It is definitely winter here in the Great Plains of the United States as I write this, minus some degrees. Youza! 

But just only what seems days ago, growers who have made the switch from tilling the soil into submission and rarely hear it screaming back, were out allowing a satellite to take control of the steering wheel of that big diesel machine and pull your strip-till tool. Felt good did it not?

Now allow some of this to register… porosity, seedbed, seedling development, moisture influx, carbon exchange, earthworms (both lateral and vertical dwellers) and aeration in soils prone to being wet and/or anaerobic. 

All of these details/nuances of soil were potentially improved. Strip-tillers may have placed a portion of their nutrients with a precision fall pass, or will, come spring. The concept of making ‘soil black,’ when strip-tilling for you in the states north of 41 degrees has importance for spring soil warming and seed germination. 

Positive placement of nutrients, especially phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) right in the early season active root zone is very much a good thing! Now, don’t pat yourself too much if you loaded up with fall nitrogen (N).

You just may have spent money to only dissipate part of it to the wind, so to speak, or down the proverbial rat hole. If fall was a bit wet when harvesting, and you know about compaction, well, strip-tilling most likely gave you a smile. 

Following that same line of thinking, did you dig a hole to 15-20 inches and observe where the compaction was? Did you push a penetrometer into the soil before you connected that high horsepower tractor?

Some strip-till units may not have been as successful as others if the compaction bottomed out at 12 inches. I have been observing strip-tilling and promoting it as far back into the early 1980’s and still believe this systematic approach is near the best for row crop agriculture. 

Saying that folks, I realize this system is almost magical. Even with prior USDA funds, growers entered into the strip-till world. Now those funds are drying up, so it seems.

Put strip-till together with cover crops (the new silver bullet, no not always) and USDA dangles the carrot again. I ask why it takes some of us to wait for government enticement before we see the pay back, benefits.

Why wait for incentives before we consider investing in a top quality system to farming our ground? Being a soil scientist since high school, that is when my vocational-ag instructor opened my eyes to this amazing professional journey.

I see the value and benefits conservation tillage practices produce without an infusion of public tax dollars to start. I have looked at so many minute details of strip-till over the last 34 years.

After meeting one of the pioneers of strip-till, Ray Rawson, and learning how this practice can positively impact crop budgets, crop yields, soil benefits, erosion control and time.

Consider a few more thoughts on strip-till:

  • What other tillage approach offers precision placement of fertility
  • The right amount of soil disturbance
  • Maintaining crop aftermath
  • Introducing a multitude of gaseous exchange in an orderly fashion
  • Drying and warming effects for those wetter soils
  • A favorable environment for spring sown crops to ‘get-with-the-program’ root-wise early on and keep fuel consumption way down

 I could list another dozen or so good factors. Why is it so hard to get?

For you that are on this journey of using strip-tillage, I applaud you. You are seeing earthworms repopulate even some of your sandier ground (is it like fairy dust?)

 You see water from rain or irrigation penetrate and become more effective for what you plant in April or May. You watch crops germinate more evenly. 

You spend less money over the years putting the seasonal operations to work together from start to harvest. You may even be using less fertilizer to grow higher yielding crops.

While winter chills, think about it — strip-till puts it together.

Mike Petersen has spent nearly 45 years in the field as an agronomist, soil health expert and explorer of efficient, effective farming strategies centered around conservation tillage practices. Petersen got his start as a soil scientist with the Soil Conservation Service in 1973, and served as a soil scientist and agronomist with the National Resources Conservation Service since 1981. Working with farm equipment and fertilizer suppliers, Petersen currently operates his own consulting business, based in Greeley, Colo.