For the Ford family in northeastern Illinois, establishing the ideal seedbed for strip-till operations didn’t happen overnight.

Building their strips in the fall since 1996 put them on a path toward perfection. But they’ve also incorporated precision technology, corn-on-corn residue management strategies and split-nutrient application to refine their strip-till system.

“For us, strip-till is our tool to weatherproof the planting season,” says Gary Ford, who farms about 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans in Tonica, Ill., with his son, Adam, and brother, Dennis. “No matter the type of weather in the spring, I feel we’ve been able to get excellent seed placement, and that has led to better emergence and yields.”

The Right Track

When the Fords started strip-tilling, they rented a tractor to pull their 12-row DMI unit. They eventually purchased a high-horsepower tractor, but one of the early challenges was keeping the planter in line with the strips created in the fall. This led to erratic planting.

“We noticed that if we got off the strips, we were planting into hard ground and the planter wasn’t set for that,” Dennis says. “It was set for the soft ground in the strips — and when the corn came up, some of it would tip over or didn’t have the root structure it should have.”

In 2007, the Fords changed their setup, adding RTK guidance to their tractor at the same time they purchased a new 12-row Case IH 5310 strip-till rig. The guidance system provided more consistency when building the strips in the fall and improved planting accuracy in the spring, Gary says.

The RTK setup allowed the Fords to focus on other aspects of planting. They’re seeing better emergence with auto-steer rather than focusing all of their concentration on staying on the strip.

A Family Affair
A FAMILY AFFAIR. Dennis (l), Gary (c) and Adam (r) Ford have strip-tilled since 1996. They apply two-thirds of their nitrogen with anhydrous in the fall strips, which they build 7 inches deep with an anhydrous knife and 18-inch coulters behind the knife. In the spring, they add the remaining nitrogen — either 28% or 32% — with the planter, 4 inches over and 2 inches off the row.

“Now we’re able to pay more attention to the row spacings and the depth and everything else that makes for better seed placement,” Gary says.

In 2009, the Fords added four more row units to their strip-till machine to match their 16-row John Deere planter. After running the mismatched implements for a season, the Fords weren’t satisfied with the results and wanted eliminate overlap when planting.

“It’s extremely important that the strip-till bar matches the corn rows,” Adam says. “The benefit for us is that we’re planting exactly on the strips. And with RTK, the planter and the bar matching, there is little room for error.”

The Fords also use Precision Planting’s 20/20 SeedSense monitor and, this spring, will add the FieldView mobile app to more closely monitor seed placement in the strips.

“We’re hoping this gives us a better visual, and if there’s a problem it will jump right out,” Gary says.

A Split Decision

While the Fords don’t strip-till in the spring, they recently began applying one-third of their nitrogen beside the strips during planting.

They had been applying all of their nitrogen with the strip-till bar in the fall, but a wet spring 3 years ago prompted a change, says Adam.

“We sidedressed later because of conditions and we saw a very good benefit,” he says. “That raised the question of whether we should look at split-applied nitrogen. After talking about it, we thought the best solution was to put some down in the spring.”

Now, the Fords apply two-thirds of their nitrogen with anhydrous in the fall strips, which they build 7 inches deep with an anhydrous knife and 18-inch coulters behind the knife. The mounds end up being about 4 inches wide, Dennis says.

Seeing Red
SEEING RED. The Fords added four row units to their 12-row Case IH 5310 strip-till rig to match their planter. This helped eliminate overlap and led to more precise placement of the seed.

In the spring, they add the remaining nitrogen — either 28% or 32% — with the planter, 4 inches over and 2 inches off the row. They agree that the change has made nutrients available earlier in the growing cycle of the plants and led to better stands.

“It’s just feeding the crop better,” Gary says. “When we put that whole amount on in the fall, there’s more potential for loss. We’re managing the nitrogen better and I think the plant is getting more nutrients when they’re needed.”

This spring, Dennis says they will experiment with adding sulfur to the nitrogen as an additional “kick start” for the crops.

Handling Residue

When the Fords first started no-tilling in the 1980s, their entire operation was about 50% percent corn and 50% soybeans.

While they no-till their soybeans, the Fords strip-till all of their corn, which now accounts for two-thirds of their crops. Since 2003, half of their corn is corn-on-corn, and like many strip-tillers, managing residue is a challenge.

“Some years it just flows right through. Other years, it depends on how wet the stalks are,” Gary says. “One trick I’ve found is when I’m out building strips, I try to strip the soybean ground in the morning, when it’s wet. When the sun comes out, I’ll move over to the corn-on-corn ground and do it when it’s a little bit drier. That eliminates some problems of getting through that residue.”

But the best remedy for managing corn-on-corn residue for the Fords has been their stubble smashers applied to each row of their 8-row corn head. The benefits are two-fold, Gary explains.

“It helps protect the tires, because we’re not driving centered on the stalks. But they also lay the cornstalks down. We like them in long pieces so they attach to the ground and to themselves as well.

Conservation Honor
CONSERVATION HONOR. In 2008, the Fords were recognized with the LaSalle County Soil & Conservation District Conservation family of the year award for their dedication to soil and water conservation through no-till and strip-till practices.

“Then, when the strip-till unit goes through in the fall, it nudges the stalks off to the side and they go in between rows.”

The Fords have coulters on their strip-till unit to cut the trash off the strip site, and they use row cleaners on the strip-till rig and the planter to push the residue off the strip.

During the last five years, they’ve averaged about 192 bushels-per-acre of corn, which is above the county average, Dennis says. Less soil disturbance is the primary reason the Fords are able to preserve soil moisture and improve plant health, he says.

“We haven’t noticed much drop off with corn-on-corn. Some people talk about 20- or 30-bushel-per-acre drops, but we haven’t seen it,” Dennis says. “We have those black strips the sun can get to and warm up, yet in between the strips, the residue is there to hold the moisture.”

Gary acknowledges that there is no perfect solution for managing residue in corn-on-corn acres. But he says the key for him is finding the right combination of technology and equipment to build the perfect strip in the fall and be ready for planting in the spring.

“No matter what the weather does, we feel prepared,” he says. “Last spring it was 80 degrees F the entire month of April and farmers with wet ground lost soil moisture. They were either not planting, or planting 2.5 inches deep and they kept asking, ‘How is your soil moisture?’

“We don’t have that problem. We have the moisture perfect, right where we want it.