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Strip till goes mainstream

Improvements in guidance and a focus on soil health are the primary drivers

Strip till goes mainstream

The concept is simple. With just one pass, run a tillage implement through the field that clears a strip of residue and builds a small ridge that will get the crop off to a fast start next spring because you can plant straight into it, and it will warm faster than the rest of the field.

Unfortunately, as with most things in agriculture, “simple” doesn’t always translate well to on-farm practices. It takes some early adopters, some revised engineering, some field trials and lots of adjustments before the majority of growers begin to accept a new trend or product.

Strip till has undergone several evolutions in the past 20 years, with proponents and early adopters promoting its benefits while adjusting to its challenges. The good news is that what was once a niche practice among a few dedicated participants is becoming a mainstream choice on more operations.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Greg Stewart was a tireless advocate for strip tilling, even though guidance systems had yet to become nearly as prevalent or exact as they are today. As former corn specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), he conducted field trials and made presentations on his findings.

But the technology hadn’t advanced enough to attract more than the dedicated few attracted by the concept of strip tilling in the fall and not touching the soil until they planted in the spring.

“I would put implement improvement or design changes at the top of the list,” says Stewart, now the agronomy lead for Maizex Seeds, referring to what’s changed the most. “In the early years, strip tills were shanks, some were just anhydrous applicators with a couple of chains or harrows or disc hillers on the back, and we went from an anhydrous applicator to a strip tiller. Sometimes that worked nicely and sometimes it was less than what you needed.”

Stewart says there’s been more engineering into the strip till machine, including shanks versus coulters. The advent of RTK guidance technology has also improved, and Stewart understands that many growers might place it at the top of their list. At the same time he notes there are the dedicated strip tillers who started early and have stayed the course, adjusting their practices and adding advanced technology.

Ken Nixon is one of those growers. In his own words, he “parked the plow” in 1992 and has been working with strip till for 13 seasons, 12 of which were without advanced guidance systems. At a presentation made in 2016 for Southwest Ag in Chatham-Kent, he listed all of the benefits he has seen with strip till, including higher soil organic matter, better aggregation and water-holding capacity, and reduced compaction. He also characterized strip till as a dryland tool where topography and soil type often dictate equipment choices and whether it’s a fall or spring operation.

“Certainly guidance has helped immeasurably, especially if you’re dealing with a strip till rig that is not the same exact size as your planter,” says Nixon, who farms near Ilderton, Ont. He adds that a strip made with a shank usually provides a high berm that sheds water better and allows residue to roll off, although keeping the planter centred can be difficult. “I’ve been through discussions online and I’ve heard more than one grower talk about trying strip till and how they’ve had trouble keeping the planter centred on the berm.”

Nixon understands their frustration because he’s had the same experience. The higher the berm, he says, the more challenging it is to stay centred with the planter.

“We went to a coulter machine — a Dawn — and it tends to make a flatter, wider strip than a shank machine,” explains Nixon. “That was one of the things we discovered. At first, especially with a fall-made strip with that machine, there’s a slight depression where the row is and come the spring, it’ll settle a bit.”

The first time he looked at it, he wasn’t happy thinking it wouldn’t shed water as well as a higher berm. Yet once he started planting, he found it was like “riding a rail,” where the planter tended to stay centred.

Unlike other growers who’ve adopted strip till as a spring operation, Nixon has opted to do his in the fall and leave it until he returns to plant the following spring. He favours the fall operation because it suits his setup for corn, usually into wheat stubble in his corn-soybean-wheat rotation. He also strips into a cover crop that’s an oat-pea base, with the option to add a third species into the mix. That’s drilled in after wheat harvest and most years, a killing frost in October will take care of the oats.

He finds strip till can handle the cover. “I’ve been into oats that are knee-high and lush with hog manure applied,” says Nixon. “Yet it’s not ropey enough to really give you issues.”

Evolution to spring

Although Nixon prefers his fall strip till for his farm, Stewart acknowledges that many growers are opting for a spring treatment. At the same time, equipment designs have evolved with more of a spring strip-till focus, including an all-coulter machine that they could run ahead of the planter.

