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Articles from 1998 In September

The stealing game

If you think a post herbicide program allows weeds to steal more yield than a soil approach does, think again. Research says it's all in the timing.

As summer field day season winds to a close, it's clear that last winter's hottest topic has been a focal point of plot tours and field days.

Much ink was devoted to the question of whether early weed presence steals soybean yields. Major marketers squared off in ads and news columns to debate the issue of weed competition.

Research conducted at university experiment stations this summer should provide answers to that question soon.

"The issue of early weed competition really intensified with the introduction of Roundup Ready and Liberty Link crops," says Dr. Jim Kells, a weed scientist at Michigan State University. "There is a lot of research going on right now on early weed competition."

Age-old topic. In addition to initiating more research, scientists also have taken a closer look at existing science. This weed control timing issue goes back to the advent of postemergence herbicides.

Last spring Kells and a colleague, Dr. Karen Renner, reviewed existing research on weed competition. Their conclusion: In a majority of cases, soybean yields won't be hurt if weeds are controlled by the third week after crop emergence or before soybeans reach the V4 stage. At that point, the third trifoliate is fully developed and weeds are usually 6 in. tall or less. In corn, yields generally are not hampered if weeds are removed by the time weeds reach 4 in.

Kells says these conclusions don't tell a grower whether to use a soil residual herbicide, a total over-the-top program or a combination of both. That's an individual decision based on economics, time and equipment management, and perennial and annual weed pressures. But the decision should not be driven by yield-loss worries, provided the grower is prepared to control weeds in a timely manner and the weather allows.

"There is a fair amount of data on weed duration and crop yield," Kells says. "We are confident that the general conclusions we reached will cover most situations."

"We don't have as much understanding of the exceptional situation - if it is wet or dry, or if there are extremes in weed density, for instance," Kells says. "With very high weed densities, we may have to remove weeds earlier. If the weeds emerge before the crop, they must be removed sooner. If they emerge later, they probably can be removed later. Tillage and row spacing are other factors that may affect the competitiveness of weeds with a crop."

Research reveals risks. Nine studies conducted at seven universities across the United States in 1997 showed that soybean yield isn't affected until weeds are taller than 9 in. A summary of the research, commissioned by Monsanto Company, is shown in the table.

Field conditions at test sites ranged from dry to relatively wet. Trials were on Roundup Ready soybeans treated with Roundup Ultra herbicide at various weed heights. Plots were initiated in weed-free soil and were kept clean once the initial treatment was made, although follow-up weed-control measures were rarely needed. Yields were compared to yields of Roundup Ready soybeans grown with Prowl or Treflan applied preemergence or incorporated before planting, followed by Pursuit. Yield was statistically identical at 3-, 6- and 9-in. weed heights, as well as with the residual herbicide program.

Monsanto's recommendations that weeds be sprayed at 4 to 8 in. fit within the maximized-yield zone identified in the research.

In most cases, weed pressure in test plots was extreme - "a worst-case scenario from a farmer's perspective," says Dr. Steve Hart of the University of Illinois.

This year Hart and other weed scientists advised growers to control weeds early to assure that spraying was completed before weeds began hurting yield.

"At 4-in. weeds, 99 percent of the time there will be no yield impact on soybeans," Hart says. "The risk starts to increase at 8 in. In between is a gray area. We've got a ton of work out on this subject, both in corn and beans. We'll know more after this year."

Variables affect timing. Dr. Tom Bauman of Purdue University agrees that scientists have a general picture of when weed competition begins to reduce yields. But more research is needed, especially in narrow-row and no-till systems, he says.

"Most all the data on weed competition have been from rowed beans," he points out. "In general, I think that if you spray beans within 3 to 3 1/2 weeks, I would be comfortable that you are not losing yield. In drilled beans you may need to spray earlier to get good coverage. In no-till, you may not need to remove weeds as early on a calendar basis because the crop and weeds grow slower."

Weed species also can dictate optimum spray timing.

Tom Hoverstad and Dr. William Lueschen at the University of Minnesota point out that in their research, control of common lambsquarters is improved if sprayed with Roundup Ultra at 4 to 6 in. instead of 2 to 4 in.

"If lambsquarters is one of your pivotal weeds, I would spray at 4 in., and not earlier," Lueschen says.

