Twenty years after starting to no-till corn, Mark Schmidt of Hazelton, N.D., switched to strip-till in 2012 and increased corn yields by 30 bushels per acre vs. no-till.

Spring winds can easily suck out an inch or more of moisture from the soil in a day or two, says Schmidt, who farms about an hour southeast of Bismarck.

In fact, Schmidt’s father used to say the area was always 2 inches short on soil moisture and he advised his sons to farm in the Red River Valley, where soil moisture is more plentiful.

“Years ago, I learned about conserving soil moisture through no-till from Dwayne Beck,” says Schmidt, referring to the manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in central South Dakota.

While Schmidt says that he and other farmers learned from Beck that saving crop residue conserves soil moisture, that same residue keeps soil temperatures colder in the spring. And that’s a problem when the weather is warm one week and gets cold the next.

“That back and forth with soil temperatures is something that you fight in the spring with no-till,” Schmidt says. “We saw other problems with no-till corn, like root tomahawking, poor soil penetration and sidewall compaction. It’s all about plant health.”

Some of the compaction came from sprayers, grain carts and combines, Schmidt says. Other compaction comes from planting into cold, wet soil. All of these problems create a tough layer of surface compaction, he says. And closing that compacted soil when no-tilling is really difficult, he adds.

Improving Stands

Schmidt believes strip-till gives him the benefits of soil-moisture conservation found with no-till with the faster soil warmup of tillage.

Schmidt 1After 20 years of no-tilling corn, Mark Schmidt of Hazelton, N.D., switched to strip-tilling last spring, which he credits for yielding 30 bushels per acre more than nearby no-tilled corn.

“With strip-till, you are trying to do surgery without leaving a big scar out on the land,” he says. “With no-till, we could cover more acres faster and be more consistent. But we need to get yields that live up to the potential of the seeds. Anybody can put a seed in the ground and make it grow. But increasing yields is all in the details.”

On his farm, those details involve earlier emergence, better root development and more uniform stands with strip-till vs. no-till, Schmidt says. Despite conventional wisdom about no-till, he says compaction became a problem throughout fields even after 20 years without tillage.

“There are problems with no-till because of all the traffic over the fields, from planters, sprayers, grain carts and combines,” he says.

Strip-tilling corn made a huge difference in soil temperature in the seed zone last spring, says Schmidt, who checked it with a thermometer in April.

“In the row of the strip-tilled corn, the soil temperature was 14 degrees warmer than it was 15 inches on either side under the residue,” Schmidt says. “In no-till, the soil remains cold until it warms up. But by strip-tilling, we can get in and seed our fields sooner because the black, tilled strip warms up faster than in no-till.”

When Schmidt and planting consultant Kevin Kimberley of Maxwell, Iowa, looked at strip-tilled vs. no-tilled corn roots last June, they found strip-tilled corn had 70% to 80% more roots than no-tilled corn in a neighboring field.

Planter Synergy

Schmidt began working with Kimberley 3 years ago, spending the first 2 years improving the planting accuracy and consistency of Schmidt’s 16-row, 30-inch 2600 Kinze planter fitted with Yetter SharkTooth openers.

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Last summer, Schmidt dug roots of his strip-tilled corn with his tillage and planting consultant Kevin Kimberley and they found 70-80% more roots than in a neighboring field of no-tilled corn.

Schmidt said that a North Dakota agronomist he works with ranked the planter’s performance in about the middle of the 30 clients during the first 2 years working with Kimberley. But after seeing Schmidt's strip-tilled corn in 2012, the agronomist said his corn stands were either No. 1 or No. 2 of his 30 clients.

Schmidt uses a Big Country strip-till rig with 16 rows and 30-inch spacings. He followed Kimberley’s advice and installed a Wako triple-coulter system on each row. The lead coulter runs about 1 inch deeper than the knife, while the coulters on either side run 3 to 4 inches deep in the zone.

“In the fall, we run a wider 20-inch Great Plains Turbo-Till coulter in the center of each row unit to fracture more soil,” Schmidt says. “But in the spring, we go to a narrow 20-inch ripple coulter. That narrow coulter fractures the soil without bringing up chunks.”

Schmidt pulls the strip-till rig with a Case IH STX 450 Steiger tractor with 450 horsepower. In the future, he wants to apply liquid phosphorus and potassium in the fall so it has time to become more available in the spring. But Schmidt doesn’t plan to apply nitrogen in the fall when he strip-tills.

“I farm sandy loam soils and I’m a little leery that fall-applied nitrogen could leach if we had a really wet spring,” Schmidt says. “Between the 10-34-0 and the 28% I apply at planting and then sidedressing nitrogen, my goal is to apply about 150 pounds of nitrogen for my corn. That’s about 1 pound of nitrogen for every bushel of corn.”

Schmidt followed Kimberley’s recommendation and sidedressed liquid nitrogen, which not only spoon-feeds the corn crop, but also spreads financial risk. If Schmidt applies all of the nitrogen in the spring, it could leach out if the weather turns wet.

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Despite conventional wisdom about no-till, Schmidt says water infiltrates far faster into strip-tilled soil than into no-till. Last April, strip-tilled soil was 14 degrees warmer than it was under the residue 15 inches on either side of the strip, Schmidt says.  “By strip-tilling, we can get in and seed our fields sooner because the black, tilled strip warms up faster than in no-till.”

Fertilizer Program

Last spring, Schmidt strip-tilled fields that had been in wheat, sunflowers and soybeans in 2011. Within 1 to 1 1/2 days strip-tilling, he planted corn. It’s important to plant corn quickly after strip-tilling or prairie winds can dry out the soil, he says.

With Totally Tubular liquid fertilizer placement tubes on the planter, Schmidt applies 10-34-0. A cart pulled behind the planter applies 15 gallons per acre of 28% as starter with 3-by-3-inch placement.

During the 2012 growing season, Schmidt sidedresses liquid 28% nitrogen by dribbling it. In 2013, he wants to sidedress the nitrogen with a disc-coulter system, so the nitrogen is closer to the roots.

Strip-Tilled Soybeans Pay Off

In addition to strip-tilling corn for the first time in 2012, Schmidt also strip-tilled almost all of his soybeans, planting them on 30-inch rows.

The exception was a half section with lots of “prairie potholes,” which are wetlands that may not be drained. Here Schmidt planted soybeans on 15-inch rows.

“The strip-tilled soybeans on 30-inch rows yielded 3 bushels per acre more than soybeans that were planted on 15-inch rows,” Schmidt says. “At $15 per bushel, that’s $45 per acre more with strip-till.”

Schmidt strip-tilled the soybeans into corn stalks, then planted the soybeans within a day. He then rock rolled the fields.

“Strip-tilling pops out rocks,” Schmidt says. “We may catch some softball-size rocks when we are strip-tilling. We’ve got to get the tractor to dig out the rocks that are suitcase size and bigger.”