Tillage matters

Iowa farmer’s tillage approach saves at least 12 dump truck loads of soil per 150-acre field per year.

Ben Pederson began strip-tilling in 2012 because he liked the idea of nutrient- efficiency gains by applying fertilizer in the strips. He became passionate about it when he realized the multifaceted benefits of healthier soil.

Yet, Pederson admits that the switch from the conventional tillage mind-set he and his father, Gary, practiced didn’t happen overnight.

“I researched strip-till as an alternative for about four years,” says the third-generation Iowa farmer. “I hated field cultivators for the smeared layer they left beneath the surface of that fluffed soil and the pavement covered in baseballs left in the wheel tracks of the monstrosity of a tractor that pulled it.”

Disk-ripping every acre of cornstalks also proved frustrating.

While converting to strip-till seemed to be the logical solution in Pederson’s mind, others weren’t sold on the concept. He says his dad offered to “buy him out of the idea.” His banker also questioned the true cost savings Pederson forecasted, which would ultimately pay for the machine over time.

Because it combines the best of no-till and conventional tillage, Fabian Fernandez sees strip-till as a viable option. 

“It provides a better seedbed and better yields than no-till – similar to what we see with conventional tillage. It also helps protect the soil and increase infiltration and soil properties relative to conventional tillage. It’s similar to no-till with the advantage that, in wet years, it may be possible to plant a little earlier in strip-till,” says the University of Minnesota associate professor.

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Adopting a New Practice

Forging ahead, Pederson invested in the SoilWarrior 4040SXD and converted all of his corn and soybean acres to strip-till not only to precisely place nutrients in the zone but also to break up compaction and control traffic.  

“Ben felt he had to till deeper than 6 inches in the fall and freshen the zones in the spring,” says Kevin Kuehn, regional sales manager at Environmental Tillage Systems, Inc. “He also wanted to apply dry fertilizer in the fall and liquid in the spring.”

Pederson’s first SoilWarrior was an eight-row dry fertilizer XD deep-tillage with the cog wheel in the fall converted to a 16-row liquid fertilizer XS shallow-tillage with the double 20-inch coulters for the spring preplant pass.

“The SoilWarrior XD and XS systems replicate the ripper and field cultivator passes as far as depth and timing, making it easier for Ben to transition to strip-tillage,” Kuehn says.

With the XD attachment, the X row units achieve up to 12 inches of tillage depth. The XS attachment tills less than 6 inches deep and creates a beautiful seedbed.

Pederson also invested in John Deere’s Active Implement Guidance to minimize the guess row width variation of matching up the 8-, 16-, and 24-row implements.

“Our strip-till approach disturbs only about a third of the soil surface to dry and warm the seeding zone. Compared with traditional tillage, our system can save 3½ tons of soil per acre per year – that’s at least 12 dump trucks full per 150-acre field per year,” Pederson says.

He has also seen roughly a 25% reduction in fertilizer, and his yields have remained steady to 10% better. 

Pederson has been trying to improve even more. In 2019, he purchased a 24-row SoilWarrior 5060STD3, which matches the planter width and reduces the passes for tillage as well as fertilizer and seed placement. 

He also recently moved away from deep strip-till to shallower coulter tillage to disturb less soil and gain efficiencies in equipment. “I was going about 10 inches deep. I now go 4 to 6 inches deep with a narrower strip.”

In addition, he is using less aggressive, adjustable row cleaners. “I’m moving to a spiked wheel rather than a swept tooth and installed a pneumatic adjustment system to add or remove weight,” Pederson says.

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Strip-Till Drawbacks

Because the best time to strip-till is in the fall, it can be a drawback for some growers, Fernandez says. “In my opinion, if soil conditions are not ideal for tillage, conventional tillage is more forgiving than strip-till.”

He also notes that strip-till is not suitable for sloping fields if the tillage is done in the direction of the slope. That’s because the strips can create a channel for water (and soil) to move, which can result in more erosion than in conventional tillage systems. 

“Strip-till also requires specialized equipment,” Fernandez says. “The best way to match the strips with planting equipment is to use RTK, so it takes more planning and could cost more than other options, but it depends on individual situations.”

Kuehn admits that changing tillage systems does tax cash flow and available funds. “A SoilWarrior is a large capital investment that needs to be spread over acres and years of operation. However, our machine is known for its durability. It lasts and requires less maintenance than other tillage implements.”

Read more: Mother Nature rules. So why not follow her lead?

5 Tips for Switching to Strip-Till

Pederson offers these five tips to others considering converting to strip-till. 

  1. Invest in RTK GPS. Before you make the leap to strip-till, Pederson recommends investing in RTK GPS the year before. “This will make it far easier to miss your cornstalk rows in that first pass with your strip-till unit,” he says.
  2. Reduce equipment. If you commit to using a machine that is proven to handle heavy residue and proven to produce similar or better yields than conventional methods, Pederson says you should consider selling your field cultivator, ripper, or similar tools. “You will not need them anymore, and you can use that capital to invest in the best machine and technology possible to give the system the best chance to work,” he says.
  3. Match horsepower requirements. Because farmers don’t have a lot of extra time on their hands to complete fieldwork, Pederson says it’s wise to take the per-row horsepower requirements seriously. “This gives you the ability to pull your machine at a respectable speed,” he says. 
  4. Go all in. “I’ve heard of so-called strip-tillers who are either just banding fertilizer beneath the surface and then broad-area tilling over the top, or they are tilling strips and broadcasting fertilizer,” Pederson says. Because strip-till is a system and all of the parts work together, he firmly believes you will not be as successful if you cherry-pick which parts you adopt. “Last year, my dad switched all of his acres to strip-till after converting a field or two every year after I started,” Pederson says.
  5. Phone a friend. The advice Pederson received from another grower using a SoilWarrior was invaluable. “Most producers are willing to share information about their experiences,” he says. “Take advantage of this.”

Kuehn says making the transition to strip-till from either no-till or broad-area conventional tillage is a life-changing event. 

“You have been managing your soil and fertilizer placement your way for years and have been successful,” he says. “Making a change always raises the question, ‘Am I making the right choice?’ Research the change as best you can and focus on making it a success. A producer who is focused on making strip-till a success will succeed.”

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