For Ontario farmer Blake Vince, taking a leap with strip-till practices helped him improve corn yields, preserve soil moisture and reduce expenditures on high-dollar fuel and fertilizer.
While the fear of failure keeps many farmers from pulling the trigger on game-changing decisions, the lessons of conservation farming were drilled into Blake Vince’s head by his father at an early age.
And when Vince talked his father into strip-tilling on their southwestern Ontario farm several years ago, the decision to move ahead paid dividends.
Through tilling fields less and adding cover crops to the mix, Vince has seen fuel and fertilizer costs drop and soil health and yields improve, along with providing benefits to the Great Lakes that sit near his doorstep.
A History Lesson
When Blake Vince began strip-tilling corn in southwestern Ontario in 2007, he was continuing a family’s commitment to conservation tillage.
In the 1980s, his family was an early adopter of no-till, says Vince, who now farms near Merlin, about 10 miles from Lake Erie and about 40 miles from Detroit, Mich.
SOIL BENEFITS. Through tilling fields less and adding cover crops to the mix, Ontario strip-tiller Blake Vince has seen fuel and fertilizer costs drop an soil health and yield improve. As evidenced by the burrows, earthworms can be found in abundance on his 1,400-acre farm, where corn, soybeans and wheat are grown.
“Dad and his brothers bought a Tye grain drill and a Great Plains coulter cart. This equipment was a ‘pre-John Deere 750’ drill,” Vince says. “For corn, we used a three-coulter system on a John Deere 7000, and we used that for a lot of years.”
Vince’s commitment to caring for soil and water resources, while farming efficiently, comes from his father, Elwin Vince, who served as the president of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.
Vince grew up on a crop and livestock farm. Today, Vince and his father and uncle farm about 1,400 acres, which includes no-tilled soybeans and winter wheat, and strip-tilled corn.
Vince grows parent soybean and winter-wheat seed for DuPont Pioneer, and serves as an independent sales representative for Pioneer.
Vince also serves as director for the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario.
Slashing Fuel Bills
Managing wheat straw post harvest, in preparation for planting corn, required three passes: ‘Bush hogging’ the straw, then a pass with a Soil Saver, and another with a land leveler.
“The price I pay for ESN is worth its weight in gold because the nitrogen isn’t going to be released into the atmosphere…”
— Blake Vince
Leveling fields minimized depressions, where water can collect and cause hydraulic compaction, limiting crop growth. Those three passes added up to $60 per acre in expenses.
“That was back when diesel cost about 40% less than it does today,” Vince says. “Back then, diesel cost about 68 cents per liter, which would be about $2.60 for a U.S. gallon.”
There are 3.78 liters in a U.S. gallon. In late December, diesel retailed for $1.179 to $1.35 per liter in southern Ontario. That puts the cost of a gallon at $4.45 to $5.09 per gallon.
Having to spend $60 per acre managing wheat straw prompted Vince to consider other options for his corn.
Vince wanted to not only reduce tillage, conserve soil and cut fuel and labor costs, but also apply fertilizer while doing tillage. All of these things led him to consider strip-till.
An avid user of the Internet, Vince asked other farmers on the Web about options for strip-till equipment. Someone suggested he look at the Soil Warrior, manufactured by Environmental Tillage Systems, so he flew to Minnesota and met with strip-tiller Mark Bauer, who designed and built the Soil Warrior.
“I came home and sold the concept to Dad, who had followed Ray Rawson’s three-coulter, zone-till system for many years,” Vince says.
After their discussion, Vince bought an eight-row Soil Warrior with 30-inch spacings.
Fall, Spring Strip-Till
In the fall, Vince runs the Soil Warrior with cog wheels, which he says look like big steel saw blades. In the spring, he removes the cog wheels and replaces them with two staggered wavy coulters for each row.
Advice For Getting Started With Cover Crops
Merlin, Ontario, strip-tiller Blake Vince gets questions from his Pioneer seed customers about what cover crops they should use.
While he doesn’t sell cover-crop seed, he’s ready with practical advice for other farmers.
“If you want to build nitrogen, then you need a legume,” Vince says. “To improve soil tilth, you want a fibrous root like triticale, ryegrass or cereal rye. To break up soil compaction, try a deep-rooted crop like radish, turnips or canola.
