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Management tips for new strip-tillers

Agriculture.com Staff 07/06/2010 @ 5:21pm

How can you get started strip-tilling? Like any farm operation, attention to details helps to ensure success. Here are seven tips for farmers who are new to the practice.

1. Don't start too early in fall. It is tempting to start the moment the soybean combine leaves the field, but it is generally not a good idea to do so if it is still September. The risk of being too early is that it will be difficult to maintain adequate berm height and soil looseness through planting the following spring. The more the intensive rainfall after strip tillage, the more slumping of berms one can expect (particularly from poorly structured soils).

2. Note the narrower soil moisture range. You should recognize that the soil moisture range in which strip tillage can be done successfully is smaller than the range for other fall tillage operations like moldboard plowing or chisel plowing. Once October arrives, farmers can't afford to delay strip tillage until their combines are finished harvesting; strip tillage should be done when the disks behind the shank can form an optimum ridge without excessive clods. This berm has to be sufficiently level to plant into the following spring; both freeze-thaw cycles and tined row cleaners provide additional flexibility in just how smooth the berm needs to be in fall.

3. Adjust the shank depth. It should be adjusted to at least 4" and perhaps as much as 8" in order to result in sufficient soil loosening to accelerate drying in spring, and enough loose soil for the disks to shape a berm 3 to 4 inches higher than the untouched areas. Corn yields have typically not benefited from strip tillage any deeper than 8", and deeper depths require considerably more tractor power to achieve at recommended forward speeds for the operation (about 5 to 6 mph). Regardless of shank depth, the overall objective of berm formation should be to conserve a slightly raised (and loosened) row area to plant into the following spring.

4. Be cautious about strip tillage in spring. In the event of wet soils preventing completion of strip tillage operations in fall, consider strip tillage in spring only if the soil is friable to the working depth of the shanks. The optimum depth for strip-till in spring is generally less than that in fall. Furthermore, strip tillage in spring carries with it the risk of excessive moisture loss from the seed zone if dry conditions persist.

5. Don't become over dependent on the capability for fertilizer banding that often accompanies strip tillage operations. It is not always a good idea to deepband multiple years' worth of the estimated P and K fertilizer requirements rates in a single operation. And even when you do deep band, there may still be a yield benefit associated with the traditional starter fertilizer applications by corn planters. Very high rates of deep-banded K fertilizer, for instance, have been observed to negatively affect early corn growth rates relative to broadcast applications. And since deep banding can accentuate horizontal stratification of the less mobile nutrients, there needs to some reassurance that narrow row crops planted between the nutrient bands in subsequent years aren't yieldlimited because of relative nutrient availability.

6. Use automatic steering systems if they are affordable. Since these systems provide more precision in aligning the planter with the strip tillage pass, they should provide a more consistent benefit to optimum seed placement near the center of the strips, and positive seedling growth response to the looser and drier soils the strips were designed to achieve.

7. Control those early emerging weeds in spring. Sometimes that may mean earlier pre-plant applications of residual herbicides, and sometimes it may mean a burn-down application with contact herbicides. Regardless, the lack of soil disturbance in the inter-row area means that weed control must be approached differently than one would for full width tillage systems.

Strip tillage is continuing to gain new ground, sometimes at the expense of disturbance of long-term no-till soils and sometimes to replace more erosive tillage systems. If farmers are already successful at notill corn production, are always growing corn in rotation with soybean, and can normally complete their corn planting operations during the optimum period, there is little reason to switch to strip tillage because there is no corn yield benefit from doing so.

However, for those corn farmers that are currently losing soil with costly conventional tillage operations, there is ample reason to seriously consider strip tillage. Although the latter group has been reluctant to adopt no-till, fall strip tillage offers the opportunities for more flexibility at planting time, deep nutrient banding, and higher yields than no-till corn on poorly drained soils - particularly when corn doesn't follow corn in rotation. There are some timing, conversion cost, and implement width constraints with the strip tillage systems, but new technologies and appropriate management decisions are resulting in more successful transitions to strip-till corn in the Eastern Corn Belt.

Since 1998, our tillage research team in Indiana (including Terry West, Missy Bauer, Ann Kline, and Jason Brewer) has benefited from the loans or gifts of strip tillage equipment (commercial or prototype) from Case-DMI, John Deere, Yetter, and Remlinger manufacturing companies that enabled us to conduct direct comparisons of various strip tillage systems with no-till, other stale seedbed planting systems, and with conventional tillage.

I will also readily acknowledge that there is still some uncertainty regarding optimum nutrient placement and soil sampling strategies in strip tillage production systems. In future years, I hope to provide additional perspectives on nutrient placement issues with strip tillage if sufficient research funding becomes available.

This article is reprinted with permission from Pest&Crop, a newsletter put out by Purdue Cooperative Extension.

Do you have an agronomy question? Email rich.fee@meredith.com. We'll send some of the most common questions to professionals in the industry and see what they say. Look for answers in upcoming Agro-Connect Ask the Experts columns.

How can you get started strip-tilling? Like any farm operation, attention to details helps to ensure success. Here are seven tips for farmers who are new to the practice.

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