Corn studies. The research base on timing of weed control in corn is narrower than the research on soybeans, so there's more to learn, Kells explains.

At this point, a 4-in. weed height seems to be the magic number.

"Looking through the literature, I have only seen a yield loss one time at 4-in. weeds," he says. "I would say that if you remove weeds in the 2- to 4-in. range, you have very minimal risk of yield loss."

When weeds exceed 4 in., yield trails off rapidly, Lueschen says.

"Where we have heavy grass pressure, if we don't get it out by the time it is 3 to 4 in. tall, we see serious yield loss," he says. "Even if we get 100 percent control, we see as much as a 20 percent loss with 6-in. grass."

Scientists are uncertain why it's more critical to control weeds earlier in corn than in soybeans. Some say it is because reproductive structures develop earlier in corn than in soybeans. Lueschen speculates that grasses may sap nitrogen from the upper soil profile, leaving corn starved until roots reach deeper nitrogen supplies.

Stay tuned. Over the next couple of years, more detailed recommendations will emerge on the timing of weed removal. For now, research indicates that early weed presence does not impact yield if weeds are removed in a timely manner.

New traits of seed buying

Genetic engineering will change the way you buy seed.

Changes are coming in the way you buy seed. That's because the seed itself is changing. Through genetic engineering, or in some cases conventional breeding, much of the seed marketed next year will contain special traits to make it resistant to pests or worth more at market.

"It's not your father's Oldsmobile," says Jerry Harrington, sales public relations manager at Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Thirty-two percent of Pioneer's seed corn lineup in 1999 will contain value-added traits, compared with 19% in 1998. At Golden Harvest, 75% of its seed corn line will have a value-added trait, up from 15% in 1998. At ExSeed Genetics, a company formed in 1994, value-enhanced seed is all that is made.

Many of these trait seeds you've already seen, probably even used. Traits like Bt, Roundup Ready, IMI, LibertyLink, STS, high-oil, white, and waxy. But you'll see them in larger supply and in more elite hybrids next year. And there will be new combinations of these traits, called stacks, to provide several benefits in a single hybrid.

You'll see some traits for the first time in 1999, including:

*A stacked Bt and TopCross high-oil corn hybrid by Pioneer.

*A low-phytate corn that makes phosphorous in corn more available to the animal and, at the same time, cuts the amount of phosphorous in the waste to reduce water pollution. Pioneer will launch it in a limited East Coast market area.

*A new soybean variety that is resistant to Liberty herbicide and a new Bt corn with a different mode of action to help combat resistance to older Bt technology, both by AgrEvo.

*A nutrient-enhanced seed corn by ExSeed Genetics that achieves more protein, essential amino acids and elevated oil.

And there are more traits coming.

Those changes in seed mean even bigger changes for you as a buyer.

Faster adoption. The goal of the seed industry right now is to provide new traits in more hybrids, faster. Speed is key. And competition is fierce. ExSeed Genetics claims it can produce a hybrid in half the time that the traditional process took, typically seven to nine years, through a special system that speeds up the natural selection process.

These changes in development put pressure on you as a buyer to consider all the options.

"There are so many new hybrids coming down the pipe now," says Burdell Kuhl, corn and soybean farmer from Worthington, MN. "Hybrids don't stick around nearly as long."

He says he used to plant the same hybrid for eight or nine years. "Now if something is three or four years old, there's probably something better out there."

Seed companies report that farmers are adopting hybrids faster than before. "In the past farmers wanted two or three years' worth of data before they would try a hybrid," says Chuck Lee, corn products manager at Golden Harvest. "Now, some are willing to accept a year's worth pretty readily."

Tracy Klingaman, agronomic traits product manager for DeKalb, agrees, adding that Bt corn is a classic example. "Bt offers tremendous value, and as a result farmers have adopted it very rapidly," he says. "The same is true for Roundup Ready soybeans. Within a few years it has gone from just a fledgling market share to tremendous market share throughout the entire U.S. soybean production area."

Less loyalty. Lee says an even bigger change is that farmers who previously bought from one company repeatedly are now going elsewhere to get the trait they want.

Roundup Ready beans is an example of that, he says. "A lot of companies ran out of Roundup Ready beans, and farmers weren't afraid to flat out switch companies to get them. So I think a little brand loyalty was sacrificed to technology."

