Nearly two decades into strip-tilling, Alan Madison still reminds himself now and then to abide by the basic principles of the practice: source, time, rate and place.
Those are the four elements he focuses on to get the most out of his 3,000 acres of strip-tilled corn and soybean acres near Princeton, in north-central Illinois. About three-quarters of his acres are corn.
It’s been a long journey to strip-till for Madison, who started farming using conventional tillage before switching to no-till in the early 1980s. He incorporated strip-till in the 1990s as a way to further his conservation-tillage philosophy.
He says strip-till has helped improve Madison’s soil health, reduced fertilizer costs and allowed him to experiment with different in-crop applications to boost yields.
“One of the biggest payoffs we’ve seen is building up organic matter and getting our pH levels where we want them to be,” he says. “We’re in that 6.3 to 6.5 pH range, which is up from when we started strip-tilling, and we’re seeing the benefits in the fields.”
To build his strips, Madison uses two different strip-till units — one for soybean ground and one for corn.
For years he relied on his 16-row DMI anhydrous bar with mole knives for both, but over time he ran into challenges building the seedbed he desired for corn-on-corn acres.
BY THE BOOK. Illinois strip-tiller Alan Madison abides by the principles of source, time, rate and place to help increase organic matter and achieve pH levels in the 6.3 to 6.5 range on his 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans.
“We just weren’t getting as good of a strip as we should have when we went in to plant,” Madison says. “I think we saw that stands weren’t as good, and it’s important to get that good seed-to-soil contact.”
Three years ago, he purchased a Kuhn-Krause eight-row Gladiator strip-till unit to build strips into cornstalks, and he still uses the DMI unit for soybean stubble.
The Gladiator features a 20-inch coulter in front, with discs pulling the mole knives to build the berm. A rolling basket in back smoothes out the surface.
The unit has worked well building strips 9 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches wide in cornfields, Madison says.
“It’s a more aggressive unit as far as bringing dirt back into the strip and building up the berm,” he says. “The key thing in corn-on-corn is making sure we have a nice strip in the fall, and making sure we plant right on those strips in spring on a clear seedbed.”
To clear residue in the spring and ensure proper seed-to-soil contact, Madison set up his planter with a variety of tools. It starts with a coulter in front, followed by a Yetter row cleaner, Keeton seed firmer, Martin spiked closing wheels and a twisted drag chain.
Madison initially went with this planter setup for no-tilling, but he says it works just as well, if not better, for strip-till.
“It clears any residue that’s in the row and we’re making a good seedbed. The disc opener does a good job in strip-till, and it’s not hard to get the seed in the ground and maintain the right seed depth,” he says. “We run the seed firmer to hold that seed in the bottom of that slot.”
While some farmers prefer to run a spiked closing wheel on one side and a rubber one on the other, Madison says he likes two spiked closing wheels because he seldom gets sidewall compaction with that setup.
CORN-ON-CORN. Madison runs an 8-row Gladiator unit to build strips into cornstalks. The unit is “aggressive” in bringing dirt back into the strip and building a nice seedbed for planting, he says.
Since starting with strip-till, Madison focused solely on corn, but this spring is experimenting with soybeans. He’s setting up no-till and strip-till test plots to compare the results this fall.
Madison drilled soybeans initially and went to 15-inch-row soybeans 10 years ago.
“We’ll run those strips where we’re going to plant soybeans in the 30-inch row strips because we strip 30-inch rows. We’ll put on the same starter as with our corn, and then plant some 30-inch rows with starter — basically no-till — and then 15-inch row soybeans also in the same field.”
Madison acknowledges that soybean yields have been strong — in the 55- to 75-bushel range — but he’s hoping that strip-till could be a way to further boost yields in the future.
“The last couple of years, we’ve had good yields, but prior to that, we didn’t have anything better than what we had 20 years ago,” he says.
While Madison’s soil health has increased throughout the years, it’s taken some planning and tweaking to accomplish. He builds his strips in the fall, but doesn’t apply any nitrogen in the strips.
But he does variable-rate apply dry phosphorous and potassium in the fall for corn and soybeans, based on 2½-acre grid samples taken every 3 or 4 years. Strip-tilling has led to more consistent yields, but has also taken its toll on phosphorus and potassium levels, requiring higher amounts to be applied in recent years.
PLANTER SET UP. To clear residue in the spring and enhance seed-to-soil contact, Madison’s 16-row White planter features a front coulter, row cleaner, seed firmers, spiked closing wheels and drag chains.
“It’s lot more than where we were 5 to 10 years ago, because corn yields are getting over that 220- to 250-bushels-per-acre range” he says. “That’s taking a considerable amount of phosphorus and potassium out of the soil.”
He applies about 100 to 150 pounds of diammonium phosphate (DAP) per acre and 200 to 250 units per acre of potash. Madison used to put on about 150 pounds of potash, but he’s testing to see if he needs to adjust applications further in certain areas.
“We set up some high-rate potash strips in one of our cornfields in an 80-foot area and had the fertilizer truck make a pass and spread 150 units more than what we put on the rest of the field,” Madison says. “With GPS, we’re able to know precisely where we put that fertilizer, and we can look at those yield maps and see if there were any effects then make any necessary changes.”
In the spring for corn, Madison applies 14 gallons per acre of liquid starter with his 16-row White planter — a mixture of 10-34-O, 28% and a quart of zinc — in 2-by-2-inch placement.
SOYBEAN STRIPS. Madison uses a 16-row DMI anhydrous bar to strip-till into soybean ground. This spring, he set up a test plot of strip-tilled soybeans in 30-inch rows.
After planting, Madison variable-rate sidedresses 32% at 120 to 140 units an acre, depending on the previous crop. He also sets up high-rate nitrogen plots as a baseline to measure where he can cut back in certain areas that may not need additional nitrogen.
“When we’re sidedressing 32%, we’ll make one pass where we’re putting on 200 units per acre, compared to 140 in other parts of the field,” Madison says. “When we do our crop sensing, we want to have a high-rate strip out there so we’ve got enough nitrogen on somewhere in the field to see how it compares to everything else.”
With the drought last year, Madison says he didn’t see any advantage to the high-rate nitrogen plots. But typically, he’s been able to leverage the results of his test plots and avoiding fall application into a savings of $10 to $20 per acre in fertilizer costs.
With the rainy spring this year, he expects a better return on his spring and in-crop applications, compared to applying fertilizer in the fall.
“I just don’t like applying nitrogen in the fall because there is too much potential for loss. If I put it on when the plant is growing, that’s when I get the best bang for my buck,” he says. “With the rain we’ve gotten, I’d have lost a considerable amount of nitrogen and have to add more, so I think we’ll see a pretty good savings this year.”