“The most important thing to do is to ask, ‘What’s my goal?’ Do I want the cover crop to die during the winter? Am I worried about a cover crop attracting cutworms or slugs?’ If you’re just starting out with cover crops, stay within your comfort zone.”
He runs the coulters about 2 inches deep in the spring, strip-tilling about 10 mph and using Trimble RTK when applying the fertilizer and planting corn. Vince pulls the strip-till unit with a 240-horsepower Challenger tractor.
When strip-tilling in the fall, Vince places MAP and potash throughout the tilled zone. Vince says that unlike many other strip-till rigs — which place fertilizer in bands in the tilled strip — the Soil Warrior evenly distributes the fertilizer from the top of the zone to the bottom of the zone.
“When the corn is growing and the roots are expanding, it doesn’t encounter a hot zone of fertilizer that can prune roots,” he says.
Vince’s ag retailer blends the phosphorus and potassium and he places 40% of it in the front compartment on his Soil Warrior and 60% in the back. Today’s Soil Warriors have a 50-50 split for these two compartments.
When Vince comes back and strip-tills in the spring, he likes to apply about 100 pounds of actual nitrogen, using a blend of 30% urea and 70% ESN (polymer-coated urea).
“The price I pay for ESN is worth its weight in gold because that nitrogen isn’t going to be released into the atmosphere,” Vince says. “Instead, the ESN will spoon-feed nitrogen to the corn. I’m trying to produce the most amount of corn with the least amount of inputs. I’m trying to see how low I can go with inputs without hurting profitability.”
While other farmers in the area may apply 1 pound of nitrogen for each bushel of corn, Vince applies about 80% of the nitrogen for his yield goal.
When spring strip-tilling, Vince includes micronutrients from Midwestern BioAg, along with the ESN and urea. Depending on the weather, he may wait half a day to 1½ days before planting corn into strips.
“Planting depends on the sun, the wind and the temperature,” Vince says. “I live in a wide-open area and the winds blow in unobstructed from the west across Lake St. Clair. You can lose a lot of soil moisture to the wind.”
Vince uses a 16-row Deere 7000 planter set to 30-inch spacings to plant corn. He installed rolling baskets from L&B Mfg., which Vince says sold the patent to Yetter Mfg.
Vince says he was the first customer in North America to start using the baskets, and he also added spoke-style Furrow Cruiser closing wheels last spring. He also installed notched opening discs from S.I. Distributing, which provides more soil penetration.
When Vince no-tills soybeans with this planter, he does so without having a coulter out front because the notched opening discs do a good job of penetrating the soil.
PLANTER TWEAKS. Strip-tiller Blake Vince has installed rolling baskets and notch-style opening discs on his 16-row John Deere 7000 planter, which is set to 30-inch spacings. He’s also added spoke-style Furrow Cruiser closing wheels that do a good job penetrating the soil.
Selecting Corn Hybrids
Vince says his best corn yields come after winter-wheat underseeded with red clover. Corn is followed by no-till soybeans and no-tilled wheat in a 3-year rotation. He may also do a 4-year rotation of corn, soybeans, soybeans and wheat.
“When I select hybrids, I look at emergence first. If a hybrid hiccups and doesn’t come out of the ground, I lose stand…”
“In the early years of no-till, we struggled growing corn after wheat because there was too much of an allelopathic effect on the corn from the wheat,” he says. “Also, the wheat residue kept fields wet in the spring.”
Vince plants a range of hybrids with relative maturities of 102 to 112 days to spread out risk, and he plants about 36,000 kernels per acre.
“When I select hybrids, I look at emergence first,” he says. “If a hybrid hiccups and doesn’t come out of the ground, I lose stand. And if I lose stand, I’m losing ears and yield and that isn’t good when seed corn costs $300 or more per bag.”
Takes Hold In Ontario
While Blake Vince never has farmed with a moldboard plow, the famous implement is making a huge comeback in Ontario.
“The moldboard plow is alive and well in Ontario, driven by good yields and prices and weather,” says Vince, who farms near Merlin. “There were full-page color ads for plows in Ontario farm publications in recent months.
“At the Woodstock (Ontario) Farm Show last September, there was actually a ‘plow off,’ which was organized by a retired agronomist. All of the positive momentum in the 1980s and 1990s with no-till is gone.”
