What to Keep in Mind: Fall vs. Spring Strip-Till

Strip-till can be done either in the spring, just ahead of planting, or in the fall following harvest. However, equipment, management style and weather conditions can affect which makes the most sense for growers. The season you create the strip, also known as a berm, determines the type of strip you want to achieve. 

Key Characteristics of Different Strip-Till Options

When a strip is created in the spring, you will be planting directly into a conventional seedbed. Therefore, in any given 3-foot area, the strip should not have any clods larger than four inches in size and should have fewer than five clods that are larger than two inches. The berm height will be between one and two inches tall. 

A strip that is created in the fall needs to be approximately three inches in height, because it will mellow down over the winter. It should have no clods that are greater than four inches in size and just five to ten clods that are two to four inches in size (again, in a three-foot area). The ideal width of the strip is between eight and ten inches. 

What to Consider When Choosing Between Spring and Fall Strip-Till

 

Spring Berm

  • Less chance for erosion of the strips.
  • Allows more flexibility in deciding on crop and fertilizer programs.
  • Usually done with machines that do not have a shank and utilize a coulter system, which  therefore require less horsepower.
  • If fertilizer is applied, there is less time for nutrient loss (with the exception of anhydrous, which should be applied two to four weeks prior to prevent it from burning the roots of the seed).
  • Shank systems in heavy soils are not desirable, due to potentially creating a slot in the soil.
  • Always good to have as an option if fall strip-till cannot be completed due to weather.

Fall Berm

  • Saves time in the spring.
  • May need to freshen in the spring, particularly if erosion occurs in the strip.
  • Less risk around needing to get strips built in wet spring conditions and avoids running heavy fertilizer loads on spring soils, if fertilizer is applied.
  • Matches up well with anhydrous ammonia applications.
  • When performed shortly after a cover crop emerges, fall strip tillage can eliminate the cover crop in the strip, allowing an open row for spring cash crop planting.

In either application, it’s important to have a knife and tape measure handy in the cab. Take measurements of your strip, checking the size of clods along with the width and height of the berm, to ensure the machine is set correctly and you are producing the ideal strip for your operation.

 

Photo credit: Soil Warrior

Benefits & Management Considerations of Strip-till

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.

Ken Rosenow

Ken, Sue and Mike Rosenow are the sixth generation in their family to farm in Oconomowoc, WI on land settled before the Civil War. They grow corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and hay as their cash crops, but have tested a variety of cover crops on the farm as well. 

Peas, radish, berseem clover, sunflower, and cereal rye have all been assessed for their viability as a cover crop on the Rosenow’s Wisconsin farm. Ken Rosenow also favors a mostly no-till management approach on their acres, which he says saves on machinery investment, fuel, and labor.

“I hope that, by planting cover crops, it helps to protect the soil from erosion and to hold the nutrients for the next crop,” Ken said.

The family also believes in science-based nutrient management on their farm. Soil testing and estimating fertility needs of the crops they grow is a key component of their farm management.

Ken joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2016 to learn more about improving water infiltration and cost savings through better soil health.

“We have learned how others are using cover crops and the benefits that can be achieved,” said Ken. Plus, the opportunities to meet with other participants is very valuable.”

Dan Roehrborn

Dan Roehrborn is a fifth-generation farmer, growing corn and soybeans near the Sheboygan River Basin, now managing the same farm that has been in his family for more than 100 years.

Dan grows a mix of barley, clover and radish to improve his soil health and practices no-till in soybean fields and cover crops, varying all his practices based on the field, soil type, and crops grown. He works hard to properly manage nutrients, taking a conservative approach. “We don’t use manure and I don’t want to overspend on fertilizer,” Dan said. Instead, he prefers to take soil samples to keep nutrients in check.

Since 2015, when Dan joined the Soil Health Partnership, he has been learning how to improve soil health on his farm and sharing information with other farmers. In those short years, he’s noticed an increase in organic matter and an improvement in his soil’s capacity to hold nutrients.

“There are many ways to work at improving soil health, but there is also potential for challenges,” Dan said. “These can occur with cover crops, such as too much cover causing excessive moisture or different bugs in the soil.”

Despite the challenges, Dan will continue to try different methods on different soil types, believing it will benefit his farming operation in the long run. And, as he says, “It’s just another learning curve on the farm.”

Mike Buis

Type of Operation:
Mike, with his brother Jeff, farms 3,100 acres. Most of the cropland is in a corn-soybean or corn-soybean-wheat rotation.

View on Soil Health:
Conservation Compliance provisions require Mike, who grow crops on highly erodible land (HEL), to use conservation practices to be eligible for federal programs such as disaster assistance, conservation programs, or crop insurance premium subsidies. Although he is not required to do so, he’s added cover crops to his HEL land to ensure he is going above and beyond to minimize soil erosion.

Reason for Joining Soil Health Partnership:
He began working with the Soil Health Partnership in 2016 to experiment with cover crops.

Trials Partnered with SHP on:
Mike broadcasts wheat cover crop seed at approximately 60 pounds per acre with a fall fertilizer application (immediately after harvest) and incorporates both with a vertical tillage tool. Wheat is not harvested, so he terminates the wheat cover crop in the spring when it is approximately 12-14″ tall by burning it down with an herbicide application. Because there is no spring tillage, he plants directly into the cover crop residue with a no-till planter.

His trial is featured in the Benefits of Cover Crops Business Case.

Other Soil Health Practices Being Implemented:

Mike has about 1/3 of his acres in no-till and 1/3 in minimal tillage. He also expanded the acres he plants cover crops beyond his SHP research field.

