Iowa corn grower Jeff Reints has used full tillage, no-till, zone-tillage and fall strip-till, but he has settled on spring strips for raising corn.
By Darrell Bruggink, Executive Editor
Jeff Reints has run the gamut of experiences when it comes to raising corn.
The Shell Rock, Iowa, corn-and-soybean grower moved away from full tillage in the mid-90s to no-till.
Then, after a brief stint with zone-tillage, he made the move to strip-till and found for his farm operations that it offered the best benefits of the previous systems he had used.
“We just felt no-tilling corn was too much of a struggle and we were getting to the point that we had too many attachments on the planter for it to function properly,” Reints says. “We evolved into the Rawson system. In the right conditions, that worked excellent, but in a wet sticky spring, you were always planting into wet dirt and the planter would ball up.”
Reints next tried strip-till and ran a couple different shank machines for 10 years, which he liked for fall stripping.
But finally, in 2008, he decided to move from an eight- to 16-row system for increased acreage and didn’t want to spend the money for the high-horsepower and the high draft load of a 16-row shank machine. He decided to go with Dawn strip-till units and now builds his berms in the spring.
“Basically, we build strips 4 hours to 4 days ahead of the planter and we’ve seen excellent results with that system,” Reints says.
“Strip-till got us to where we had that nice fine, dry dirt on top, something a planter could function in. Now with the spring strip-till, we let the dirt gray off and dry a little bit. You have good moisture underneath and it makes an excellent trash-free seedbed to plant into, whether it’s corn on soybeans or corn on corn.”
Spring Gets The Edge
Reints runs about 2,000 acres with the help of his son Clay and employee Bruce Swinton. About two-thirds of his acreage is corn, with the remainder in soybeans. The east central Iowa farmer also custom farms another 1,600 acres.
He says stripping in the fall requires a shank-style machine that needs more horsepower because you need to run deeper and build a bigger berm to make up for soil settling over the winter.
“In the spring, I don’t like the shank style,” Reints says. “You can leave a void underneath the seedbed. A lot of times, you’re not leaving a long enough interval between stripping and planting so the ground can mellow, or a couple of rains can help take out the fluffiness of the shank-style berm.
“Running the coulter-type units or the Dawn Pluribus units, that really lends itself better to a spring-type machine because they don’t build as tall of a berm. You have some berm there, but after a planter pass and a couple rains, you’re pretty well back to a flat field.”
Reints’ toolbar setup includes a lead wavy coulter that runs straight to the row and is followed by a row cleaner.
Behind them are two wavy coulters set at an angle to throw dirt at each other. They run about 4 to 5 inches deep and mix soil and fertilizer into an 8-inch-wide berm.
Two gauge wheels follow that contain a swirl — sort of a rolling basket or firming basket — that helps firm the mound and pulverize any little dirt clogs.
A Montag fertilizer cart follows the strip-till toolbar and meters the potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen blend into the strip.
There are a number of reasons Reints has chosen to strip-till in the spring rather than the fall, including that it fits his supply of labor and workload better than rushing to strip-till after harvest before winter sets in.
By waiting until the spring to strip-till, Reints says he leaves open the option of switching to more soybean acreage.
“This way, I have all winter and spring to plan my crop rotation,” Reints says. “Every farmer is chasing the markets to determine the right corn-soybean ratio and which crop to plant. By waiting to strip-till in the spring, you can make that decision just before you plant.
“If you’ve got $3 corn and $12 soybeans, maybe you go to heavier soybean acreage, or vice versa if the situation is switched.”
Reints says he is not a fan of fall-applied ammonia. He only applied potassium and phosphorus when building berms in the fall.
“Our soils are a little too variable,” Reints says for fall-applied nitrogen. “It might work on my dark, heavy soils, but on my lighter soils, it wouldn’t work.
“By transitioning to spring strip-till, it allowed us to put on a third of our nitrogen right ahead of the planter as a dry urea product or some type of dry formulation and then we can sidedress the balance.”
He typically applies 125 units of total nitrogen after soybeans and 170 units after corn. While he hasn’t reduced his nitrogen rates in strip-till, he has taken down phosphorus and potassium rates considerably.
“Since we’re banding the fertilizer right where the root mass is going to form, we’ve reduced our P and K rate by about one-third of broadcast rates,” Reints says. "We’re soil testing every 2 to 4 years, and have strip-tilled some fields for about 12 years. We’re not seeing any decrease in soil test levels of P and K with that reduced rate approach.”
Fertilizer is blown through a 2.5-inch delivery hose and sprayed into the center of the three coulters.
“It’s just being well-mixed in that whole zone about 5 inches deep and 8 inches wide,” Reints says. “There’s really not a hot spot of fertilizer. People always wonder how you can plant right into that much fertilizer, but it’s really mixed into moist soil instead of just being in one spot.”
Reints feels that stripping in the spring reduces the chances of erosion, especially where strips have to run up and down slopes.
“Conservation by saving soil is our No. 1 goal, yet you need to maintain the yield. Strip-tilling the corn really gives us that happy medium,” he says. “You might see a little erosion occasionally on real steep slopes, but nothing like you would see from full-width tillage.
“Maintaining the residue and keeping that cover are important. Our earthworm and nightcrawler activity is just unreal on some of these soils where we’ve been no-tilling soybeans and strip-tilling corn for about 12 years now.”
Dealing with Residue
Besides the perils of an early winter blocking strip-till work, Reints says allowing residue to breakdown some over time appears to be an advantage to spring strip-till.