In the future, many regional seed companies will not be able to provide the entire spectrum of new traits that major companies offer and, instead, will have to specialize. Mike Stephenson, president of Great Lakes Hybrids, predicts, "There are going to be a lot of niche markets, and seed companies are going to have to pick and choose what they decide to market."

Some companies have already done that with high-oil corn, he says. "It's very clear in the marketplace who those niche players are, and farmers will generally seek them out."

Along those lines, Stephenson says suppliers of end-value traits will need to become more vertically integrated to secure a market for the end-value crop their customers are growing.

More homework. This is another big change brought by new traits. Because not all companies carry a given trait, you will have to go to more sources to find it, Stephenson says. You also will have to learn about the risks involved in planting and managing the seed.

For instance, he says, with Bt corn you need to know how to manage refuge acres to prevent resistance. With herbicide traits, you have to learn how to manage its use so you don't spray the wrong field.

Mark Winkle, pesticide trait marketing manager for Cargill, recommends the Internet as a good source for that information. Most seed companies now have their own Web sites that show what traits they are selling along with how to manage them. Agricultural chemical companies have similar information on their Web sites. For unbiased information, university field days and extension meetings are other good sources.

Earlier bookings. As trait technologies move in and out of production fast, existing product lines become obsolete fast, says Winkle. As a result, it is critical for seed companies not to overproduce.

To better anticipate production levels, companies will want to confirm your buying commitment early by offering discounts if you order by a certain date, similar to early-order programs of the past, Winkle says.

As a new twist, they may start to package their trait technologies over a two- or three-year period and offer an even bigger discount. He says the concept is analogous to a sports contract, where a player commits to one team for a number of years for a predetermined price.

"The key is gauging production levels for specific traits or a combination of traits to better manage inventory levels," he says.

New selection criteria. In the past, yield was the major determinate of which hybrids a farmer selected. But as the industry moves into specialty traits, that focus will shift to the earning potential of a given hybrid, says Kyle Whitaker, corn technology communications manager for Pioneer.

"Yield is going to be more than just bushel in the bin at the end of the year," he says. "It will be, What is my earning potential with this value-added product versus a traditional non-value- added product?"

Pioneer defines earning potential of a hybrid as:

Income or total value = bu./acre yield x (price/bu.-cost/bu.).

"That's a way to look at the total picture," agrees Pioneer's Jerry Harrington. "So yield or the initial price of seed becomes just a factor in a greater formula."

Burdell Kuhl, Worthington, MN, farmer, used those numbers to determine whether to plant high-oil corn in place of the Bt conventional corn he currently grows. "They say high-oil corn yields close to conventional corn, so if you can gain 20 cents or a quarter a bushel, it's a real plus to plant it," he says. "But with the yield bumps we got from Bt corn last year, the Bt outyielded the regular corn."

As a result, he figures he is better off sticking with Bt corn, at least for now. "If the Bt yields 120 bu. and regular corn and high-oil yield 100 bu./acre but I pick up 20 cents in price, I'm still further ahead growing the Bt corn at the regular price."

In the future, farmers will be able to avoid such tradeoffs as more trait combinations become available.

Golden Harvest's Lee says that the single most important question farmers have to ask themselves when buying the new technology is, Will a given trait provide me value?

For example, he says that with specialty feed corn, you need to ask what the yield differential is going to be compared to normal corn. What will the premium be? Who will buy it?

"I think a lot of technology sold to the American farmer will have value and some will have almost no value," he says. "And it's going to be up to farmers to sort out which ones will provide them a value."

New from the World Pork Expo

Now in its 11th year, this gathering of manufacturers and swine producers showcases new products, educational events and breed shows. Take a look at our recent discoveries from this June show in Des Moines.

A new Promis

FBS Software and the University of Minnesota have linked their respective grow-finish and accounting modules with PigChamp to create a fully integrated version called Promis. It is designed to give producers the advantage of a complete cost analysis at every production phase from breeding to finish plus the ability to track profits. Benefits of this integrated system include single-point data entry that will record a sale in accounting and simultaneously update the inventory in the production module. Your records are consistently more timely, complete and accurate, and the system allows easy access of information the instant you need it for urgent decisions. Contact Farm Business Software, 1855 55th Ave., Aledo, IL 61231-8610, 800/437-7638.

