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Slash Tillage

Reducing the amount of tillage you do can cut costs, boost yields, and benefit the environment.

When you change management practices, such as switching tillage systems, you expect to have a few surprises. Maybe yields will go down, weed pressure will increase, or your planter won’t work quite as well in the new conditions. You like surprises just as much as you like commodity prices right now.

Not all surprises are headaches, though, as fifth-generation farmer Dave Delhotal learned when he started strip-tilling.

“The biggest surprise when we switched to strip-till was the savings in fertilizer, fuel, and labor,” says Delhotal, who farms with his dad, Ray, in West Brooklyn, Illinois. “We saved just shy of $80,000 our first year strip-tilling compared with our conventional tillage system, which was a moldboard plow in the fall and two trips with the field cultivator in the spring. Based on our savings, our SoilWarrior strip-till rig paid for itself within the first three years.”

That huge savings, the ability to accurately place fertilizer, and a 10- to 15-bushel-per-acre yield bump made the Delhotals strip-till believers.

The Delhotals originally decided to make the switch after noticing the soil in their no-till soybean fields was in better condition than the conventionally tilled cornfields. “We tried no-till corn, but it hasn’t worked for us on our heavier clay soils. That’s one of the biggest reasons we went to strip-till,” explains Delhotal. “On the flip side, no-till still works well for our soybean fields.”

“When we first switched to strip-till, our yields increased from 10 to 15 bushels per acre. Since then, yields have continued to gradually increase.” – Delhotal

As the Delhotals  discovered, there isn’t one right answer for tillage. You’ll need to experiment to see what works for your soil types, crops, and conditions. The key is to start experimenting. Any cutbacks you can make in tillage – from minimal changes all the way down to no-till – could potentially reduce costs, boost yields, and benefit the environment.

Start Small

Every pass you make across the field with a tillage tool costs you in terms of labor, fuel, and wear-and-tear on equipment. If you can’t justify the cost with a yield increase, it’s time to reevaluate what you’re doing. Mark Hanna, Iowa State University agricultural engineer, recommends some simple on-farm field trials.

“In one field where you get the same rainfall and have similar soil conditions, experiment with reducing tillage to see how this affects yield,” he says.

This doesn’t necessarily mean comparing conventional tillage with no-till. For example, you could till half of the field in the way you normally would. For the other half, you could eliminate your secondary tillage pass to see if this affects yield.

Or you could reduce how deep you are tilling. “If you’re the kind of person who tills as deep as the tractor will pull, you are probably a good candidate to evaluate why you are doing this,” says Hanna. If you don’t have compaction layers that deep, you are burning unnecessary fuel.

“Think of it like a diet,” advises Jodi DeJong-Hughes, an Extension educator at the University of Minnesota. “Even small changes can make a difference. “If you are attached to your chisel plow, there are ways to make that less aggressive,” she adds. “You can change out shanks and still get tillage, yet leave more residue and not destroy the structure as much as with more aggressive implements. Certain implements are more detrimental, like disks. Disks destroy structure. That’s why we use them to build roads.”

Experiment with No-till

If you’re thinking of switching to no-till, start with the low-hanging fruit: soybeans.

“Iowa State University has half a dozen research farms scattered across Iowa in long-term tillage studies. In these studies, we don’t see tillage making any significant yield difference in the soybean fields over time,” says Hanna. “So if you’re tilling ahead of soybeans, you have production costs that probably aren’t getting paid back in yield.”

No-tilling in corn can be more challenging, admits Hanna. “Particularly when you’re growing corn in colder, wetter areas,” he says. “Reduced tillage or no-till in corn is definitely possible for folks with some additional management.” This may include installing tiles, adjusting combine settings, changing your planter setup, and making shifts in weed control and fertilizer application.

If you have fields that don’t drain well, these may not be the best for no-till unless you’re willing to install tiles. Subsurface soil drainage is especially important in no-till when you aren’t warming up and drying out the soil with tillage.

You’ll also need to make some machine adjustments. In the fall, your combine should be set up to uniformly distribute crop residue. Your planter should also be adjusted to take on no-till. Possible adjustments to cut through the extra residue include increasing down pressure, maintaining sharp double-disk openers, and adding row cleaners.

When you stop tilling, you may have some new weeds surface or see an increase in the weed species already in your fields. Using surface-applied preplant or preemergence herbicides will help stop these weeds early in the season.

The last thing to consider is your fertilizer applications. Without tillage to work fertilizer into the soil, injecting may be a better option than surface applications. This is particularly true for ammonium-based nitrogen products that can be lost to volatilization. For P and K, soil-testing the top 2 inches of soil and at a 6- to 8-inch depth can indicate where these nutrients are ending up. If the deeper soil tests show low nutrient values, it may be beneficial to inject P and K with the planter or in a separate pass.

