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For generations, farmers have been aggressively tilling fields and seeing success on their farms and in their yields. However, in recent decades, weather changes, economics, and conservation efforts to improve soil health and sustainability have led some growers to move to a no-till system. Often growers categorize themselves as either conventional tillage or no-till. 

However, there is a third option. Strip-till can be the halfway point between conventional and no-till practices, as well as an important step in the transition to a no-till system. Strip-till can provide many of the soil health advantages of no-till, while still providing the tilled seedbed to plant into you get from conventional tillage. 

What is Strip-till?

Strip-till is the practice of tilling the row where the seed and/or fertilizer will be placed, keeping the residue between the rows undisturbed. Depending on the type of machine and the desired depth of fertilizer placement, the deepest part of the strip is between four and eight inches. Strips can be created in the fall after harvest or in the spring prior to planting. Some systems utilize both a deep fall strip tillage with a lighter spring “freshening” of the strip.

Benefits of Strip-till

  • Reduces erosion. Less disturbance and good cover of residue reduces the potential for soil to erode from the field. 
  • Warmer soil in the spring. Removing residue just above where the seed will be planted allows for the soil to be warmed by the sun in the spring before planting. 
  • More precise application of fertilizer. The fertilizer can be applied directly into the soil in the same pass as you move across the field. Strip-till machines can be set up for both dry or liquid fertilizer. Liquid fertilizer requires less horsepower per row to inject than a dry system.
  • Reduces soil compaction. Leaving soil undisturbed allows for soil structure to form and reduced trips across the field minimizes the compacting load on the soil.
  • Saves time. Most strip-till systems rely on one “tillage” pass in the fall and no tillage in the springtime. 
  • Conserves fuel. When compared to conventional tilling, which often results in three to four passes, a considerable amount of fuel can be saved. 
  • Improves soil health. One of the first steps to a healthier soil is reducing disturbance. With less tillage, earthworms, fungi and other soil organisms can thrive in the soil and improve many soil health metrics including soil aggregation.
  • Better adoption of cover crops. By leaving most of the soil undisturbed, it is possible to take a more advanced step toward soil health by allowing a cover crop to grow in between the rows. Strip-till operations can be performed after cover crop application to ensure a clean seed bed for next year’s crop while maintaining cover crop on most of the field.

Management Considerations to Keep in Mind

  • Potential erosion of the strips. In a field with significant down slope, you risk water running down the strips (instead of moving slowly through the residue in the field). This could cause erosion and risk damaging the seed bed. This erosion can be most damaging after planting the crop. Many growers in this situation see an advantage to going full no-till. 
  • Time. A wet year or a delayed harvest can restrict the amount of time available to create a strip, especially after harvest. A back-up plan of either spring strip-till or being comfortable with no-till is desirable in these situations. 
  • Horsepower. Some more aggressive strip-till machines can require a large amount of horsepower per row. These machines can be the most beneficial for removing a compaction layer and fertilizer placement, but lower horsepower units are also available that do less deep tillage.
  • Initial cost. There is an upfront cost of additional or new equipment to transition over to the practice. However, there are a wide variety of strip-till systems available to fit the needs and budgets of a grower and, with advanced accurate auto-steer systems, units do not necessarily need to match planter widths.
  • Guidance: If the strip-till implement matches the planter, guidance is not absolutely necessary; however, in any instance, it is highly desired to have a guidance system to help stay on your strips.  

While the characteristics of the strip you create depends on the season and your region, strip-till can potentially provide the best of both worlds – no-till and conventional tillage.

Jim Isermann
Jim Isermann
Jim Isermann is a Field Manager for Soil Health Partnership, covering northern Illinois and Wisconsin.