“When you strip-till on corn in the fall right after harvest, that residue is still fluffy and hasn’t had time decay or rot or mellow out some. That’s definitely a challenge to get that corn-on-corn residue through the strip-till rig,” he says.
Weather conditions can play a role in managing residue. Unlike spring 2008 when monsoon-like conditions kept Iowa farmers out of their fields throughout the spring, Reints says he had excellent strip-till and planting conditions this past spring.
In normal soil conditions, he finds that he doesn’t need to make adjustments when running his strip-till unit between corn and soybean fields.
“If it’s real, real muddy, then we’ll shallow up the strip-till rig a little and not run quite as deep so we’re not pulling up as wet of dirt,” Reints says.
“Last spring, we virtually did no adjustments running on bean stubble to corn on corn. However, corn on corn is a little more weather sensitive, similar to combining beans.
“If you get a wet, damp morning, just like when you can’t cut beans, it’s tougher to strip-till in corn-on-corn with wet stalks. You pick and choose your days a little bit. It’s not as foolproof as the guys going out with the deep ripper or the cultivator.”
While placement of strips is not important in soybean stubble, going back into corn requires running the strip-till units between the old rows
Just like no-tillers, success for Reints starts with managing residue properly, particularly for corn-after-corn. He says you’ve got to find more of a middle ground between headers that chop stalks and those that leave them fully intact.
“We have been running a Case corn head with knives on the rollers, so we’re chewing up the stalks that go through the corn head fairly well,” says Reints, adding that he has switched this fall to a Drago corn head this fall which, like the Case header, contains knives on the rollers.
“On one particular field that we custom strip-tilled, they used the older John Deere-style corn head where the stalks are pretty much intact and just the ear had been stripped off like an old corn picker. We definitely had challenges with the longer stalk.
“However, you don’t want to go out and chop the corn stalks, either. Then you end up with too big of a residue mat underneath.”
When stripping into corn residue, Reints says you just can’t pull into any field and expect instant success. He says it’s important that your strip-till rig match up with the corn planter. He knows of one colleague who was custom stripping with a 16-row rig into a cornfield that was planted with a 12-row planter.
“He was having terrible frustrations,” Reints says. “The gap row was very inaccurate — there was no auto guidance — so consequently maybe only 6 or 12 of the rows that he was stripping this past spring actually would fall in the middle of the old corn rows. The other part of the toolbar was running right down the old corn row and he was experiencing extreme plugging conditions.
“You just can’t instantly pull into anybody’s previous corn field. You almost have to match your implement with what you’re going to strip-till this spring with what was planted previously.”
One way to avoid plugging in corn residue when building strips, Reints says, is to use the same technique many no-tillers use when drilling soybeans into corn stalks.
“What really worked well for us in one field was to go diagonal to the old corn rows. That worked just awesome,” Reints says. “Just like a lot of guys drill their soybeans at a little bit of an angle, we did that. Yes, that does create point rows, but we don’t have a lot of square fields in our area. You can actually start it at an angle of a waterway and work that way across the field instead of straight with the county road.”
Making the proper adjustments to your toolbar attachments can also help manage stripping in longer corn stalks and reduce plugging.
“You can shallow up the row cleaners. That seems to help some. But about the day you do that, the next time you go into a field, you almost make it more aggressive and that seems to help,” Reints says.
“Sometimes going just a little deeper so you’re creating a little more of a tilled area helps to get some of that heavier or odd residue through the units. Then you’re mixing more soil or your units are acting more aggressive to cut up some of that odd or longer residue.”
To date, Reints has relied on the Trimble EZ-Guide 500 auto-steer system, along with the Omni-Plus system, for laying down strips. With the hilly terrain in his area, Reints says he would need multiple base stations to effectively use RTK. In corn-on-corn fields, they often just strip-till by sight by running the row units between the old corn rows.
The guidance system is particularly helpful in soybean stubble, whereby he can create an A-B line and then allow the system to keep him placing strips consistently across the field.
Reints’ Case IH 1200 planter is about as basic as it comes. Row cleaners are installed, but rarely turn, except to occasionally move some residue out of the way of his seeding unit. So far, he hasn’t used auto-steer to run his planter, although he is mapping his planting passes to make sure that he doesn’t double-plant any rows and can tell exactly where he stopped planting in a row when a seed refill is required.
“The strip-till bar drafts or off-tracks just a little differently than what the planter drafts,” Reints says. “Without going to the additional expense of absolute implement steering, which is available but at an additional cost, I just follow the rows of the strip-till unit. It’s no different than following the row marker.
“You really do have 8 inches of leeway, or 4 inches on either side of center. We’re on the strip 98% of the time. On some of the irregular curves, that’s always a problem but I’m not sure even auto-steer could keep us on the berm in these situations.”
With the help of his son Clay, Reints uses GPS and yield maps for automatic row shutoff when planting and to create prescription maps for fields with variable soils. In those situations, he’ll vary seed populations according to yield potential and soil type.
A Great Fit
For Reints, strip-till just seems to be the ideal system. While he knows no-till corn would be the ultimate conservation system, he’s confident that he’s managing his soils much better than the days of full-width tillage.
“I’m definitely using less fuel and covering more acres per hour because we have a wider rig and we’re going faster than when we pulled a cultivator,” he says. “And I think it’s less compaction for the soil and it really seems as if our ground is getting mellower.
“The people who do full tillage just can’t understand that, but the less you’re on that soil, the better off you are. It seems like with tillage, you fluff up that soil, then the next pass, whether it’s pulling anhydrous or planting, the tractor just seems to compact the soil deeper because you are no longer on firm surface soil.”