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Strip-till is a corn savior

Growing corn near the Canadian border is a challenge, but it’s been part of the crop rotation for Robert Schaefer and his father, Dan, for nearly eight years. The last four harvests on their Minot, North Dakota, farm have been dramatically better since they switched from no-till to strip-till cultivation. 

“We still do no-till planting wheat, but no-till planting corn wasn’t cutting it. We’re a lot cooler up here, and we need every advantage to get that corn out of the ground fast,” Robert Schaefer explains. “Strip-till makes a black strip and helps warm the ground up.”

Uniform emergence, higher populations

Planting in a black strip helps the Schaefers obtain uniform emergence and an even stand. Populations have also improved. The Schaefers used to lose 4,000 to 5,000 plants per acre with no-till. Now, that loss is down to 1,000 or fewer plants per acre with strip-till based on planting 32,000 seeds per acre.

Schaefer credits Kevin Kimberley of Maxwell, Iowa, for much of the improvement. Kimberley taught them how to make good strips, and he also set them up with a new triple-coulter system, which reduces the air pockets that cause poor seed-to-soil contact. 

Kimberley used the design for 14 years before collaborating with Wako, Inc., an Oklahoma manufacturer, and Schaefer tested the prototype. Wako’s Zone-Till implement has twin coulters with a wavy coulter centered behind them that can be set to create black strips 6 to 12 inches wide. Behind that is a fertilizer knife with closing coulters. The coulters run 1 inch deeper 

than the knives, so the knives don’t blow out dirt, which can wedge in the strip, create an air pocket, and result in poor soil contact. A key factor of the system is how well it sizes the soil for a good seedbed.

“We have to get the strip-till done in the fall, after the wheat comes off in August,” Schaefer says. In the future, he would like to fertilize in the fall, as well. Time is a factor since he farms 4,000 acres of corn, rotating it with wheat and sunflowers. For now, the Schaefers’ priority is to move the residue between the 30-inch rows and leave a black strip. 

“Strip-till loosens up dirt for the roots to go down,” Schaefer notes. “We found that with no-till, we created quite a hardpan. Strip-tilling brings that out. When it rains, it’s hard between the strips, so the moisture we do receive goes in the rows where it’s needed.”

With the strips, the Schaefers are able to finish planting earlier (usually by May 5, compared with May 15 for no-till). 

Saves on drying bill

It saves quite a bit on the drying bill, “because corn comes out of the ground more uniform and matures so much faster,” Schaefer says. “With no-till, we have plants come out at different times, which affects pollination. Uniform emergence is key with corn. On no-till, we hoped for 100 bushels per acre. Now, yields are up 20% to 30%.”

Schaefer doesn’t attribute all the improvement to strip-till since they have learned to be better corn growers through the years, including finding the best seed varieties to grow in their area. 

“I haven’t found anything bad about strip-tilling,” Schaefer says. “When the ground was wet in the spring, it was an advantage. That’s because it helped dry the strip out so we could still get it planted. It still saved moisture between the strips.”

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