If you’re still struggling to grasp how no-till can work in your conditions, Hanna recommends chatting with a neighbor. “Most all farmers have a no-tiller not only in their county but also in their town,” he says. “It’s worthwhile to see what’s working on the other side of the fence.”

Consider Strip-till

If no-till isn’t working well for you and you don’t want to go back to more conventional tillage, take a hard look at strip-till since it provides the best of both worlds: full tillage within the row to give each seed an ideal seedbed and no-till across the rest of the field.

“I’m putting on 20 to 40 pounds less than my fertilizer recommendation, and I’m still getting around 200 bushels to the acre. For my area, that is really good.” – Cure

The benefits of this approach are plentiful, according to producers from across the country who have strip-tilled for years. They include cutting costs, lowering fertilizer rates, reducing erosion, and boosting yields. If you’re going to try strip-till, you’ll need to make some decisions before you invest in a strip-till rig.

The first is deciding which season will work best to strip-till as well as considering how you want to apply fertilizer.

“With fall strip-till, any clods or chunks I bring up when it’s too wet will soften by springtime. I have to be careful where I walk when I plant corn in the spring because it’s so soft, I’ll sink into the ground 2 to 3 inches in the bed,” says Darin Cure, who has strip-tilled on his farm in Hanston, Kansas, since 2004. “With spring strip-till, I help the strips warm up even faster.”

Cure applies anhydrous when he strip-tills with his Sunflower rig, which he prefers to do in the fall about 8 inches deep.

“I applied anhydrous shallower one spring and I burned some corn roots,” he says. “So now I like to keep it deeper and apply in the fall so I don’t have that problem.”

This also saves him time in the spring, when he only needs to make one quick pass across fields to spray a preemergence herbicide before planting.

If you’d like the option to do both fall and spring strip-till, make sure you have a rig that works for both seasons.

“The nice thing about the SoilWarrior is we can change easily from fall to spring units,” says Delhotal. “During the spring, we swap out the 30-inch cog wheels for two 20-inch wavy coulters. We put the fertility in one stream behind each coulter so it’s blended throughout the zone.”

The Delhotals use strip-till as a one- and two-pass system. Fields that are coming out of conventional tillage get a deep fall pass followed by a shallower pass in the spring to recondition the strips. Phosphorus and potassium are applied in the fall, and nitrogen (typically ESN or urea) is applied in the spring pass. Fields in better condition are strip-tilled just in the spring, and all three nutrients are applied at this time. The strips created are 12 inches wide in both seasons with a 4- to 5-inch berm in the fall and a shallower berm, about 3 inches tall, in the spring.

Travis Harrison, who has been strip-tilling for eight years in Wayne, Ohio, prefers a shallow berm that’s only an inch tall. He makes his 10-inch strips in the fall with an Orthman 1tRIPr while using a Valmar twin-bin fertilizer box with an Ag Leader controller to apply fertilizer. “I variable-rate two separate products and blend on-the-go, which is nice because I don’t have to premix fertilizer before it comes to the field,” he says.

“I farm in northwest Ohio. We’re dealing with algae blooms in Lake Erie, so there’s a big push to have fertilizer placed in the ground instead of broadcasting it. Obviously strip-till lends its hand to that environment.” -Harrison

The prescription Harrison uses is based on the yields coming off of each field as well as the soil test results.

“Most of the time, the strips are made for corn, but given the right scenario or right year, I will variable-rate fertilize and strip-till 100% of my soybeans as well,” he says.

One of the last items to consider as well as one of the most critical components will be your guidance system. “Guidance is probably the most important thing when it comes to a strip-till system,” says Delhotal. “If you have different implement sizes and you don’t have implement steering, it can be a real challenge.” For this reason, Delhotal uses implement guidance on both his strip-till machine and his planter. Delhotal’s tillage tractor is equipped with Trimble Autopilot, and the SoilWarrior has TrueTracker, Trimble’s active implement steering system. 

“With TrueTracker, a hydraulic cylinder on the hitch swings the SoilWarrior 18 inches side to side,” explains Delhotal.

The farm’s planting tractor also has Autopilot and Trimble TrueGuide, a passive steering system, guiding the planter. “This leads the tractor one direction or another,” says Delhotal. “If the planter is 4 inches off the line to the right, it will lead the tractor 4 inches to the left to get the planter back on track.” Delhotal prefers passive guidance on low-draft implements and active guidance for high-draft equipment, where he feels the higher cost is justified by almost completely reducing implement drift.

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