Strip tilling gaining interest in region
Touted by proponents as “the best of both worlds,” more growers in the region are investigating strip till in pursuit of better nutrient efficiency and stronger yields, according to industry representatives.
As a practice, strip till dates back decades, marrying conventional tillage and no-till farming into one system, but in the Mid-Atlantic interest is developing as improved guidance technology is more available and input prices pressure growers to be as efficient as possible.
“It’s all about runoff management and fertilizer efficiency,” said Dave Wharry, precision agriculture support specialist at Hoober Inc. “You’re putting that nitrogen right where the plant needs it. Environmentally, you don’t want it leaching out and financially you don’t want to lose it.”
In August, the Maryland-Delaware 4R Alliance featured strip till demonstrations at its annual field day and over the winter, prompted by interest from growers, Hoober organized two strip till clinics.
Wharry, who helped organize the winter clinics, said he’s seen more interest from growers in the system in the past year than the last five. Wharry said compared to years past where maybe one strip till rig would be sold a year, three farmers have purchased new strip till rigs for this season and one is on order.
Mike Twining, vice president of sales and marketing at Willard Agri-Service, said he’s seen steady and consistent interest in strip-till since Willard and Hoober partnered to demonstrate the system in on-farm trials with 24 growers in 2010.
In the last three or four years, he said he has noticed a slight uptick in interest.
“It is gaining more momentum,” Twining said. “We’re getting more questions from growers.”
He said implemented properly, strip-till’s attractiveness includes its potential to raise a field’s top-end yield and get a more uniform yield, improve fertilizer efficiency and facilitate earlier planting with a higher soil temperature in the strips.
“It’s solving a lot of problems and it’s got some real efficiencies,” he said.
In the 34 trials in 2010 covering 1,100 acres of corn, Twining said employing strip-till with a banded liquid fertilizer application below the tilled strip had a positive yield effect on 63 percent of the trials and a negative effect on 37 percent.
In most of the trials with a yield drop, Twining said lack of adequate guidance played a role. While the strips were tilled using RTK guidance, which has repeatable accuracy within an inch, few of the farmers in the trial had the same capability in planting. Whenever a farmer ventured off the tilled strips, he was essentially no-till planting and not overtop the fertilizer that would feed the crop’s later growth.
“That was one of our biggest lessons. You’ve got to be all-in on guidance systems,” Twining said. “You don’t want to get off the strip.”
Wharry said farmers looking at strip till have multiple options in equipment but they ultimately fall into one of two formats: a shank-based machine or one that’s coulter-based. Soil type factors into the decision, along with the amount of rocks in the soil. He recommends on-farm testing to see how one performs in a particular field.
“It is very site specific,” Wharry said. “What works on your dirt is not the same as someone else’s dirt 100 miles away. There is no magic bullet.”
Adam and Brad Ritter in Harbeson, Del., started with strip till in 2011 while shifting from more tillage heavy vegetable production to a minimum-till system.
At about the same time, they moved from WASS guidance to the more accurate RTK, which could better meet the demand of strip till placement. “When we went full RTK, that’s when it made sense to go into strip till,” Brad said. “We kind of just jumped in with both feet and were strip tilling all our corn acres at first.”
Brad said they also tried strip till in soybeans and lima beans, but have since pulled back to doing it on irrigated corn and their best producing dryland areas, mainly due to fuel costs.
“That’s where we’re banking on the ground where we know we get a return on this investment,” Brad said.
The Ritters said using strip till with a banded fertilizer application they’ve seen yields increase and brought down their nitrogen use to 7/10 of a pound per bushel of yield. While he first anticipated saving on fertilizer costs, he said it’s turned more into better fertilizer placement and building yield.
“There was definitely a yield advantage in the strip,” Brad said. “I feel we can make money doing the strip till. To me it’s the best of both worlds.”
Brad said he’s interested in using the strip till system in planting cover crops as a means of planting corn into green cover.
“That’s probably a pipe dream, but it’s something I’d like to try sometime,” he said.
With more focus in the industry on pushing soybean yields, he added he’s not against trying it again on beans.
For the advantanges it can bring to a farm, Twining and Wharry said it’s not a simple move from one end of the tillage spectrum into strip till.
Twining called it a “system change.”
It’s a significant investment and may require a different fertilizer, more planning and preparation and change how the crop is managed through the season.
“Strip till isn’t for everyone. It can create some labor and time savings and allow you take your plant nutrition program to the next level if you’re willing to take the plunge,” he said. “A grower has to be willing to change their system.”
Purchasing a strip till tool bar may also necessitate a larger tractor as Wharry figures on 20-25 horsepower per strip till row unit.
Having fields properly mapped, field boundaries defined and fertilizer prescriptions dialed in are all crucial components in keeping the planter matched to the tilled strips and nutrients going where they need to be.
“It’s all winter long,” Wharry said. “You definitely need a good agronomist that has some experience with it.”
Industry-wide supply chain disruptions and production complications have impacted strip till equipment availability, too, Wharry said.
It’s taking about eight months to have one arrive and a tractor sized to pull it will likely take about 18 months, he said.
Like planting, the operator pulling the strip till rig needs to be skilled and if it’s not the same driver, they need to be in sync.
“Once those strips are down, that dictates how it gets planted,” he said.
At Ritter Farms, Adam is in the driver’s seat for both and with pulling a new 16-row planter this year, he’s anticipating a few hiccups in matching planting passes with their six-row strip till passes, especially on the headlands.
“I know it’s going to be fun, but it’s not going to be ideal,” Adam said. “We’re just going to have to feel it out.”