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A journey to strip till, with covers

Ryan/Melissa Shaw strip till in cover crops
Cover crops and strip-till is a combination that works for Ryan Shaw. He makes fewer trips across the field and is seeing improved soil health. Cost savings combined with equal or better yields compared to conventional tillage, are refuting neighborhood wisdom that the system won't work.
Converting from moldboard to strip till with cover crops uncovered hidden savings for this Michigan farm family.

Think different

Having made a major conversion is his crop production system, Shaw notes that the biggest hurdle can be wondering what neighbors and others will say. Instead, he advises:

  • Don't afraid to be different in what you try.
  • Attend meetings, study options and find the equipment that matches your soils, crops and management needs.
  • Share soil health improvements with landlords.
  • Hold field days to share what you have learned.
  • Be patient.

Until four years ago, Ryan Shaw and his dad Scott farmed their 1,400 acres with 10-bottom plows and multiple tillage passes –  grinding their Snover, Michigan, soils into powder before planting their three-way rotation of corn, soybeans and sugar beets.

Today, you’ll find cover crops amid fall- or spring-built strips. They also added twin-row planting of corn and soybeans.

The conversion to strip-till and cover crops was fast, mostly painless and profitable.

Neighbors' opinions the only casualty

"When we sold pretty much all our field cultivators, packers, chisel plows and plows, neighbors asked if we were going out of business," recalls Shaw. "When they heard what we were going to do, a lot of them thought we were nuts. Some said, 'Watch and they'll lose it.' But, we were pretty confident in what we were doing and why."

The confidence came in part from experimenting with vertical tillage, comparing it to their conventional tillage. For several years they did both, making other changes as they went.

They saw more earthworms with less tillage, and crops didn't wilt as fast.

The soil retained more moisture.

Two added incentives helped drive change. One was the realization that they didn't have to compete for costly land if they added value to current fields by focusing on soil health and reducing their carbon footprint. Second, Ryan needed to fine-tune the operation with less available labor in mind since Scott wanted to retire. Strip-till seemed to fit the bill. 

Started slow by renting equipment

In fall of 2014, they established their first fall strips with a rented ETS Soil Warrior, preparing to plant corn, soybeans and single rows of sugar beets in the spring. Using the twin commodity tank system, they variable rate applied phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) to the strips, mixing it into the soil.

Shaw added a Monosem twin-row planter in the spring of 2015. "Twin-row soybeans canopy as quickly as 15-inch, yet leave a track for the sprayer," he explains. "Twin-row corn let us bump our population to 38,000 which gives us a staggered pattern close to 10 inches per plant. It put more ears in the field which is the only way to get more bushels out."

By fall of 2015, they were convinced they were on the right track. The remaining field machinery went up for sale and they bought the Soil Warrior.

"Just the lower cost with reduced passes were enough for us to fall in love with strip-till," says Shaw. "We were impressed that we could grow the same quality or better and maintain yields while saving money and soil."

They continue to experiment with strip-till, using the Soil Warrior in the fall for fertilizer application and restructuring the strips. The goal is a fluffy berm in the fall since they plant on the same strip from year to year, refreshing it as needed in the spring.

Success with cover crops; split N

Cover crops are also an ongoing experiment, terminating them 10 to 14 days before planting corn, but staying more flexible with beets and beans. "Last spring, we missed a 90-ft. strip of cover crops with the sprayer, and the beans emerged in the shade of knee-high rye," says Shaw. "The rye was headed out when we terminated it, but we saw no yield impact at harvest.

Shaw also switched to split nitrogen (N) applications on corn, with 40 lbs. of N in a 2x2 at planting, followed by half of the remaining N applied at six- to eight-inch crop height and the remainder at about waist high with their home-built sidedress system. The practice has paid off in spades.

"For the first few years, we stayed at about 0.75 lbs. N per bushel," says Shaw. "This past year we had some higher rates and some as low as 0.60 lb./bushel harvested."

Weed control savings

Without full tillage, winter annuals including marestail showed up. Cover crops and herbicide residues also eliminated some weed control options. Shaw went to a pre-emerge herbicide program with planned post, and this past year added a 2,4-D fall application to control marestail and other winter annuals. With mostly rye cover crops on all acres, he flexes his program with weed pressure.

"Fields going into corn were strip-tilled in the spring, and two days later we planted," says Shaw. "We planted conventional corn this past year and the twin rows canopied quickly. Between that and the rye residue, there weren't enough weeds for a post application, just a little cleanup done with 4-wheelers."

Pre-purchased corn post herbicides were exchanged for a single fungicide application. Always looking for more information, Shaw had a second application flown on part of a field at tassel. The results were convincing, as the single treatment across 90 acres came in at 239 bushels per acre, while the double shot of fungicide on 22 acres of test strips in the same field came in at 259 bushels per acre. It's a yield bump he hopes to duplicate in 2018.

Changed genetics, saved money

Shaw's program continues to adapt and find new costs savings, such as a shift to non-trait corn and shorter season Liberty soybeans. The conventional corn has required more scouting, and one field needed a treatment for armyworms. However, Shaw notes that the savings on seed far outweighed the $2 per acre cost of insecticide and his time applying it. He notes that automatic row shut-offs with the Monosem also provided savings in seed and fertilizer.

The Liberty beans averaged 61 bushels this past season, up from a ten-year average in the low 50s using longer season Roundup Ready soybeans. They also cleaned up glyphosate-resistant marestail that is showing up in the area.

Next year he will try interseeding cover crops in strips between rows early in the season with a home-built system, as he continues his fine-tuning. "We'll only put the cover crop seed where we need it, saving about half the seed," says Shaw.

The impact of the conversion continues to add up with improvements in soil health and structure, as well as cost savings.  "We are seeing a response to what we are doing, and with today's markets our heads are still above water, and we are making money," says Shaw. "It's nice to know we are on the right track and finding savings in ways we didn't expect."

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