If you happen to think that strip-tilling is mainly a fall practice, guess again.
More growers are seeing major benefits by strip-tilling in the spring. They cite cropping flexibility, slashed fertilizer costs, reduced winter erosion and the ability to deal with changing weather conditions as some of the advantages of strip-tilling in the spring.
While many growers prefer to strip-till in late fall, others see distinct advantages to waiting until spring. What it really boils down to is what you feel is best for your own soil conditions and crop mix.
Yet one thing is for sure: we’ll see extensive strip-tilling across the Corn Belt this spring.
Jim Basset finds a number of no-tillers switched last year to strip-till with continuous corn.
“Strip-tillers are happier coming from a no-till experience because they are already used to having heavy residue laying on top of the soil,” says the head of Dawn Equipment Co. in Sycamore, Ill.
He says crop rotation can hold the key to the timing of a strip-till pass. With northern wheat fields that will be planted to corn, Basset prefers to strip-till in the fall to eliminate excessive residue moisture. With corn going into soybean stubble, he sees no significant differences between fall and spring strip-tilling.
But with high-yielding continuous corn in the Corn Belt, he recommends strip-tilling in the spring, often as early as mid-March in central Illinois.
“Running through the fields in the fall just to have it done does not make sense with so much fluff and chaff coming out of the combine,” he says. “The quality of a fall-built strip is often not as good as a spring strip. You can build a blacker strip in the spring because you don’t have to worry about residue blowing back over the strip in the winter, which often leads to excessive moisture in the berm and impacts soil settling.
"Plus, you don’t have to worry about costly losses of fall-applied nitrogen.”
Basset says spring stripping is a valuable option for many corn growers. Another advantage it provides is the added flexibility for your cropping program.
“With continuous corn, you have to clean the residue off the strip,” Basset says. “With the tremendous amount of biomass that can be produced with yields upward of 240 bushels of corn per acre, some farmers think they have to bury the residue.
“When they bury trash with tillage, it seems to suck much of the nitrogen out of the ground. Instead, all you have to do is scoop the residue to the side of the row areas to make strip-till work.”
Randall Reeder recommends running the strip-till rig at a shallower depth in the spring to avoid working wet soils.
“Most growers strip-till in the fall and let natural weathering settle the soil structure over the winter,” says the Ohio State University ag engineer. “With spring strip-tilling, you can’t take advantage of these freeze-and-thaw cycles, and big clods produced while stripping can dry like chunks of concrete. They’re difficult to turn into a good seedbed.”
Kurt Afdahl prefers to strip-till darker soils in the spring.
“With spring strip-tilling of these soils, we find soil temperatures at planting are 5 degrees warmer than with strips made in the fall,” says the Hammond, Wis., grower. “When we have fall stripped, the berms are fairly hard by spring, while spring-built strips are mellower and provide a much nicer seedbed.
“On some heavy clay soils, we strip in the fall and again in the spring. These clay soils don’t dry out quickly enough in the spring if we don’t fall strip them. When re-stripping in the spring, we run much shallower and faster.”
Several No-Till Farmer readers credit spring strip-tilling with sharply reducing soil compaction concerns caused by spreading manure in the winter months. Others are convinced that spring stripping reduces erosion by leaving the ground covered with undisturbed residue over the winter.
Jerry Crew maintains the major benefit of strip-tilling in the spring is providing more extensive wintertime cornstalk decomposition, especially on highly erodible ground. Yet the Webb, Iowa, grower says a lack of time is the major drawback of waiting until spring. With continuous corn, he strip-tills between the old rows and applies 100 pounds of nitrogen in the strips. Later, he sidedresses nitrogen along the strips based on nitrate tests.
“With spring stripping, the residue has settled and the strips have less residue at planting time,” he says.
“Fall strip-tilling tends to leave more residue in the strips because of winter winds. I use urea in the strips and haven’t had any problems with leaf burn because I’ve gotten 1 inch or more rain prior to planting.”
Jon Patterson says waiting until spring allows him to make early spring manure applications and provides better residue flow through the planter. The Auburn, N.Y., grower also applies a burndown herbicide at the same time.
Shane Meier is building a strip-till rig out of an old 12-row cultivator equipped with floating row cleaners that he also uses to apply 8 to 10 gallons per acre of 28% liquid nitrogen. The grower from Columbus, Ind., has strip-tilled only once in the spring, but recognizes the importance of moving residue away from the strip.
However, he’s found compaction can be a concern when using a knife to move wet dirt in the spring.
Mike Reichart strip-tills in the spring only when he doesn’t get all the acres covered in the fall or decides in late winter to expand corn acres.
“I’ve done spring strip-till for a neighbor for several years and a few times for myself,” says the grower from Tallula, Ill. “In the spring, we use 28% nitrogen rather than anhydrous ammonia with N–Serve in the fall.”
Floyd Koerner at Laingsburg, Mich., says spring strip-tilling is his only option. By the time fall harvest is completed, his ground is normally wet or covered with snow.