Smart fan

CDC Motors exhibited the new Ziehl-Abegg ETAvent farm-duty, direct-drive fan at the show. This general ventilation fan incorporates a built-in microprocessor-based control system with the motor to deliver high efficiency throughout the entire rpm range for lowest possible operating costs, along with extremely quiet operation. According to the company, the fan will consume 40% less energy, and it features a LON interface to tie into a ventilation system. Contact CDC Motors and Ventilators, Dept. FIN, 1170 Bergeron St., Drummondville, Quebec, Canada J2C 7G3, 819/478-1198.

Building forms (c)

Although expanded polystyrene (EPS) technology has long been used in residential markets as insulated concrete forming systems, its manufacturers are beginning to apply EPS to agricultural products, specifically livestock confinements. AAB Building Systems from Canada is promoting its Blue Maxx hog barn system for greater durability, cooler summer temperatures to improve breeding and feed conversion conditions, reduced bacteria absorption and rodent resistance. This insulated forming system can be used from below grade up to the roof and is claimed to be as cost-effective for pit construction. Using these forms can increase building costs 10 to 15%, but the company claims that their use will result in an annual 30 to 50% energy cost savings for heating and cooling, plus lower insurance costs because it's a nonburnable structure. Contact AAB Building Systems, Dept. FIN, 840 Division St., Cobourg, Ontario, Canada K9A 4J9, 800/293-3210.

Customized feeding To help producers meet today's demand for leaner pork, MoorMan's now offers an improved breeding herd feed line of products called Parity Plus, designed to work with the company's computerized and customized feeding system (MoorLink). Parity Plus is designed to help producers maximize production and build durability into today's delicate sows by making proper nutritional decisions. The Parity Plus program features different formulations for sows and gilts (in different reproductive stages) and boars. For a computerized recommendation, contact MoorMan's Inc., Dept. FIN, 1000 N. 30th St., Box C1, Quincy, IL 62305-3115, 800/222-6678.

Food preparation

Sudenga has introduced a new 3-ton M6000 mixer, the biggest in its line of horizontal feed mixers. Powered by a 25-hp mixer motor, its dual ribbon and paddle agitation design delivers transverse and circular mixing that's complete and accurate. It features a double air gate for faster unloading and helical gear drive that is quieter and requires less maintenance that chain d rives. Contact Sudenga Industries Inc., Dept. FIN, Box 8, George, IA 51237, call toll free at 888/783-3642.

Programmed sow feeding

Osborne introduced two new products to improve sow feeding and estrus detection, both tied into its Electronic Animal Recognition System (EARS). Supported by Porcode and ear button identification technology, the new Electronic Farrowing Management (EFM, shown) dispenses only the proper amount of feed that's been programmed into the button of the sow. Used in an open farrowing room, the sow determines when she wants to eat, with the goal of optimizing the conditions for lactating sows.

Also new is an Electronic Estrus Detection unit (not shown). Producers can cut down on open days and keep sows bred because each time a sow sticks her nose through this hole into the boar pen, the ear button records when she visited and how long she stayed. The computer then uses a formula to calculate these data into an estrus-level reading.

Contact Osborne Indus-tries Inc., Dept. FIN, 120 N. Industrial Ave., Box 388, Osborne, KS 67473, 913/346-2192.

Labor-saving feeder

Delivering a higher feed intake needed by lactating sows to obtain higher weaning weights and enhanced reproductive performance is a challenge without increasing labor. Farmweld claims that its new LaborSaver sow feeder handles this task while reducing labor by an estimated 50 to 75%. The large, single-hole, stainless steel self-feeder mounts on the front gate of the farrowing crate, 4 in. off the floor. The sow moves a feed agitator at the bottom of a tall feed bin to release a small amount of feed each time, until the sow is satisfied. The agitator stops the flow of feed when untouched, so there's no extra feed to be wasted. Contact FarmWeld, Dept. FIN, Rt. 2, Box 1B, Teutopolis, IL 62467, 800/328-7675.

Tour of technology

Get on the bus for a tour of Case's new products for 1999.

A tractor drawbar pin?