Advantages Experienced Using New Soil Health Practices:
The biggest benefit of the wheat cover crop, in Mike’s experience, is that he uses fewer herbicides during the growing season. He estimates the value of this weed control benefit to be worth at least $10/acre. Also, although he is not required to add cover crops to his HEL, doing so ensures he is going above and beyond to minimize soil erosion–and significant increases in soil organic matter on Mike’s research field between 2016 and 2018 suggest that Mike might see long-term benefits in soil water holding capacity and nutrient cycling and availability as a result of using cover crops.

Implementing cover crops on his HEL was a natural fit for Mike after he started experimenting with cover crops on his SHP research field. Because he had already adopted minimum-till on his HEL in order to meet conservation compliance requirements, there was no additional cost, other than the seed itself, to seed or terminate the cover crop. Putting a dollar value on weed control has encouraged Mike to increase the use of cover crops.

Roger Zylstra

The Zylstra farm is a third-generation family farm in Lynnville, Iowa. Roger’s parents began farming in 1948, and he purchased it from them in 1982. Now, Roger’s son, Wes, farms the ground and Roger works alongside him.  Together, they grow 700 acres corn and soybeans, as well as a contract finishing hog operation of 5400

The Zylstras have only recently added cover crops to their farming practice. The first year, they did a small field and put in cereal rye. It went very well, so the second year they did 300 acres of cereal rye. Roger says a cool, damp spring presented challenges, but the learning curve continues.

“We are dedicated to seeing this through,” Roger says. “I do think it will pay dividends in the long term.”

For 30 years, the Zylstras have practiced no-till on most all of their ground. Roger calls it the only practical way to farm their highly erodible land.

“I’m convinced we can improve the soil by doing cover crops, no-till and good nutrient management,” Zylstra said. “I’m looking forward to the research results and knowledge we will gain by participating with the partnership.”

Greg Whitmore

Greg raises corn, seed corn, corn silage and soybeans on about 2,600 acres, some of which he can trace back to his ancestor, a Civil War officer, and an 1879 homestead in Shelby, Nebraska.

Greg has deep roots with the Soil Health Partnership, joining at its inception in 2014. “I joined because I was using cover crops and no-till. I wanted to see if the economic and environmental gains and soil quality were real or just perceived,” said Greg. “Since joining, I have seen less wind and water erosion and better water infiltration and retention.”

Most of Greg’s cover crops follow the harvesting of silage for erosion control, and to help with nutrient retention of manure applications. Other cover crop acres follow seed acres, where he grows corn under contract with a seed company to produce seed corn for them. The cover crops help with weed control.

Greg practices no-till on most of the acres.

“I use strip-till ahead of the corn acres to place nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur below where I will plant the seed,” Greg said. “On the manured acres, I can apply most of our nutrient needs with effluent from a large local dairy through our center pivots, which we must manage to meet state and federal guidelines.”

Greg says that a lot of little things can make the difference between success and failure. He’s had his cut of both, and wants to share that with other farmers to help them, and to learn from their experiences, as well.

Trinity Creek Ranch

Mikayla Tabert and her husband Benjamin are the third generation of Trinity Creek Ranch in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, which her grandparents started in 1952. They farm alongside her parents, David & Peggy Miller. Together, they have a cow-calf operation that consists of 150 beef cows along with a small feedlot. Their diverse grain operation includes raising corn, soybeans, wheat, peola (field peas grown with canola), alfalfa, turfgrass, cereal rye and sunflowers. They also sell forage and cover crop seed.

The family enjoys experimenting with new practices and constantly challenges themselves to find ways to improve soil health and profitability. This often leads to fun internal competition about what they should try next with each family member having their own idea.

The family believes cover crops improve soil health and profitability, so they joined Soil Health Partnership for additional help collecting data to prove the practice and track changes in the soil. They would like to see fellow farmers adopt conservation practices, so they plan to use their data and experience to encourage others to consider utilizing cover crops.

Currently, they are considering testing 60-inch corn to increase interseeded cover crop growth and growing corn with interseeded cover crops for winter grazing that will not be harvested. They plan to continue to reduce the use of strip-till in order to become 100% no-till, expand their use of complex cover crops for grazing and to grow multiple crops together through polycrops and relay cropping.

Kevin Ross

For Kevin Ross, soil conservation is about more than helping the environment today – it is also a priority to ensure that his farm will stay productive long into the future. He hopes his young sons will continue his family’s long-term interest in agriculture and their Western Iowa operation. As an enrolled farmer in the Soil Health Partnership, Kevin takes part in measuring the economic and environmental outcome of his soil conservation practices, which he believes will help his farm stay productive and profitable for years to come. 

“We want to protect water, soil and air, and grow more with less. And, if we can make our business more profitable through sustainability – that’s a win for all of us,” he says.

Kevin is a sixth-generation family farmer from Minden, Iowa, where he and his family grow corn, soybeans and alfalfa, and operate a 140-head cow/calf operation.

Kevin grows corn almost exclusively using no-till methods. Over the past several years, he has also used different cover crops to prevent soil erosion, take up extra nitrogen and phosphorous in the field and provide forage for the cattle. 

“As with growing any new crop on the farm, cover crops have a learning curve, but the important thing is to get started, even if it is just a small area,” he says. “Cover crops are part of my long-term strategy for soil health because I recognize that visible changes will take time to understand and evaluate. We are hoping they come with profitable outcomes as well.”