Cover crops help keep residue where you left it after a 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. He 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 — hiring a local co-op to custom strip-till on an experimental field.
“That first year, I remember how nice it was to just focus on planting in the spring after making strips in the fall. I could work my day job as a full-time agronomist, and then come home at night and jump in the planter.”
Are Cover Crops Right for Your Strip-Till Operation?
Click here to learn more about Justin Krell’s strip-till and cover crop journey in this Strip-Till Farmer webinar replay, co-hosted by Environmental Tillage Systems VP Brent Brueland and ForGround by Bayer sustainable systems agronomist Tyler Williams/p>
Pleased with the results, 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 seeing a black strip and green cover growing between the rows in the spring, 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, but I’ve also had great luck using the vertical tillage tool to apply cover crops,” Krell says. “You could barely tell the machine was out there — low soil disturbance but great seed to soil contact. Our 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.”
Krell plants a variety of species, but cereal rye and kale are the most common. Cover crops have elevated his strip-till operation by scavenging nutrients, reducing erosion and improving water quality.
“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a black strip with green covers growing between the rows in the spring…”
“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 one of the first in his area to combine cover crops with strip-till, and it felt like he was under a microscope because his farm is located by a major highway. He credits his relationship with a network of strip-tillers for giving him the confidence and knowledge to stay the course.
“There’s a group of 4-5 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 also 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.”