There are local restrictions that prevent us from applying fall nitrogen on 90% of our acres. The cover crops help by scavenging nutrients and making them available the following year.”

Krell recalls being the only one in his area to use cover crops and strip-till at first. His farm is located by a major highway, so it felt like he was under a microscope during that point in time. He credits his relationship with a network of strip-tillers for easing the transition.

“There’s a group of 4 or 5 of us who talk on a weekly basis and sometimes daily in the fall and spring,” Krell says. “We’re always sharing information. Finding a network like that is one of the best things I’ve done for our operation.

“I’m an agronomist, so I enjoy when people call and ask me questions about strip-till and cover crops. Strip-till has really grown in scope and scale since we started doing it. Other farmers are strip-tilling around here now. I’m not alone anymore, which is kind of fun.” 

Learn more about Krell’s journey in the webinar replay below, in addition to insights from ETS VP Brent Brueland and ForGround by Bayer sustainable systems agronomist Tyler Williams.