When Greg Entinger took over his family’s crop farm in 2013, he was looking for ways to cut overall costs and reduce erosion in some fields.
He looked at various technologies and decided to try strip tillage. He noted the savings in fuel and labor, along with improved soil health, and decided to try no-till, too. He likes these conservation tillage practices so much that his farm business card shows a strip till photo on one side. On the back is USDA data on conventional versus strip-till fuel savings and soil stir ratings.
Revising his tillage practices also gave Entinger that added best management practices bump he needed to receive his farm’s Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification recognition. The New Prague farmer was presented with his certification plaque Aug. 28 on his farm during a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency-sponsored event that highlighted best management practices.
Entinger likes to share what he is learning about different tillage practices and the challenges of establishing cover crops. Here are some of his experiences:
Tillage experimentation. Entinger has practiced strip tillage on his whole farm — 925 acres of corn and soybeans. This was his fifth season strip tilling. The first three seasons, he strip-tilled both corn and soybeans. Last season, he wanted to experiment a bit so he strip-tilled half of his soybeans and no-tilled the rest.
“If you’re not trying something new, you won’t know what happens,” Entinger says. He saw no difference in yields or in soybean health between strip-till and no-till. So, this year he no-tilled 100% of his 460 acres of soybeans.
“Driving the tractor and ST bar across the field cost money [in fuel, machinery wear and labor], even when I’m not putting fertilizer in the strips or zones,” he says. “A person can lose a bushel of soybeans and still be ahead on fuel. Add in the time it takes to plow or rip the fields in the fall and cultivate in spring. Our time is worth something!”
Strip-till row setup. Entinger strip-tills rows that are about 6 to 8 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches deep. When he strip-tills for soybeans in corn stubble, he moves over 15 inches and tills between the corn stubble.
“Some strip tillers put the strip right on top of the corn stubble, which destroys the root ball under the stubble, and their thought is to put fertilizer in the same area for both corn and soybeans,” he explains. “I look at those root balls to help carry me across the field as I’m driving on them. As they decay, they provide an opening on top for earthworms to travel freely and so water can follow the passageway down.”
Grid sampling. Entinger routinely takes 2-1/2-acre grid samples once every three years but plans to change it to every four. He grid samples prior to corn and relies on variable rate applications of phosphorus and potassium to balance field fertility. All fertility is put right in the strip zone. The strip till bar he uses is designed to mix the fertility in the full zone, from top to bottom.
He tweaks his nitrogen application each time. One year, he added all dry N in the strips, along with P and K.
“That worked great, but there was a concern about making the strip/zone too hot,” he said. So, the next year he tried applying half of the N as dry in the strips/zones and came back with a sidedress between stages V5 to V10 of corn. That worked well.
This year, Entinger experimented with putting just P and K in the strips and using liquid N as the carrier, instead of water, for burndown and followed up later with sidedress.
“Next year, the plan is to modify the sidedresser, to re-fresh the strips in spring and to apply liquid N right on the strip,” he says, adding, “Yes, this is another pass across the field, but we want to continue to try new things.”
No special equipment needed. More than once during the field day, Entinger said his Kinze 3650 planter “wasn’t anything special” to do strip-tilling.
“The planter we use is just that, nothing special,” he said. “It has springs for down pressure [no air bags], row cleaners, disk openers, gauge wheels and closing wheels. It’s just like 70% to 90% of the planters out there right now.”
His planter also does not have no-till coulters in front of the row units.
“Prior to purchasing this 16-row planter, I was planting into the strips with an older two-row 7200 John Deere planter,” he said. “If that did the job, I think any planter out there can do it.”
He does prefer spiked row cleaners when no-tilling soybeans and spiked closing wheels for planting into strips and no-tilling.
“The difference is amazing — better seed to soil contact,” he added.
Importance of efficiency. Using less fuel and spending less time prepping fields are key plusses for Entinger. He figured that he was burning 1.5 to 2 gallons per acre in the fall ripping corn stubble at 4.5 mph with a 12.5-foot wide ripper. Then in the spring, he burned another 1 to 1.5 gallon per acre to cultivate.
“My first year [with strip-till], I stripped my corn stubble in the fall at 30 feet wide and 9 miles per hour, only using 0.5 gal per acre,” he said. So, in one pass Entinger was able to do field prep that was twice as wide at double the speed and save three gallons per acre. Adding no-till soybean acreage means he is done with some field work until planting in the spring.
Cover crop troubles. Entinger admits he is struggling with establishing cover crops — a common lament among farmers who like what they hear about the practice. He signed up for a cost-share cover crop program offered by his local soil and water conservation district office and the local water shed.
The program paid $40 per acre per year for cover crops on the same ground for three years. He signed up for 90 acres in two fields with corn and soybeans. Cover crops were seeded by plane onto the standing corn ground at a cost close to $40 per acre, he said. After harvesting soybeans, he drilled in the cover crops himself. This would be his third fall planting cover crops. Yet, he might not plant cover crops next year due to spotty growth.
“The drilling into soybeans stubble worked once the last two years and I still didn’t like the stand that I had in spring,” Entinger says. “Even what was flown on into standing corn, half the field had great cover in the spring and the other half of the field basically had nothing standing in the spring.”
When looking at the cost to aerial-seed his entire 925 acres, at $40 per acre, that would cost him $37,000.
“I completely back the idea of cover crops,” Entinger says. “I struggle with the application and cost of it. Yes, it could cut back on my weed pressure, but I need a good stand for that to happen. I’m going to keep trying and keep talking to the people that are making it work. But it has to work for me and give me what I want back.”
Conservation legacy. Entinger’s father, Paul, had various conservation practices on the farm, such as water control basins. One was built in the 1930s and needs to be rebuilt. Entinger is looking into assistance from his local SWCD and Natural Resources Conservation Service.
He also reached out to his landlords and shared information with them about certain practices. Over the last couple years, he took information on three farms to the USDA-NRCS office and asked for help with erosion control. Two were accepted for 70% to 95% funding under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. He has received financial assistance to install five terraces in one rented field and two in a second rented field.
“Both land owners were surprised that the government would pay to have these types of structures built on their land,” he says. “People don’t know that money is available from the NRCS and SWCD. The money is out there. Go and get it.”