For some farmers, their early transition to strip-till conjures up fond memories of higher yields or improved fertilizer placement, while for others, building those first berms serves more as reminder of how far they’ve come in their operation.
Looking back on a decade of strip-tilling, Mike Shuter recalls both the pains and the gains he and his sons, Brian and Patrick, have encountered on their way to successfully strip-tilling 2,500 acres of corn at Shuter Sunset Farms in Frankton, Ind.
A veteran no-tiller, Shuter moved to strip-till in 2003, primarily to get plants off to faster start through more targeted fertilizer application and better residue management practices.
“We started strip-tilling because we wanted to go to more corn-on-corn, and felt the system would get us a good stand established faster,” he says. “Cleaning out that row around the strip is critical because we don’t want that residue blending into it.”
This past year, Shuter averaged 198 bushels per acre on their corn-on-corn acres, and about 171 bushels per acre on corn acres planted into soybeans. Typically, he says, there isn’t that much disparity in the yield averages, but since adopting strip-till, overall corn yields have increased 10 to 15 bushels over no-tilled corn.
“Better stands equate to better yields,” Shuter says. “Whether it’s all been due to strip-till is hard to quantify, but we’ve certainly been able to use fertilizer more efficiently by putting it in the strips.”
While Shuter is reaping the benefits of strip-till, it’s taken some elbow grease and tweaking of equipment to get where he is today.
Shuter’s first strip-till rig was a Thurston Mfg./Blu-Jet sidedress rig he converted into a 24-row strip-till unit. The shank-style row units featured a mole knife to blow fertilizer 4 to 6 inches into the ground.
Shuter used the unit for 3 years to build strips in the fall and then sidedress in spring, but transitioning the rig each season took its toll.
“For sidedressing, we had to put the row units between the rows, so we had to remove one row unit and move all the rest 15 inches one way or another to make it work,” he says. “It was labor intensive, but fun the first year, a chore the next year and by the third year, it was a pain in the butt.”
For their next strip-till rig, Shuter adapted an older Friesen planter bar frame from a custom 24-row no-till planter and kept the Blu-Jet row units, but added a few features, including Yetter SharkTooth row cleaners in front to clear residue.
The setup worked well for several years, but Shuter eventually wanted to run a little faster and incorporate more corn-on-corn acres into his operation.
To do this, he decided to switch to a coulter-based system. Last fall, he began using a 60-foot custom toolbar built by Misenhelder Welding, based in Ithaca, Mich., with 24 Orthman Mfg. row units.
“We went with twin coulters because we wanted to run the rig at 7 mph. With the shanks, we could only run about 6 mph going 4 to 5 inches deep,” Shuter says. “Running a little quicker with the coulters allows us to get fertilizer placed into a wider area, instead of right under the seed.”
While he never experienced root burn with the shank system, Shuter hopes the coulter setup will eliminate that potential problem. The Orthman units have two coulters in the center of the row unit, with row cleaners in front and a pair of closing coulters in back, followed by a basket.
Shuter is anxious to see how well the berms hold up over the winter after his first year of using the coulter-system, but he saw some encouraging signs last fall when building the strips.
“We’ve got some fields with waterways where our 24-row strip-till rigs have been pulled sideways because we couldn’t control the depth through those areas,” he says. “This past fall, we didn’t see that because we were able to control the units independently, which is giving us better depth control. We don’t have to slow down when we come to those waterways and the strips were straighter where we’ll plant into them in spring.”
In the mid-1990s, the Shuters used a pull-type spreader with a Rawson hydraulic drive to variable-rate apply potash and phosphate on no-tilled ground. They changed the rates manually on the go.
When they started strip-tilling, the Shuters used a Fargo air cart with a two-hopper setup with their strip-till rig. In fall, fertilizer was fed through a 5-inch tube, and the two hoppers were split with 60% in the potash hopper and 40% in the phosphate hopper and variable-rate applied based off of the results of soil-test maps.
After 3 years, the Shuters upgraded to a larger, stainless steel Amity air cart and maintained the same 60-40 hopper split of potash and phosphate. But they also wanted to incorporate more micronutrients, including zinc, sulfur and manganese into their fertility program.
“When blending the potash and phosphate, with variable-rate, sometimes we’re just applying one or the other in certain areas,” Shuter says. “We found we’d loose control rates on those micronutrients because sometimes they were applied, and sometimes they weren’t.”
To better manage fall application, the Shuters purchased a Salford triple-tank air cart. In one hopper, they apply 125 pounds per acre of a potash, ammonium sulfate and phosphate blend, with a Wolf Trax micronutrients package, which are electrostatic-charged particles that adhere to the blend.
With the other two hoppers, the Shuters variable-rate apply 0 to 100 pounds per acre of monoammonium phosphate (11-52-0) and potash (0-0-60).
“I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I know with the three-hopper setup, we’re using fertilizer more efficiently,” Shuter says. “Having that micro blend, in some cases, we’re able to cut back on potash and phosphate application in areas because the soil already has what it needs.”
The Shuters also variable-rate apply ag lime and gypsum in the fall and, 3 years ago, began seeding a cover-crop mix of annual ryegrass, crimson clover and radishes. This year, they seeded oats, radishes and crimson clover on soybean acres going to strip-tilled corn. They typically seed the covers into standing soybeans in late-August and the oats and radishes winterkill.
They use a combination of Glyphosate, Sharpen, citric acid, AMS and mentholated seed oil in the spring to kill the cover crops that survive the winter.
They’re seeing better water infiltration, especially in spots that had typically been wetter in spring.
“We’ve got a field of pretty good, black dirt which can be pretty wet. We had one strip-tilled field this past spring where we had cover crops and didn’t have a dead spot in the field,” Shuter says. “The soil really opened up and drained better. We didn’t have to replant a single acre in that field, whereas in year’s past we’ve had to do 5 to 10 acres.”
An added benefit of their focused fertility program and cover crops is gradually rising organic-matter levels. In the last 7 years, on average, the Shuters have increased organic matter from 2.8% to 2.98%.
“I’ve also seen some selected farms go up by as much as 20% to 35%,” Shuter says.
While the Shuters apply most of their fertilizer in fall, they apply spring nitrogen with their John Deere 1770NT planter. On soybean ground, they typically apply 9 to 10 gallons per acre of 28%, but for corn-on-corn ground they apply 15 to 16 gallons per acre.
“Bumping up our nitrogen application on cornstalks helps balance the carbon/nitrogen ratio a little bit better,” Shuter says. “It seems to get the corn off to a little bit better start.”
The Shuters then sidedress the balance of nitrogen with the Thurston Mfg./Blu-Jet anhydrous rig.
This past fall, the Shuters strip-tilled into more than 1,200 acres of cornstalks, and their approach to managing residue started at harvest. They used a DragoTec corn heads on their John Deere combine to process the stalks ahead of strip-tilling.
“The stalks aren’t shredding to the point that they will move around much, which is what we want,” Shuter says. “We didn’t have any problems getting through the residue and were actually strip-tilling in a light drizzle.”
But the Shuters have modified their planter setup to better handle corn-on-corn residue in spring. They had used Martin fertilizer openers behind the floating row cleaner, but after a few years had problems with plugging.
“We switched to the Yetter single-disc fertilizer openers behind the row units by extending the closing setup back 8 inches,” Shuter says. “We then have Martin floating row cleaners up front with the Martin spiked closing wheels and a drag chain in back.
“This gives us a better system in varied conditions and cleans off that stalk residue that may have floated over the strip in winter,” Shuter says. “The less residue we have in that seed trench, the better off we are.”