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For the love of strip-till

By Staff | Jun 18, 2010

Arlo Van Diest, left and gesturing, tells visitors during a strip-till field day Thursday, that his soil structure has changed enough that semi trucks drive through the middle of his corn fields during harvest without compacting soil.

DUNCOMBE Roughly 60 people attended a last-minute strip-till field day Thursday to look at two fields that have been under strip-till management since 2004.

The event, hosted by Arlo Van Diest, of rural Duncombe, included a tour of a soybean field planted into the stubble of last year’s corn, and a field that is in its fourth year of continuous corn. Those attending were shown how strip-till not only makes row crop management easier, but is friendly on the wallet and beneficial to the soil.

“I don’t see myself as talking people into it,” Van Diest said about this relatively new management practice of conservation tillage. “But my experiences lead me to encourage others to look into it.”

Renting a local school bus, Van Diest took two groups to look over the fields and ask questions. Some of the attendees were in the early stages of using strip-tillage themselves, while others were interested, gathering their own information and determining if this management practice would fit into their own operations.

The first stop had visitors walking into the soybean field with corn residue from 2009 covering much of the 30-inch gap between rows.

This strip-tilled field is in its fourth consecutive corn-on-corn year. Grower Arlo Van Diest showed this field Thursday to a bus load of visitors in answering a question if residue build-up was a problem for strip-tillers in continuous corn. "As you can see," Van Diest said, "the residue takes care of itself."

Van Diest said that within just two years, he and his neighbors could see a change in the soil profile. He said not only did the soil become mellower – one man pushed a corn stalk inside the strip, which slid effortlessly six inches down – it also supported a variety of heavy vehicles during harvest without compaction issues.

“Our ground has changed,” Van Diest told his audience. “Our equipment just floats across the field, where before it dragged.”

Van Diest creates eight-inch wide strips and then keeps his planter within those lines. He indicated what he called “the troughs” next to the soybean plant. “The trough is sacred at our house,” he said, “because that’s where next year’s corn will go.

“You don’t drive over the trough.”

Aside from improved soil tilth, strip-tillers generally apply fertilizer only to the strip where the seed is planted. “You don’t see any yellow stripes out here,” Van Diest said. “All of the plants are finding everything they need.”

In addition, leaving the bulk of the residue between the rows serves multiple purposes. Besides less soil erosion, it also retains moisture, but keeps the soil cooler between the rows, slowing weed development.

In his continuous corn field, Van Diest answered a question about problems with managing residue year-to-year. His example showed little more residue build-up than in the soybean field previously. “Somehow the residue just takes care of itself.”

Although he uses a guidance system to create the strips, when it comes to planting, Van Diest said he uses no guidance system. One strip-tiller added he, too, used no guidance for planting, saying the planter had a tendency to stay within the softer strips.

Corn and soybean growers compared individual practices comparing strip-tilling in the fall or in the spring, how and when to apply fertilizers and how soon to plant afterward, and seed populations, all differed depending on weather conditions and personal preferences.

But there was one conclusion that Van Diest offered.

“Strip-till makes sense economically and environmentally,” he said. “And it’s easy. We’re making improvements here.”

Randy Geufe, a grain producer from Blairsburg, said this is his third crop using strip-till. He strip-tills corn and follows by no-tilling soybeans into the corn stubble. He said this conservation tillage method reduces his production costs. “All I need is the strip-till bar, a sprayer and a planter. No cultivator.”

But there were others there that have done no strip-tilling, just seeing what Van Diest was up to.

Perry Black, of Barnum, is an avowed ridge-tiller since the 1980s. “We (Van Diest and himself) are basically doing the same thing. Only he is planting in a strip and I’m planting in a berm.

“He needs bigger equipment than I do, but I’ll tell you, those fields (Van Diest’s) are looking very good.”

Black said that even after three decades, conservation tillage has still been a hard sell for some producers.

“Some of these guys and their fathers are still convinced that a seed can’t grow unless the ground has been turned over,” Black said. “But if that were true, why do the weed seeds grow in the fence line every year?

“They also think the residue has to be turned under the surface. But when they complain that their corn-on-corn doesn’t grow properly, it’s because of that residue.” He explained that the problem was due to the buried residue that was now below the line where microbes could break it down.

Thursday’s tour was co-sponsored by the Iowa Soybean Association, Natural Resources and Conservation Service and Iowa State University Extension.

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, Ext. 453, or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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