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Strip-till on a budget

In baseball, the key to building a successful team is its foundation, with big budgets winning championships. As Will Cannon assembles the talent for his strip-till system, he is creating a major league team on a minor league budget.

“If I were the New York Yankees, I would sign a high-priced free agent to fill the gaps in my strip-till setup, but I’m more of an Iowa Cubs operation,” says Cannon, who farms in central Iowa. “My goal is to optimize yield but do it with conservation in mind. I try to minimize soil erosion and keep as much of the resources in the field as possible.”

Strip-tilling his corn acres since 2006, Cannon has experimented with both shank and coulter machines, trying myriad configurations to achieve his objectives. As his operation has grown and his management practices have evolved, he has used about seven iterations of strip-till units.

Today, Cannon uses a DMI 5300, which has an exposed cutting coulter up front and a mole knife for injecting both dry and liquid fertilizer. The smooth containment discs on the back build the berm.

Targeted Placement

Through targeted fertilizer placement, strip-till has enabled Cannon to cut back on inputs without sacrificing soil fertility or yield.

“Our soils are naturally high in phosphorous, so banding the fertilizer where the seedlings can get to it early in the season is important,” he says. “In most years, we are using one-half to one-third less than the university recommendations for phosphate fertilizer.” Rather than the 1.0 unit of nitrogen to a bushel of corn rule of thumb, Cannon is applying 0.6 to 0.7 units per bushel. “Between placement of anhydrous ammonia and sidedressing, we are more efficient and getting more bushels per unit of nitrogen,” he explains.

Over the past five years, corn yields have averaged between 210 and 235 bushels per acre. “I’ve been able to meet my conservation goals, and still achieve the county average, or above, for yield,” Cannon says. “To me, that’s a pretty solid result.”

A key component to success has been his investment in precision technology. “You have to have quality GPS. I use RTK because of the terrain I deal with. Guidance lines have to be set up correctly, so I’m not wobbling and making it difficult to repeat the pattern in the field,” he says, adding that Ag Leader’s ParaDyme integrated hydraulic steering takes the guesswork out of loading guidance lines.

Cannon also uses an InCommand 1200 display. “Because it allows me to load multiple guidance lines, it’s easy to jump from one guidance line to the next as I move around a field,” he says.

With strip-till, it’s all about quality control. “There’s a bit more to observe and pay attention to,” Cannon says. “You really become a quality control manager.”

Updating the Roster

Although Cannon has put together a whole system of valuable practices that fit his budget while still meeting his goals, he is always considering potential adjustments to the lineup to ensure he maintains the best possible combination of players.

“I really like the coulter-style machine for its speed and flexibility. I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to that, but I have to decide whether to go with a machine that has the flexibility to do anhydrous ammonia or if I’m willing to give that up.”

Cannon also believes row cleaners, which are not on his current machine, are a must on a strip-till machine. “It’s like having a veteran middle reliever you can bring in if he’s needed. I may not use the row cleaners on every field, but they are available if I need them,” he says.

Widening strips, which are currently 6 inches, is another change he would like to make. “I think an 8- to 10-inch strip would help the planter ride smoother in the spring,” Cannon says. “If the cover crop is too close to the row, a wider strip would help there as well. Because there were a few places the narrow row was off slightly, a wider strip would also give the corn row more of a buffer.”

As his 15th season utilizing strip-till ends, Cannon says the extra effort and planning are worth it.

“It’s frustrating when it’s late November and the days are short, because you’d love to just be done for the season,” Cannon says. “However, I’m always glad I followed through and kept doing it, because if done well, strip-till lays the foundation for success the next year.”

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