Weather patterns in the northern Great Lakes region certainly keep area farmers on their toes.
This is something strip-tillers Ken and Kevin Nixon at Ain Lea Farms Inc. in Ilderton, Ontario, knows well across 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat.
“In the northern Corn Belt, in the shadow of the lakes, we can go from a freak snowstorm off the lake to planting corn 2 weeks later,” Ken says. “We typically have a lot of snow cover and stay fairly cool and wet, which is a blessing and a curse.”
The unpredictable climate often provides enough moisture to maintain a healthy crop throughout the growing season, but also challenges the Nixons to plan accordingly with fertility and residue-management strategies so they can be ready to plant in a timely manner.
Succeeding In Stubble
After years of full-width tillage, the Nixons parked their moldboard plow in 1992 and moved to no-tilled soybeans and wheat, although they continued to use a chisel plow or heavy disc on wheat stubble ahead of corn.
“We’re seeing wheat yields of 90 to 110 bushels per acre. The reason we have winter wheat in our rotation is because we get an extra 10% yield boost in corn and soybeans,” Ken says. “When we can have that kind of wheat productivity and add yield to corn and soybeans, it makes a lot of sense.”
However, no-tilling corn into 100-bushel per acre wheat stubble is extremely challenging, he says. But they wanted to move away from intensive tillage practices, which were stunting soil health and leading to insect problems.
After test-running a strip-till rig, they purchased a used 12-row Redball shank machine in 2006 and built their first berms that fall into wheat stubble going to corn. Ken says they saw immediate improvement in germination and emergence because residue in the strip was removed, improving seed-to-soil contact.
Two years ago, they switched row units on their semi-mount Redball toolbar to 12 Dawn Pluribus row units that feature a lead coulter, followed by trash whippers that push residue to the side and then two wavy coulters instead of a shank found on most other units.
Yields have consistently ranged 185 to 200 bushels per acre, which is similar to neighbors with conventionally tilled corn. But their biggest benefit from strip-till has been keeping residue above ground and off the strip, minimizing insect infestations and improving soil health.
“Now that we’re leaving two-thirds of the soil surface untouched, we’re seeing more rapid decomposition of residue because we’re sweeping it to the side and not burying it,” Ken says. “When we’d chisel or disc, that residue would get mixed into the top couple inches of soil, and when our corn plant is trying to emerge, all those bits of residue in the seeding zone are great fodder for millipedes and slugs, which were a huge problem for us.”
That’s not the case anymore, and Ken says their population of beneficial insects and earthworms, far outnumbers damaging insects. In addition, organic-matter levels have gradually risen to 4% to 5%, and pH levels on their primarily silt loam soils tend to be 7.2 to 7.8
They’ve also discovered that they can be planting on fall-made strips as early as or earlier than neighbors that fall plow and spring cultivate, Ken says. “Here, early planting is very important, and traditionally we’d believed plowing wheat stubble was the only way to achieve this,” he says.
While they’ve had success strip-tilling into heavy wheat residue, corn-on-corn proved to be more difficult due wetter and late harvests, which makes it more difficult to break down corn stalks.
“One of the problems we had was that the residue just kept building up. In our area, it’s cryogenically preserved for 3 or 4 months per year and doesn’t break down,” Ken says. “We ran one field of continuous corn for about 6 years and yields just kept going down, regardless of the management we threw at it.
“We followed with one year of soybeans and that residue just disappeared, so we’re strong believers in a diverse, three-crop rotation.”
Benefits Of Shallow Banding
With their crop rotation, the Nixons only builds strips into wheat stubble every 3 years. They build strips 8 to 10 inches wide and 4 to 5 inches deep.
At that time, they band 300 pounds per acre of potash (0-0-60) and 150 pounds per acre of monoammonium phosphate (11-52-0) mixed through the strip about 3 to 5 inches deep with the strip-till rig through a Montag metering delivery system.
This constitutes all of their potash for 3 years’ worth of crops, and about two-thirds of their MAP, with the balance applied through an air seeder when they plant wheat, Ken says.
Every 3 years, they use their Trimble RTK system to move the strips over 15 inches to avoid “stratified strips” and spread out the fertility.
“We tend to see a high probability of a response to phosphorus placed fairly close to the seed,” Ken says. “It doesn’t have to be right in the seed trench, but having it in close proximity to the seed lets the young plant access that fertilizer when it needs it.
“We tried deep-placed fertilizer 6 to 7 inches, but Ontario research showed that we were essentially hiding it from our corn when it needed it most by placing it that deep.”
Ken says shallow banding of phosphorous and potassium gets corn plants off to a faster start and provides a “starter fertilizer” effect, even though it’s applied in fall.
The Dawn unit is set up for blending throughout the strip through a fertilizer tube, but the Nixons initially had to modify their Redball row units for shallow banding.
“Our shank was running about 6 inches deep, but instead of running the fertilizer all the way down the back of the shank, we cut the steel tube off and put a deflector on just above the soil surface,” Ken says. “This was essentially a splash plate, but we contained the fertilizer within the strip with the berming coulters.”
“Some was still going down the slot, but we kept most of it in the top 2 to 3 inches to make sure the fertilizer was in proximity of the seed the following spring.”
With their 12-row Kinze planter, the Nixons apply about 30 to 45 units per acre of urea ammonium nitrate (UAN), and then sidedresses about 110 pounds per acre of anhydrous ammonia.
“We’re shooting for 140 to 160 pounds per acre of total nitrogen for yields in the 185- to 200-bushel range, which translates to about 0.75 pounds per acre of nitrogen of expected yield,” Ken says. “Our biggest goal with our fertility program is to apply what we remove and make sure our crops have the nutrients they need, when and where they need them.”