“In my experience, that’s been a more appealing option, especially on the lighter ground where they weren’t as interested in doing a strip-till pass in the fall,” says Stewart. “They were trying to make their no till a notch better. There’s a real appeal for guys to do it in the spring, just ahead of the planter and that’s the other thing that doesn’t get talked about as much, and that’s the increased options and flexibility of putting the fertilizer down in the strip.”

When Stewart was fall stripping, he built a unit that enabled him to put down fertilizer as part of the operation. But there weren’t many options for growers to do that back then. Today, there are more complete systems available, which has made the shift to spring strip till easier.

Strip-till operations have evolved, with some staying the course with fall applications (see photo at top) and those who favour the practice in spring (seen here). photo: Greg Stewart, Maizex Seeds

When he would do presentations on strip till, he found there were three basic camps: those conservation tillers who wanted to use strip till to get a slight yield bump over no till. In Stewart’s trials, he found yields in well-done no till and well-done strip till were close, especially with corn after soybeans. The second group looked for planting timeliness, to see if the ground would be fit to plant sooner than with a straight no-till operation. The third camp involved those who wanted to get their strip/fertilizer combination to improve yields over broadcasting and planting.

Over the years, Stewart has seen some improvements in yield relative to no till, but he doesn’t believe they’re that significant. The planting timeliness may have a slight advantage, including fertilizer, and he’s working to determine if there’s a strip-till system that improves yields based on fertilizer placement. He’s been looking for plots around southern Ontario, asking growers, “If you have a spring strip-till system and you’re putting down fertilizer, do you need any fertilizer on the planter at all?”

“That’s a huge question because of the overall logistics, economics and improvements,” says Stewart. “To me, one of the key advantages of a strip-till system should be a planter that’s stripped down — no liquid, no dry, no coulters or trash whippers. It needs to be cheaper if you’ve invested all that equipment into precision strip till.”

There are strip tillers out there who are successfully running fall strips with fertilizer, refreshing those strips in the spring (perhaps with fertilizer again) and still running a planter with both liquid and dry, and it’s all working well.

“When I throw out the idea that if you have a good strip till system that’s putting fertilizer in the zone, is it not a reasonable thing to ask yourself, ‘Can I run a simpler planter — perhaps fertilizer free?’” poses Stewart. “I get opinions from all sides about that, but it’s about the easiest experiment you can do. If you have a strip-till system and you have liquid or dry on your planter, shut it off for three stripes across the field and see whether you can eliminate the need for fertilizer on the planter.”

Why make the change?

Nixon wonders if part of the challenge in running strip till — or conservation till or no till — is wrapped up in the same question that Stewart poses to growers: How comfortable are you in stepping away from convention? Nixon has had plenty of calls through the years from growers interested in trying fall or spring strip till. Yet the primary question he gets is, “Did your yields go up?” — to which he responds “Not really.”

The next question is usually, “Then why do it?”

“Our experience is that our yields certainly didn’t drop when we made the switch, but we were already into conservation tillage, where we were discing in the fall,” says Nixon. “We had graduated away from conventional tillage with a moldboard plow and when we moved to strips, we were happier than we’d been with most of our conservation-type moves. Strip till doesn’t incorporate any of the residue and that residue mixed in with the soil makes it difficult to get good seed-soil contact.”

Plus it’s a great environment for wireworm, slugs and other pests. Instead, the residue is sliced and parted and pushed aside leaving this black strip along with macropores, worm channels and fissures. The majority of the residue remains to hold things in place along with improving the soil’s water-holding capacity. But the bottom line on strip till, says Nixon, is that it just takes more management.

“We’ve had all of this technology —whether it’s steering technology or technology in the seed — and a lot of it replaces management,” he says. “A lot of the cases for crop rotation and other things have been replaced by technology. We keep punching the easy button and somebody comes along with something like strip till. And a guy like Nixon says, ‘It works but it takes more management’.”

For more information, watch Ken Nixon addressing Southwest Ag field day (YouTube).

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue of the Corn Guide.

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Ralph Pearce

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