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Strip-till vs. planter attachments

Many corn growers question their tillage and planting
systems from time to time. Bishop Mumford, Griffin, Indiana, is one such
grower. Mumford has no-tilled most of his corn for the past 15 years. For
several years, he used nothing but coulters and residue wheels. Now, however,
he has several attachments on his planter.

"It didn't really come together for me until I added
Case IH gauge wheel tires, Keeton seed firmers, spiked closing wheels, and chains,"
he says.

Although Mumford likes his current setup, he wonders if his
soil would warm up and dry out more quickly with fall strip-till. That's why he
posted the question at the top of the page in a talk group at Agriculture
Online(tm), where it sparked a discussion among other growers. We've included
some of their comments, along with comments from other growers, in this story
comparing fall strip-till to using attachments on the planter to clear a strip
in which to plant.

There are many approaches to strip-till. One of the most
common involves using a smooth coulter, anhydrous ammonia shank with a mole
knife, and oversize closing disks to place anhydrous ammonia and/or phosphate
and potassium 6 to 8 inches deep. This setup builds a mound to plant into the
following spring.

Likewise, there are a lot of different types of planter
attachments to clear residue and lightly till a strip of soil to plant into.
Residue wheels are almost standard equipment on many no-till planters. They're
often run in combination with no-till coulters.

More recently, no-tillers who frequently plant into wet soil
have added spiked closing wheels in an attempt to eliminate sidewall smearing
in the furrow and compaction over the row.

A lot of strip-tillers are converts from pure no-till who
had experienced poor stands in cold, wet springs. Others, like Darrell Dunahee,
Melvin, Illinois, previously field-cultivated bean stubble ahead of planting

"But I saw soil erosion where I ran the field
cultivator," he says. "Ever since I was a little boy it's upset me to
see soil washing away. I thought there had to be a better solution."

For Dunahee, the solution was fall strip-till, which he
adopted nine years ago. "It's not without problems, but basically it works
well," he says. "It looks like it is yielding right with conventional
tillage. And the thing most people around here like is it plants nicely. The
soil is loose and mellow. Generally, you don’t end up with clods or smeary

Two years ago, he bought the strip-till rig shown above and
started doing custom work through the Melvin FS plant in addition to his own
fields. According to plant manager Mike Moody, FS charges $7.50 for
strip-tillage without fertilizer, $11 for strip-tillage with either dry
fertilizer or anhydrous ammonia, $13 for strip-tillage with both forms of

Both strip-till machines and attachments on the planter will
enable you to sidestep residue at planting. With strip-tillage, however, the
soil is also warmer and drier at planting.

"The effect on soil temperature from strip-till is
dramatic," says University of Illinois plant pathologist Wayne Pedersen.
"We've created a planting zone that is 5° to 9° warmer than regular
no-till, making it comparable to conventional mulch-till."

Moisture and temperature are interrelated. Jim Kinsella has
worked with strip-till for 20 years on his Lexington, Illinois, farm. He says,
"A lot of people think the residue is keeping the ground cold. But it is
really the water that is keeping it cold. I don't care how much sun you've got,
as long as the pores are full of water, the ground is not going to warm

Kinsella says mound height is the key to getting the strips
dried out enough to plant. "I have seen level ground that has all the
residue removed, but it stays wet because the water table is level there. If
you can get a 3-inch mound, I don't care how much residue is on it, it is going
to be drier than a flat area."

Many strip-tillers realize it's not going to pay every year.
But they think the trip is worthwhile because in wet years it lets them start
planting sooner the first time and after each rain.

Power problems

One of the big drawbacks with strip-till is the power it
requires. Just how much you need depends on your soil and your equipment.
Obviously, it takes more horsepower if you are applying anhydrous ammonia and
dry fertilizer in addition to strip-tilling. The rule of thumb is you need 15
to 20 horsepower per row. Dunahee uses a John Deere 9400 with 425 engine
horsepower to pull his rig, which can be set for either 12 or 16 rows.

The power requirements, cost of strip-till equipment, and a
shortage of time in the fall are among the reasons many no-tillers prefer to
make a strip with attachments on their planter instead of in a separate trip in
the fall.

Ed Winkle, a farmer and crop consultant in Blanchester,
Ohio, considers fall strips an extra pass. "I think we can strip-till in
one no-till pass," he says. "The market is not rewarding us for high
input costs, so we had better learn how to do it in less passes."

For the past four years, Carl, Mark and Terry Willhoit,
Batavia, Iowa, have been using a Kinze planter with the attachments that Ag
Spectrum recommends for their Nu-Till system. They use row cleaners in front of
the double-disk openers and spiked closing wheels and steel chains behind the
openers. They also use Case IH tires on the gauge wheels.

In prior years, the Willhoits field-cultivated most of their
bean stubble ahead of corn. Mark says they hoped to save some money by
eliminating trips and running smaller machinery. Where compaction is a problem,
they run an inline ripper in the fall and a rolling harrow in the spring. 

Spring support

Jim Bassett is president of Dawn Equipment Company, which
makes attachments for planters and strip-till rigs. "The thing no planter
attachment can provide is time," he says. "The soil is not going to
dry out or warm up in the seconds it takes to travel the 6 inches or 6 feet
between the row cleaners, openers, and closing wheels.

"Yes, we can set up a planter to work better in wet
ground," says Bassett. "However, there is still an advantage to
planting into a cleared, warmed, drier, aerated, and fertilized strip rather
than mud."

In case you're not in enough of a quandary, Bassett thinks
spring strip-till ahead of the planter is the answer for many growers. And with
both fall and spring strips, he recommends row cleaners on the planter.

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