I grew up on a typical corn/soybean operation in Granite Falls, Minn. We do have some sugar beets, small grains and livestock in the area, but it’s primarily corn and beans. My son is the sixth generation on the family farm.
I’ve worked as a field agronomist in a retail setting for my entire career, but 13 years ago I started my own consulting firm. My training is in agronomy and crop production, and my work is helping farmers do the best job they can in their farming practices. Strip-till brings a lot of those best management practices that farmers need to raise a crop.
Strip-till builds the resilience of the soil to be able to withstand the increasingly extreme weather events we’ve been experiencing. In the past few years, we’ve had a couple of the wettest years we’ve ever had, then went through one that was extremely dry.
We’re experiencing tough economics right now. Our fertilizer prices and input prices are rising rapidly. I think strip-tillers are going to be able to weather those storms a little bit better than the conventional folks.
There’s also the soil health aspect of it. A lot of farmers who have taken up strip-till are also adopting soil health practices, which is great. Strip-till reduces erosion, the soil’s exposure to both wind and rain, fuel consumption and time management. One of the biggest benefits: it can increase nutrient efficiency if nutrients are banded.
From the Plant’s Perspective
Whether someone is in strip-till or conventional till, they should be banding fertilizer. Broadcast fertilizer, from the viewpoint of the crop, is probably one of the most inefficient ways to do it. The crop loves having it in that band.
The question I like to ask about any practice is: Are we doing it for our benefit or for the crop’s benefit? Broadcast fertilizer is not to the crop’s benefit — it’s to the operator’s benefit.
“Try to visualize what your plant is seeing out in the field and do what is right for the plant…”
Having said that, I do think making strips in the fall is preferable for most operators. There tends to be more time in the fall to get operations done, plus soil conditions tend to be more favorable then as well.
Agronomically speaking, it would be better to do everything in the spring because it reduces the amount of time the nutrients are exposed to the environment and at risk for loss. But it does come down to time management, and we can’t always do everything in the spring.
One of the primary reasons for doing strip-till is to improve soil structure. When you do that, you get better water infiltration and better root growth. Earthworms and microorganisms have a more favorable environment to live in. To me, soil structure is the foundation that a farmer should be working toward building.
Cover crops can fit into strip-till just as well as in any other system. If a farmer’s focus is building a resilient soil, adding a cover crop can increase those soil health parameters much faster than just the reduced tillage or just the strip-till by itself.
I think the biggest mistake made when adopting strip-till is not looking at the operation as a whole. It’s a very interconnected, holistic operation from planting to fertilizing, to weed management, to other pest management, to harvest, to residue management — it’s all connected.
Know Your ‘Why’
My advice for someone wanting to adopt strip-till is first and foremost to know why they want to make this change. Whether it’s to address a labor shortage, fix erosion or reduce nutrient inputs, they need to know what their goals are.
Second, though what your neighbor does might not work for you, it’s really important to talk to other farmers about what is and is not working for them. There are a lot of opportunities for farmers to get together, share their experiences and learn from one another — that is the best resource.
Ultimately, my philosophy is that when you’re farming, you have to “be your plant.” Try to think like your plant, try to visualize what your plant is seeing out in the field and do what is right for that plant.
What makes yield is not the genetics. It’s not the soil. It’s the interaction between the plant and the environment. And that is what farmers have to pay attention to because that’s what’s going to make their yield.