Seemed like an odd teaser to what Case Corporation was calling its 1998 Technology Tour, a traveling bus tour designed to give journalists a sneak peak at some of its products for 1999-among them, the new MX Series Magnum tractors and 1200 Series Advanced Seed Meter (ASM) planters. Wrapped in the tour were stops at Case's Farm One research facility, Technology Center and tractor plant. The drawbar pin arrived in a box with this invitation: "You know how tractors and implements connect at their simplest level. Now, Case is introducing new methods of linking tractors with implements with more power and new technologies. Interested?"

Come along on this tour and find out what Case is up to.

First stop: Farm One. The tour bus boarded in Chicago at 7:30 in the morning. The first stop is Farm One, Case's on-farm research facility covering 6,300 acres3,700 near Shabbona, IL, and an additional 2,600 near Quincy.

I step off the bus. "Any questions?" asks Mike Green, Farm One program manager. He explains that Farm One is a testing ground for everything from seed corn and mapping software to sprayers and harvesters. And not just Case stuff. Competitors' products, too.

Partners include major seed and chemical companies and universities.

He gives me a quick tour of some equipment being tested. There is a pull-type sprayer made by Europe-based Gem, now owned by Case. "Gem is known for its boom technology," he says.

We walk past a Patriot self-propelled sprayer, a former Tyler product, soon to be painted red to show it is now part of Case's crop care line.

Next, the new Case IH 1200 Series ASM planter. "You'll notice that Case went to individual hopper boxes on this planter," Green says. That's a switch from the central-fill concept it introduced more than a decade ago in its Early Riser planters. Green explains that the separate boxes allow independent control of seeding and fertilizer application.

It is time to head in to the machine shed. Jim Stoddart, vice president of Case's Advanced Farming Systems (AFS), is there to present the new generation of AFS, which includes Case's site-specific farming line.

"The new AFS systems will be simpler, more reliable and have more capabilities," Stoddart says.

In the past, for an implement to perform complex functions like varying seed rate, you would have needed an array of display monitors, wiring harnesses, switches and control boxes because everything had to be hard-wired, he explains. Now, all functions can be carried out with one touch-screen display. A single cord attaches the display to your tractor. "It's like plugging a phone into a jack," Stoddart says.

The technology behind it is called Controller Area Network (CAN). It's a network that allows different electronic devices to exchange information.

CAN was originally developed during the late 1980s for the automotive industry. Now it will be part of all Case IH equipment, starting with the AFS planters and air seeders.

Farmers will have two display options: Universal Display, which controls all base monitoring and implement functions, or Universal Display Plus, which ties in Global Positioning System (GPS) for variable-rate application of inputs.

The display can be removed and installed in other equipment, and it will automatically configure itself to that application. "It will transform what used to be a piece of iron into a data connection computer that is equivalent to a desktop PC mounted in the cab," Stoddart explains.

And, it will be easy to use, he says. "I could teach you how to run the planter in five minutes."

Case is already writing orders for the spring of 1999.

The new line of electronics will be tested on Farm One with the help of Midwest Consulting Service, an agronomic service Case purchased in 1996 to gain a better understanding of variability in yields.

Next stop: Technology Center. Located in Burr Ridge, IL, the Technology Center is where Case develops and tests product concepts.

Case has been using virtual reality in its design process since 1991. Engineers use computer simulations to refine concepts and designs on-screen, prior to building. It saves millions of dollars in development costs each year, according to Duane Tiede, vice president of functional engineering. "We can make a better tractor, faster."

Engineers used more than 200 such simulations to design and evaluate the new MX Series Magnum tractors.

Next, we tour the center's development labs and test cells. Among them: *A simulation lab, where a tractor was put on a rack and bounced to simulate bumpy field conditions. It tests what parts will crack, come loose or otherwise fail after 10,000 hrs. of field time. The test takes only 52 days because it runs continuously. *A heat test lab that simulates Arizona-type weather of 110F to test the cooling system. *A drivetrain test cell, in which a drivetrain is subjected to a test cycle that duplicates tractor speed and load in actual field conditions. "In the field, the tractor does true damage to drivetrain only 15 to 20 percent of the time," says Case technician Ken Nelson. "So in a test cell like this we can duplicate the life of a tractor in 3 to 4 months."

*A rapid prototyping lab that makes 3-D representations of complex prototype parts using layers of paper cut by lasers.

