The allure of add-ons, enhancements or upgrades when making almost any purchase today is inevitable. But it takes some customer savvy and intuition to separate the truly valuable from the arbitrary. 

This is a matter of perspective — one person’s useful in-app smart phone purchase might be another’s waste of $1.99. When it comes to more substantial decisions though, such as wanting to test a transition into strip-till, entry-point economics is often the primary factor.

Talking with farmers throughout the years about their initial experience with strip-till, they routinely mention the financial commitment they were able to minimize with a little innovation. Whether it’s cost-sharing a strip-till rig with a willing neighbor, engineering one out of an inventory of excess iron in the shed or an option that appears to be gaining momentum — custom strip-tilling --— there are ways of reducing up-front costs.

We’ve dug into this topic before in Strip-Till Farmer, and do again in this issue, with some in-depth analysis and perspective from Indiana farmer Jesse Stoller (p. 16) on his custom strip-till business. And visiting with Green Bay, Wis., farmer Mike Pribyl in late January, we talked about the emerging opportunities to combine conservation tillage practices for area farmers. 

While Pribyl strip-tills less than 100 acres on his own operation, in 2014 he started a diverse custom business. He started with custom sidedress application (6,000-7,000 acres annually), and planting (2,000-plus acres) and went on to add cover crop seeding (2,000 acres) and strip-till (goal of 1,500 acres in 2021). 

As Pribyl notes, he’s not the cheapest when it comes to offering custom services — ranging between $35-$50 per acre for strip-till — but he has a strong selling point; defined ROI. “There’s some level of sticker shock, and we’ve had farmers say, ‘well, I might as well just work the ground,’” Pribyl says. “But I can come back with the fact that we’re combining what is often five passes through the field into one. If they are having all of that field cultivation and spreading done by someone else, in Wisconsin, that’s going to cost $65-$80 per acre, depending on the number of passes.”

Beyond the economic savings, Pribyl emphasizes the soil health aspect that farmers are increasingly receptive to improving in the area. He estimates that 85-90% of the acres he covers with custom operations are in no-till or strip-till systems, which makes it easier to have a conversation with those farmers about combining field operations. 

Ideally, Pribyl wants to expand on providing a systematic custom solution to farmers — starting with strip-till and planting then taking them through sidedressing and cover crop seeding. “We view it as a holistic approach for the farm,” he says. Farming out field operations — pun intended — isn’t new, but there is a certain amount of confidence that can be instilled in a grower if the same company is providing multiple, and
interconnected, services. 

Pribyl has an undergraduate degree in finance with a minor in accounting, and he acknowledges, he’s not an agronomist. But he embraces the roll of pragmatist, and the ability to connect the conservation dots for customers to improve their economic return and long-term sustainability.

“Specialization is everywhere now and we are really trying to farm — at minimum — by the square foot vs. by the acre. But we really want to be farming by the square inch if we can,” he says.