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Sweet spot for strip tillage

Sweet spot for strip tillage
Strip-till helps Buffalo Lake, Minn., sugarbeet grower trim costs, improve soil health.

Sugarbeet growers want to plant early into a warm, black seedbed. What happens to beet yields when crop residue blankets two-thirds of the field?

Bryan and Sandy Ryberg of Buffalo Lake, Minn., raise sugarbeets in 22-inch rows with strip tillage, which leaves about 60% of the soil covered with residue. Shifting from conventional tillage to strip-till helped the Rybergs improve soil conservation and trim their production costs without sacrificing yield. The new practice cut out several expensive field operations and lowered their fuel and fertilizer costs by nearly six figures, Brian Ryberg says.

SUGARBEETS IN STRIP-TILL: Brian Ryberg, Buffalo Lake, Minn., is one of a handful of Minnesota and North Dakota farmers growing sugarbeets in a strip tillage system. In 2016, Ryberg planted 3,500 acres of corn, soybeans and sugarbeets, using strip-tillage in 22-inch rows. In addition to farming, Ryberg and his wife, Sandy, also operate a commercial trucking company. (Photo by ETS)

There’s growing interest in strip tillage for sugarbeets, says Jodi DeJong-Hughes, University of Minnesota Extension tillage specialist. “We’re getting lots of calls from sugarbeet growers with strip-till questions,” she says.

Strip tillage combines the agronomic advantages of conventional, full-width tillage with the cost-savings and conservation benefits of no-till, DeJong-Hughes says. In one pass, strip tillage creates a raised, 7- to-10-inch-wide seedbed and places a band of nutrients directly below the tilled zone, leaving the soil and residue between the strips undisturbed.

Although strip tillage is becoming more common in Minnesota for corn and soybeans, growers remain wary of reducing tillage for sugarbeets, says Peter Kramer, a crop consultant from Gibbon who specializes in strip-till. Because early stand establishment is essential for optimum sugar yield, farmers want to plant early and they want the soil black.

Calvin Hought and his brother, Curt, raise sugarbeets near Foxhome, Minn., for Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative. This fall, they decided to experiment with strip tillage on 90 acres of wheat ground going into sugarbeets next season.

The Houghts like the idea of leaving more residue cover on the soil over the winter. They also want to see if the undisturbed residue between the tilled strips is enough to protect sugarbeet seedlings from spring wind damage, eliminating the need for a barley nurse crop. Strip tillage could also cut out separate field passes for seedbed prep, fertilizer application and nurse-crop seeding, Calvin Hought says. Banding fertilizer is another advantage, he adds.

But strip-tilling sugarbeets brings risks, too, Hought points out. One concern is how the extra residue will affect spring soil temperatures. They like to plant in early April. Pests and diseases that thrive in minimum-tillage systems, such as black cutworm and Rhizoctonia, are another big concern, he says.

Tom Peters, Extension sugarbeet agronomist at the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University, estimates that less than 1% of sugarbeets in the two-state region is produced with strip tillage.

“Strip-till for beets is unheard-of at Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co-op,” Ryberg agrees. “We have to make sure we are doing a good job, because there are a lot of people watching us.”

Morrison is a freelance writer from Morris, Minn.

 Editor’s note: Check back later this week for additional stories about strip tillage for sugarbeets.



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