Case has more than 30 such labs, in which it has tested numerous products.

Next stop: Tractor plant. The next morning we tour the tractor plant in Racine, WI, where Maxxum and the new Magnum tractors are being built.

Case recently spent more than $100 million to renovate the facility from a single family to a mixed model production line to improve production. Common assemblies are built on line, and anything unique is built off line. Lines are sequenced so that the right parts meet up with the right tractor.

Tractors travel more than 1.5 miles of conveyor in total, and each one takes a day to build.

Last stop: Training Center. At 9:30, we transfer to Case's Training Center to see and hear about the new tractors, planters and sprayers to be introduced this fall. It seems like a lot to squeeze into the few hours remaining, which shows that Case is putting the focus on the technology leading up to these products.

Of the new products, the tractors harnessed the most attention. The new MX Series Magnum tractors are billed as the most technologically advanced yet user-friendly row-crop tractors in the world. Five models range in horsepower from 145 to 235. The largest, the MX270, is the largest MFD tractor in the industry.

"The application of technology and electronics control let us take these tractors to new levels. That's the story," says Les Pagel, product development director for large tractors.

He explains that the same CAN technology that was built into the new planters is also part of the new MX Series Magnum tractors. It centralizes multiple tractor functions so that they can be monitored and controlled from one touch-screen display in the cabthe same display used to control the planter.

"The AFS ties everything together so the tractor functions talk to each implement function," Pagel says. "The payoff comes in the form of more efficient planting, seeding or tilling." A single connector to the tractor plugs into diagnostic equipment to simplify repairs.

Suddenly, Case's drawbar pin analogy is making sense.

"Case is revolutionizing how tractors and implements work together," says John Garrison, general manager of Case Ag Systems. "It's no longer simply a drawbar pin and hydraulics that connect the two."

He says the MX Series Magnum tractor is the base power unit or host computer that will eventually hook up to all your implements to maximize productivity and lower input costs.

The tour ends with static displays of all the equipment and a chance to drive the tractors.

If you'd like to see the products for yourself or take a tour of the technology, the first public showing in the United States is September 12 through 20 at the Clay County Fair in Spencer, IA.

Contact Case Corporation, Dept. FIN, 700 State St., Racine, WI 53404, 414/636-6011.

Feed the rush

Polaris introduces its 1999 lineup of innovative ATVs for work or play.

Mud, dust and isolated trails were the key ingredients for test driving Polaris's 1999 line of ATVs. We strapped on helmets and goggles to drive and compare Polaris's new ATVs in the backwoods trails near Polaris headquarters in Roseau, MN.

Diesel power. Most unique of the models on hand was the Diesel, the first and only diesel-engine-powered ATV on the market. This loud purring ATV is powered by a liquid-cooled, .455-L, 4-stroke diesel engine, which uses an advanced dry-sump lubrication system for optimal cooling and enhanced performance.

The 4x4 Diesel features an independent shaft drive chassis, automatic transmission, dual-sensing EBS, single-lever hydraulic disc brakes and fully independent rear suspension. The company claims that the Diesel gets great fuel mileage at 37 to 45 miles/gal. For work around the farm, a Cat. 0 3-pt. hitch is also available.

A heavy throttle made it more difficult for the Diesel to get up and go, but the 755-lb. machine eventually took to the trails with as much gusto as its gas-powered rivals.

The independent rear suspension made for easy handling in and out of the corners, and climbing on rough terrain or steep hills did not threaten or slow the Diesel down. Reliability served as the key descriptor of the machine, as the test drivers discovered that it had the capability to power through any situation and maintain control.

Tough man's ATV. Replacing the Magnum 425, the Magnum 500 serves as the tough man's ATV. The 4-wd Magnum features Polaris's unique shaft ride system chassis. This system provides what the company claims is the best of both worlds with simple, durable shaft drive and Polaris long travel suspension. The rear shock axis is aligned with the rear axle, increasing traction to the ground during acceleration and braking. It also features dual-sensing EBS and increased front suspension travel up to 6.7 in.

The Magnum was difficult to control on rough terrain and made for a bumpy ride on washboard trails. For those farmers looking for an ATV that needs to be tamed, this is the perfect machine.

