Strip-till? No-till? Both?
By KRISS NELSON
BADGER – Heavy rains that fell on June 16 moved a field day planned near Badger indoors to the Badger Lutheran Church on June 17.
The “Strip-Till and Cover Crops for Nutrient Management” field day, hosted by Iowa Learning Farms, was originally to be held on Mark Thompson’s farm east of Badger – before more than 5 inches of rainfall accumulated on his farm.
Thompson spoke to the group of almost 40 producers and industry professionals about his personal experiences farming with strip-till and cover cropping.
Thompson said he began implementing no-till and strip-till practices into his farming operation 12 years ago as a way to reduce inputs and make this operation more economical.
“At first, it was an economics thing,” said Thompson. “Then I found out that conservation, nutrient management and erosion control came along with it.”
Thompson raises continuous corn, and those acres are strip-tilled, while any beans he raises are grown in no-till ground.
Thompson said any producer considering the switch to no-till or strip-till should ask a lot of questions.
It may take some time to figure out just which kinds of toolbars will work best, he said.
Thompson said over the years he has experimented with different kinds of strip-till tools and has settled on a homemade unit that seems to fit the operation.
When it comes to a no-till operation, Thompson advises to give it a try.
“If you have never tried it, try some no-till beans,” said Thompson. “You will be shocked how well it works and how easy it is – just hesitate to do any tillage in the fall and plant right into the corn stalks.”
Barb Stewart, state agronomist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service and a producer, reminded attendees the NRCS has different programs, such as its Environmental Quality Incentive Program, that are available to assist producers financially with conservation practices including strip-till and cover cropping. She advised producers to contact their county’s NRCS office to further explore their options.
Stewart explained the basics of a strip-till operation, as well as defining the difference of the practice over others, like no-till.
Strip-till, Stewart said, creates a residue-free zone where fertilizer is applied and seed planted. The soil between rows is undisturbed.
The strip, she said, quite often is 8 to 10 inches wide or sometimes can be a third of the width of the row with the remainder of the row left undisturbed.
“Never at any time is there a full-width tillage done in a strip-till system,” said Stewart.
These strips, she said, can be made either in the fall after harvest or in the spring before planting.
In this geographic area, Stewart said, it is more common for the strips to be built in the fall, where there is more time for the soil to warm up and dry up in the spring.
Fertilizer, Stewart said, is often placed in the strip, which has been said to make fertilizer usage more efficient. In some cases, producers find they can actually reduce the amount of product.
Thanks to global positioning and real time kinematic technology, planting can be done in the built up strips accurately, Stewart said.
An additional benefit, she said, to a strip-till operation is building up organic soil matter.
“Organic matter helps your soil hold nutrients in place and they interact much better with high organic matter in the soils,” said Stewart.
Other benefits to a strip-till operation include:
- Increased water infiltration;
- A boost of microbial activity in the soil;
- Control of soil erosion;
- Improved water conservation;
- Reduced soil compaction;
- A reduction in fuel consumption;
- Added planting and harvesting flexibility;
- Reduced labor requirements; and
- Improved soil tilth.
Implementing a cover crop system brings many of the same benefit to the soil as strip-till and no-till.
But the main benefit, Stewart said, is “the root system they make for the corn and beans to follow. The roots are the biggest benefit for you, not necessarily the top growth.”
To begin using cover crops in fields where corn will be planted in the spring, Stewart suggested seeding spring oats or spring wheat into standing soybeans in the early fall when the leaves begin to yellow.
For those fields prior to soybeans, winter-hardy cereal rye, winter wheat, or winter triticale over-seeded into standing corn or drilled after harvest is recommended.
The next spring, it is recommended to terminate grass cover crops two weeks before planting corn, while killing the cover crop for those fields being put into beans can be done close to or following planting.
Some of those termination methods include herbicides, mowing, chopping or roller crimpers or tillage.
The Iowa Learning Farm’s rainfall simulator was on site to show participants the potential dangers of runoffs in a variety of different ground situations.
Liz Juchems, events coordinator for Iowa Learning Farms, showed the group how rain coming down at an amount of 1 inch for 10 minutes affected an urban environment such as concrete, intense tilled soil, minimum tilled soil and no-till soil.
The group could see two samples of how each of the soils drained. The top sample was topsoil runoff and the bottom jar resembled the runoff from a tile line.
Almost instantly, the intensely tilled soil sample showed a large amount of soil erosion, while the others still had some runoff, it was not as severe.
“By reducing the amount of tillage and leaving residue, it almost acts like an obstacle course. The rain has to get all of the way through to make it to where it runs off,” said Juchems. “In addition to the increase in soil health, that also helps hold in the water.”
To put it in perspective, Juchems said on average, Iowa loses five tons per acre of topsoil a year, and it takes 100 years to make an inch of soil.
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