Reichart doesn’t see any benefits to waiting until spring to strip-till. This is because compaction from working wet soils and leaving tractor or fertilizer cart wheeltrack ruts can be more of a concern.
“After you do spring strips, you really need a rain before you plant,” he says. “If you can get in the field and strip before April 1 in our area, you have more time to wait for rain,” he says. “But you run the risk of the ground drying out before planting, which can result in poor germination and corn growth.
“If you wait until it’s time to plant to put down the strips, you run the risk of being delayed by rain. By strip-tilling in the fall, the ground is ready to plant earlier in the spring. If the ground is dry enough in April to put down strips, you should be planting corn on those fall strips instead of putting nitrogen down in spring strips.”
When Reichart knows that he’ll build strips in the spring, none of the ground is touched in the fall. By spring, old cornstalks decay enough that his strip-till rig has no trouble going down between the old rows.
Afdahl adds that his ground dries out more quickly in the spring when berms are built in the fall.
“When we strip in the spring, we have to wait a bit longer to get in the field,” he says.
Reichart hasn’t tried injecting anhydrous ammonia in the spring because his fertilizer dealer is concerned about seed burn.
Patterson says timing is a major concern.
“Soils dry out and seed-to-soil contact is not as good if the planter is running over the ground more than an hour after the strips are built,” he says. “Another concern with spring work is that a strip-till machine that requires immediate repairs can keep you from planting.”
Best Ground For Stripping
Afdahl witnessed a big boost in yields when he shifted from conventional-tilled to no-tilled soybeans. He witnessed another big yield jump when he started strip-tilling soybeans.
“We get the same yield response whether we fall or spring strip-till fields going into soybeans, so we can do it at either time,” he says. “However, we get the best corn yields when we strip-till fields in the spring. The darker soils warm up faster.”
With the need to spread manure from a 1,000-cow dairy operation, Patterson finds lighter, well-drained soils work best when spring stripping for corn or soybeans.
“The heavier soils tend to come out in big chunks or cut slices,” says Patterson, who uses an Unverferth ripper stripper with a parabolic shank that runs 9 to 12 inches deep in the spring and even deeper in the fall.”
Koerner relies on row cleaners to avoid hairpinning residue with spring-built strips.
“Strip-tilling in the spring warms the soil, aerates the seedbed area and provides smooth, tilled soil in the row area that improves uniformity with both seeding depth and plant spacing,” he says.
Fall vs. Spring
Afdahl says most of his strip-tilled fields have been ripped 20 to 22 inches deep at least three times. In these fields, he strip-tills every year unless compaction becomes a problem.
“On our tighter soils, we drive slower and don’t run the knives as deep to avoid lumps and chunks that are undesirable for planting,” he says.
Koerner says spring stripping lets him get full value out of fall-seeded cover crops. In addition, stripping in the spring into warmer, properly aerated soils lets him band fertilizer without losing costly fall-applied nitrogen. Thanks to the cover-crop nutrient bonus, he’s reduced fertilizer needs by 40%.
He believes it’s important to use rolling baskets on the strip-till unit in the spring to smooth out the berms for more efficient planting.
“It’s important to avoid using too big of a point on your strip-till units in the spring because they often pull up more wet soil than the hillers and baskets can handle,” Koerner says. “Small points run 8 to 12 inches deep and work well for us.
“Our berms are about 4 inches high after the planter has seeded the crop. We try to build 8-inch-wide berms with lots of loose soil, which helps keep the biomass between the rows undisturbed and allows us to soak up available moisture.”
Like Koerner, Meier also prefers to strip-till in the spring to get the full potential of fall-seeded cover crops. He seeds them after soybean or corn harvest with a no-till drill or he broadcasts the seed and works it lightly into the soil with a Salford residue-management tool.
He seeds ryegrass into standing soybeans around the 1st of September and aerially seeds cereal rye in mid-August. Besides providing added winter erosion protection, cover crops sharply reduce fertilizer needs.
Major Learning Experience
Afdahl continuously finds new ways to improve the soil structure with strip-tilling.
“I don’t have a lot of extra time in the spring, so I need to make the most of the time I have and get the most return out of every acre,” he says. “Nobody yet has built the perfect toolbar for strip-till. There are many strip-till toolbars with both good and bad ideas, so you need to take bits and pieces from every unit to build one that fits your particular needs.
“We’ve tried many things, but strip-tilling has been the best investment I’ve ever made. I’ve spent twice as much money on modifications as I originally spent on the toolbar, but it has been money well-spent.”
Meier finds highly erodible land is in much better shape in the spring when it is covered with cornstalks over the winter prior to strip-tilling.
Koerner says the key is properly setting up your strip-till rig for spring use, properly sizing the berms, getting the right depth, adjusting the row cleaners and being able to keep the planter on the raised row.
“I prefer to strip-till in the same direction that we plant, as this keeps cornstalks from getting tied up in the planter,” he says.