Vince also wants hybrids with good stalks. He’s a big proponent of the Herculex insect-protection trait, but because he doesn’t grow corn-on-corn, he doesn’t choose hybrids with triple-stack traits if it’s not necessary.
“We make it our priority at harvest to finish combining soybeans before we start on corn,” Vince says. “We plant soybeans with relative maturities of 2.7 to 3.2.”
While Hurricane Sandy didn’t come so far inland to directly hit southern Ontario, rough weather spawned by the massive storm hit fields in the area.
The impact of the massive storm differentiated the hybrids with excellent emergence and stalk characteristics when compared to those without those qualities.
“You could see corn that lodged, or where the wind rattled stands pretty good,” Vince says. “In some fields, stalks snapped off above and below the ear.”
Covers Get Results
Since he began strip-tilling 5 years ago, Vince says he’s reduced fertilizer use and costs for corn, while increasing yields. But with advances in corn hybrids, it’s hard to quantify what percentage of the increased yield comes from strip-till.
MIXING FERTILIZER. Ontario farmer Blake Vince began strip-tilling about 5 years ago so he could apply fertilizer during field operations and still reduce field passes and fuel costs. His Soil Warrior strip-till rig from Environmental Tillage Systems mixes fertilizer in the tilled strips of soil, which Vince says eliminates the possibility of a “hot zone” that can occur by banding.
Cover crops have also had some impact, in addition to strip-till and hybrid advancements. Vince has used a variety of covers, including oilseed radishes, double-cut red clover, Austrian winter peas, canola, as well as winter wheat and soybeans.
He says frost-seeding red clover into cereal grain like winter wheat is nothing new, but he notes that farmers got away from doing this with the focus on chemicals in agriculture after World War II.
“They gave up on the basic practices of taking care of the soil first,” Vince says.
Vince strip-tills into fall-seeded cover-crop stands with the Soil Warrior, and he burns down the remaining cover crop in the spring.
“All of the crops in the mix will die, except for the winter wheat,” he says. “In seeding a mix of cover crops, I’m moving away from the practice of relying on a single species. “Early data indicates yields of subsequent crops are higher following blends.”
In 2012, Vince’s strip-tilled corn that followed a cover crop of double-cut red clover yielded 15 bushels per acre more than conventionally tilled corn. Vince says the 15-bushel advantage is a conservative figure.
“I can reduce the amount of commercial nitrogen because I’m getting extra nitrogen from my cover crops,” Vince says. “The nitrogen’s coming from red clover and from the oilseed radishes, which sequester nitrogen. I am using a biological approach to help get the nitrogen my corn crop needs.”
Vince loves experimenting with covers. In the fall of 2012, using a brush auger, he mixed oilseed radishes, Austrian winter peas, winter-wheat seed and discarded soybean seed and augered it into a Sunflower grain drill.
“With my drill and 20-foot Case IH coulter cart, I then drilled 75 pounds per acre of this mix,” Vince says. “I seeded this the second week of October, after the soybeans were off, and I had just a beautiful catch of the cover-crop mix.”
Cutting Corn Fertilizer
Working in tandem with cover crops and better hybrids, strip-till has also let Vince reduce the amount of fertilizer he uses to grow corn.
“I can reduce the amount of commercial nitrogen because I’m getting my extra nitrogen from my cover crops…”
“I’ve reduced fertilizer rates by about 33%,” he says. “Before strip-tilling, I may have applied 300 to 350 pounds per acre of blended MAP and potash.
“Now, with the Soil Warrior, I’m applying 220 to 240 pounds. In the fall, I’m applying about 270 pounds of a blend of MAP, potash and gypsum. That blend is comprised of 220 pounds of MAP and potash and 50 pounds of gypsum.
Covers Help Tiling
Vince says tiling his fields, with laterals set 20 feet apart, has provided a boost to his high-clay strip-tilled acres, and other farmers should expect similar results.
“In the first year, you can expect a 10% yield increase. And that’s a conservative estimate,” he says.
Not all landowners will pay for tiling, so cover crops can help, he says.
Vince prefers a cropping system of no-tilled soybeans and winter wheat and strip-tilled corn, complemented by tiling and cover crops.