Ranger 6x6 powers through. The Ranger 6x6 was the best general- purpose off-road vehicle suited for the farm. Test drivers compared it to a military tank in its ability to cover any type of terrain. The 4-wd vehicle provides a smooth, comfortable ride over rough washboard roads, potholes, rocks and hills with its fully independent, double A-arm center wheels and rear-wheel swing arm for stability and control.

The Ranger also prevented mud from splashing on passengers as it moved through deep mudholes and bogs. It impressed nearly every test driver with its ability to effortlessly tackle the same terrain as the ATVs. The cupholders and console storage were nice touches too.

However, it was slow to brake, and as with most utility vehicles of its kind, it exhibited hard turning with a large turning radius not very convenient when you're in a tight spot.

The automatic 6-wd vehicle has a 1,500-lb. towing capacity, and the flip of a switch provides on-demand front-wheel drive. The no-slip system senses rear-wheel traction and engages for full torque. The dump box has gas-assist frames for easy unloading, and the Ranger fits in the back of a pickup. List price: $9,949.

Xplorer with spunk. The new Xplorer 400 proved to be one of the peppiest of the 1999 line of ATVs. The 4-wd 400 features a concentric drive system that aligns the rear chain drive sprocket with the swing arm's pivot, resulting in a consistent chain tension throughout the suspension travel that reduces chain wear. The system also isolates the rear suspension from engine torque reaction, enhancing handling and the transfer of power to the ground.

The 400 has a straight suspension, which made it difficult to handle. Its two-cycle engine gave it added spunk for quick acceleration, providing the driver with a lesson in strong gripping. It made for a fun ride, even if you had to adjust to the bounciness and learn to control the sliding rear end.

Sport-minded ATVs. The Trail-blazer and Sport 400 are the latest sport ATVs in the 1999 lineup. These 2-wd models also feature concentric drive systems and long-travel suspensions. They are smaller and designed more for play than work. These sport ATVs didn't hesitate in taking off and provided a challenge for any thrillseeker looking to wreak havoc on hills or trails.

Standard features. A standard feature on all Polaris ATVs is the fully automatic Polaris Variable Transmission (PVT), which eliminates shifting and assures smooth, efficient delivery of power to the wheels. The PVT is dual-sensing, responding to engine rpm and vehicle torque load for best response to constantly changing off-road conditions.Other standard features includ e single-lever hydraulic disc brakes and an auxiliary rear break activated by a foot pedal, full floorboards, independent front suspension using MacPherson struts and the E-Z shift lever which allows for smooth shifting between gears.

Prices were not available for all of the new models at press time. For more information, see your local dealer, or contact Polaris Industries Inc., Dept. FIN, 1225 N. Hwy. 169, Minneapolis, MN 55441, 612/542-0500.

Bulding a zone

Although farmers can't agree on the best tools to use for strip till, they do agree that the practice produces benefits for corn.

Strip tillage could be the fastest growing conservation tillage system in the nation, but then nobody is actually counting. In fact, no definition of the practice exists and there are as many different ways to strip till as there are farmers adopting it. Even the Conservation Technology Information Center has trouble categorizing the practice, lumping it with other tillage systems and suggesting that "popular strip-tillage and zone tillage are not official survey categories but rather modifications of no-till, or other tillage types." Michigan farmer and zone-till innovator Ray Rawson likes to call it "organized tillage."

Proponents do agree, however, that the appeal of strip tillage lies in its ability to mix the high-residue advantages of no-till with the soil warming and germination benefits of conventional tillage. Many companies now sell strip-tillage units, making it easier to get started, but farmer innovations still abound.

"Corn is not well adapted to no-till systems," says Jim Kinsella, the farmer-innovator who heads the Ag Technology Center in Lexington, IL. "Heavy crop residue can have detrimental effects on no-till corn and it will tie up your nitrogen," Kinsella explains. "Strip tillage gets around those problems." Kinsella should know. He's been no-tilling his own 650 acres of corn and soybeans since 1975 and now believes he's found the proper balance of conservation and cropping system to maximize corn production.

No hard-and-fast rules. A field qualifies as a no-till operation if no more than 25% of the row residue is disturbed when making strips. Kinsella works a small 4-in. tillage strip within his 36-in. corn rows. Down the road in Shirley, IL, however, committed no-till/strip tiller Terry Schneider makes a 9-in. swath for his 30-in. rows. But strip width is only the first of many variations found among strip-tillage programs.

