When talking with farmers, some will refer to their strip-till system as a “gateway” from conventional-tillage practices to no-till. They’ll often talk about the versatility that strip-till provides for retaining valuable residue cover, while also loosening less-forgiving areas of a field for more efficient planting and fertilization.
Some circumstances are more unique than others, as is the case for Willis Jepsen, who no-tills corn, and double-cropped soybeans and wheat on about 8,500 acres near Orlinda, Tenn. But one crop Jepsen hasn’t been able to economically convert to no-till is tobacco.
My editorial colleague from No-Till Farmer, Laura Allen, recently visited Jepsen on his farm and shared the success he’s having with strip-till as a transitional tactic for conventionally-tilled tobacco.
“It’s always been one of those crops that requires a lot of heavy tillage,” he says. “Ultimately, I’d like to no-till my tobacco, but the equipment isn’t there yet and there’s a big yield drop.”
Jepsen started strip-tilling tobacco in 2014, and says it’s a step in the right direction because he’s not following his double-cropped soybeans with conventional tillage and destroying the soil health built through years of no-till.
Using RTK, he runs a 4-row “ripper-stripper” coulter machine made by Kelley Mfg. Co. to create a 2-foot-deep row that creates a navigable path for water and nutrients to easily reach plant roots. Rollers in the back of the unit break down clods and smooth the strips.
Jepsen then runs a Multivator rotary-powered strip-cultivator, which works like a rear tine garden tiller, to finish off a 16-inch strip for the tobacco plant. It’s an admittedly labor-intensive process, but after the first season, Jepsen saw a minimal yield drag — and long-term, he expects strip-till will pay off by maintaining or improving his soil health.
“The first year, we had ample moisture early in the season, and it got dry after the tobacco got established,” he says. “But because we had that residue cover between the rows, the ground retained moisture for the crop when it needed it.”
Jepsen strip-tilled 50 acres of tobacco in 2014 and plans to double that amount this year. That says a lot about the success he had since tobacco is a time-consuming crop to manage.
So far, strip-till seems to be an equitable solution for Jepsen and, as he says, “It’s certainly better than doing the same thing, just because that’s always the way things have always been done.”
What new crops are you hoping to incorporate into your strip-till system? Share your story with me at (262) 782-4480, ext. 441, or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.