When David Myerholtz and his dad, Lowell, first began using strip tillage, they were looking to create a uniform seedbed while still retaining most of the crop residue on the soil surface.
However, it wasn’t long before they added a fertilizer cart to the strip till machine and started thinking of the rig as a tool for nutrient management.
“The ability to improve fertilizer placement and administer variable rates of nutrients greatly enhanced the utility of the strip till system,” Myerholtz says.
Now, as concerns about water quality increase in the Lake Erie watershed and across the state, Myerholtz sees fall strip tillage as one of the tools more farmers could be using to reduce nutrient runoff. Concentrating fertilizer within and below the seed furrow makes it possible to use lower application rates than with surface broadcast application, he explains. And placing fertilizer below the surface protects it from surface runoff while making it readily available to crops, he says.
“Injection of fertilizers and nutrients below the soil is an effective technology for nutrient conservation on the farm. Because the fertilizers are injected below the surface, atmospheric losses of nutrients and surface runoff are minimized.”
On his family’s farm near Gibsonburg in Sandusky County, Ohio, Myerholtz has been able to reduce fertilizer application rates by about 25%, compared to broadcast application, by using subsurface placement along with variable rates based on soil testing and yield history. He usually follows a two-year corn-soybean rotation, and he uses no-till for soybeans. He strip tills in the fall after soybean harvest, while also applying the majority of the potassium and phosphorus needed for the next two years of crops. Some additional phosphorus is applied with the corn planter, and additional potassium is sometimes broadcast ahead of soybeans, if needed.
STURDY TOOL: Some of the first strip till rigs used in northwest Ohio didn’t hold up to the heavy clays, but double toolbars and reinforced brackets have improved the durability of the machines.
For farmers who are using conventional tillage with multiple-pass seedbed preparation, strip till is a “no-brainer,” Myerholtz says. It might be more difficult to justify switching to strip till for farmers who are already successfully no-tilling corn, but strip till does offer farmers a way to eliminate surface broadcast application of phosphorus to remain in compliance with a nutrient management plan, he notes.
Unfortunately, farmers are likely to be put off by the cost of strip till machines and the higher-horsepower tractors needed to pull them, he says. “By far, the biggest hurdle among my peers to adopt strip till is that price tag,” Myerholtz says.
He and his dad invested in their equipment in 2008, when grain prices were high. Now, with lower grain prices, farmers may not be able to make that investment. Myerholtz would like to see an increase in grant funding and cost-share programs to help farmers invest in strip tillage equipment.
One option for farmers interested in trying strip tillage is custom strip till services. Green Field Ag, a precision farming dealership with offices in Gibsonburg, Ohio, and Warren, Ind., has been seeing demand grow for custom strip tilling, says Matt Liskai, one of the owners who works from the Gibsonburg location. Green Field Ag sells and services Orthman strip tillage equipment as well, so offering custom strip tillage gives farmers a chance to see how the practice will work before investing in their own equipment. Over the last four years, the acreage the dealership has covered with custom strip tillage has been increasing steadily.
Strip tillage generally needs to be completed during dry spells between late September and October. “It’s a fair-weather tool,” Liskai says. By November, days are usually too short to dry the ground enough, but every year is different and presents its own challenges, he says.
Besides the investment in equipment, strip tillage requires an investment of time, Liskai adds. Custom strip tillage might also work for farmers who don’t have the staffing to get strip tillage done in the fall, when they are struggling to finish harvest.
PLANTING STRIPS: Corn planted in strips isn’t competing with cover crop residue.
The farmers Liskai deals with who use strip tillage have adapted the practice in various ways to fit their farms and preferences. Some like to shift their tillage strips by 15 inches to work different strips each time. Some also like to harvest soybeans at a 5- to 10-degree angle, so combine and grain cart tracks aren’t lined up the same way tillage strips will be. That way, he explains, “You don’t have one row constantly in a tire track.”
At planting, the firmer soil between the strips supports the tire traffic of the planter, and the seed goes into the stale seedbed environment of the strips. The softer soil in the tilled strips can sometimes catch tires on spray rigs with narrow tires, Liskai says. It’s like dropping a tire off the pavement onto the road berm — and it can be hard to pull back on to the firmer untilled soil.
Green Field Ag helped install and lay out a farmer-owned RTK network in fall 2005, which gave the dealership the ability to line up strips consistently. Dealership staff can apply variable rates of two different products within the strips depending on fertility needs across a field.
Using a guidance system makes it easier to return to the same strips in the spring to plant corn, but some farmers make the system work without guidance for their planters. Kevin Ruth, who farms in Sandusky County with his father and son, has Green Field Ag do his strip tillage in the fall. Then, he follows the strips using lightbar guidance to plant in the spring. The strips are easy to see in the field, so following them isn’t a problem, he says. The lightbar makes it easier to line up after turns without having to count rows.
Ruth likes having Green Field Ag do custom strip tilling on his farm because he’s usually pinched for time at harvest. “It’s a good fit, because the tillage is done when we’re getting the crops off,” he says. Ruth also would have to invest in a higher-horsepower tractor if he were doing strip tillage himself.
In addition to strip tillage, Ruth likes planting cover crops on the strip tilled ground. He’s had cover crop seed broadcast in the past; then, last year, he drilled in his cover crops ahead of the strip tillage. With that method, cover crops grow between the tilled strips while the strips stay open. That makes it easy to plant corn in the spring without fighting the cover crop, he points out. Generally, Ruth uses rye for his cover crop. Last fall, however, due to the cost of the seed, he planted some barley instead.
RESIDUE REMAINS: Residue continues to protect row middles through the growing season.
The strip till and cover cropping system helps somewhat with weed control, says Ruth. The cover crop suppresses weeds in the row middles, while the tillage disrupts weed growth in the strips. The inch or so along the strip borders seems to have the most weeds. A good weed-control program is still important, he stresses.
Another benefit of strip tillage is that the soil in the strips dries more quickly in the spring compared to ground in no-till, says Ruth. That can make a big difference in wet springs like he saw in 2018. “Two days, when you only have three, makes a big difference.”
Strip tillage is part of Ruth’s nutrient management plan, and it helps him use nutrients more efficiently. “Why broadcast more fertilizer where you’re really not going to use it? Put it where the plant is,” he says.
Along with strip tillage, Ruth’s nutrient management plan includes no-till and cover crops. Funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentives Program helps him pay for the practices, but incentives aren’t the only reason he uses strip till, he says. “If I didn’t have the grant, I’d still be strip tilling.”
Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.