A basic strip-till unit consists of three pieces of equipment mounted on a toolbar, with the number of strip-making units matched to corn planter rows. Differences still arise, however, with the way each operator assembles and uses these basic pieces.

1. Single, front discs positioned to cut through residue. Kinsella recommends using discs at least 20 in. across, which he says helps reduce the amount of residue that gets caught in the equipment. Others say 18-in. discs work adequately.

2. Knives that lift without cutting additional channels into the soil. The biggest mistake a grower can make, Kinsella cautions, is using nitrogen applicator knives and calling it strip tillage. This practice caused such severe erosion and water-quality problems in Iowa last spring, he says, that state regulators threatened a ban on fall stripping. Kinsella endorses the mole knife, manufactured by Hi-Pro Mfg., Watseka, IL, that incorporates a flat plate welded to the bottom, augmenting soil lift. These should run between 7 to 9 in. deep.

Rawson's zone-builder unit uses larger knives that run much deeper, a practice he insists is necessary at least for first-time stripping. "You've got to do the deep tillage first and open up those channels for root penetration," he explains. "Then the next year you can come in and run the knives shallower." Although Rawson's knives resemble subsoiler units, he says they don't fracture the ground but gently lift soil into small waves.

3. Disc sealers to mound soil into strips. Discs should throw residue on top of mounds, without cutting additional channels into the soil. Rawson prefers two offset, fluted coulters, whereas Kinsella advocates a pair of unsharpened, concave discs, angled to heap soil onto the strip. The more residue mounded in the strip the better, according to Kinsella. "Mounds must survive winter freezing, thawing and blowing, and you can't make them too high," he asserts. "Winter, earthworms and microbial action will take care of most of the residue."

Strip tiller Cliff Roberts of Kentland, IN, takes issue with that statement, however, noting that driving on top of highly mounded strips with a planter isn't easy. Other strip tillers agree that the greatest challenge they face is accurately navigating their strip at planting. Advanced technologies could solve this problem with a guidance system that senses direction from strip tops, but development costs make this solution unlikely any time soon. Rawson doesn't worry if his planting doesn't always match his fall strips. "Nobody's perfect," he says, "and the roots will find their slot soon enough."

When is the best time? Kinsella also insists that fall strips are the only correct way to work the system, but other farmers are making early spring or even planting time tillage strips. "I'm gaining about 200 heat units a year in my strips, compared to straight no-till," Kinsella says. "I get more heat units and a lot less erosion this way. I can get planting into my strips quicker, in many cases. Then, I still have the residue between the rows to keep my crop cooler and drier during June, July and August." He also worries that spring strips are more conducive to erosion.

On the Schneider farm, because they're never sure how many acres of corn will go where, they count on early spring strips to precede planting. Meanwhile, zone-till innovator Ray Rawson suggests that mounting strip-tillage equipment directly on the planter still offers benefits over straight no-till. Southwest Iowa farmer Dave Kusel strives for a mixture of all three systems.

"Last fall's wet weather prevented us from making strips so this spring we started making strips again, but couldn't keep up. Our future goal is to get 30 to 50 percent of our acres done in the fall, 20 to 40 percent using spring row cleaning and the balance planted in true no-till with our 4-row John Deere mudder," relates Kusel. "We still like fall strips best, but this plan will help break up our workload and help us manage the sloping ground we have."

Strip-tillage fertility programs also differ widely among practitioners and, even for Kinsella and Rawson, remain a work in progress. Kusel's basic program includes N-serve-treated fall anhydrous applications, but he says, "The ultimate program may include small amounts of P, K and about 10 pounds of zinc."

Kusel worries that Iowa will ban fall anhydrous applications someday because of concern about nitrogen runoff. Kusel claims that a ban won't stop him from making fall strips without fertilizer, and he's questioning the need for starter fertilizer. "We know the crop looks better and seems to be taller and healthier in the spring when we use starter, but come fall, yields don't seem to be much different. We're still experimenting with our fertility programs."

Even though strip tillers argue the fine points of fertility management, strip height, width and depth and proper coulter selection, there's at least one thing they all agree on: Planting into strips gives corn growers a jump on the season.