Taking control of the soil one strip at a time

WOODSTOCK, Ont. — Strip-till has been lurking on the fringe of Ontario agriculture since the provincial agriculture ministry and universities began promoting the practice through research in the 1980s.

In the 1980s and 1990s “there was some grower up-take, but certainly not a large amount. But I think nowadays with some of the newer machines … like having GPS guidance, makes it a lot simpler and more attractive to look at than in the past,” said Ben Rosser of Ontario Agriculture.

During Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in Woodstock this year, the ministry was promoting strip-tillage with live tillage demonstrations, its own demonstration plot and a producer panel discussion.

“It’s kind of a happy medium between no tillage and conventional tillage. Obviously we like the things that no-till delivers, but it can be a bit of a hard sell for some producers, depending on soil type or fertility, manure, things like that,” Rosser said.

“Certainly strip-till brings some opinions to the table. You maybe could overcome some of those issues but still get the benefit of reduced tillage in the growers’ system.”

Warren Schneckenburger of Cedar Lodge Farms in Morrisburg, Ont., told farmers at COFS about his experience with the practice.

His farm started the transition to strip-tillage in 2011 after Schneckenburger and his father attended the national no-till conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The turning point occurred when Schneckenburger saw a picture of a strip-tillage operation seeding in wet conditions, while neighbouring farmers were unable to get into their fields that were completely tilled.

The strip-tilled field had much more crop residue on the surface and that absorbed the moisture.

“In 2011 and previous we were primarily corn on corn with a lot of mouldboard plowing, which goes well with corn on corn,” Schneckenburger said.

The farm now targets a more diverse rotation and uses no-till for winter wheat and soybeans, while strip-tillage is used for corn and edible beans.

He said the major reason they use strip tillage is because it makes the farm more money than conventional tillage did.

“You get a lot more done for your iron dollar than with conventional tillage, and a lot of that’s labour,” Schneckenburger said.

He said strip-tillage has greatly reduced the farm’s labour needs, which is fortunate because labour is difficult to find in his area.

Until three years ago the farm needed four people preparing the seed bed ahead of two planters when planting corn.

“We had two big Steigers doing tillage and a big tractor spreading fertilizer because to stay ahead of two big cultivators you have to drive fast. And we had at least one guy full time all day picking stones,” Schneckenburger said.

“This was an efficient system that worked very well, but it is an expensive system. You had four guys just preparing the seed bed. They didn’t have to work as long as the planters, but it’s still work.”

Their current system has a 16-row Soil Warrior capable of preparing the seed bed ahead of the two planters while putting down the spring fertilizer program.

“This year, really my wife and I planted the bulk of the corn by ourselves. She stripped and I planted behind her, and I sprayed as well. It’s worked extremely well,” Schneckenburger said.

“The fuel company doesn’t like it with 390 horsepower instead of a little over 1,300 running to do the exact same job.”

He said the farm saves at least $45 per acre since moving to strip-tillage for its corn crop.

A big part of the savings comes from leaving the many stones under the farm’s soil undisturbed because the Soil Warrior is a disc strip-tiller that uses parallel linkage to connect the row units.

“We don’t recognize our fields any more, largely because the strip tiller just bounces over the stones. It doesn’t bring them up and it’s been a game changer for us,” Schneckenburger said.

Some operations use one tillage pass to prepare the soil for the spring planting, but Schneckenburger uses a spring and fall strip-till pass.

In the fall he runs the Soil Warrior five inches deep.

“We’re running quite quick. So 40 feet at nine m.p.h. gets a heck of a lot more done than a 21 foot disk ripper did at six m.p.h.,” Schneckenburger said.

“The fuel savings, even in the fall when we’re running deep and quite quick, it’s about a half litre per acre of fuel. … versus the big Steiger burning about 2.5 liters per acre. It’s a big deal.”

In the fall, he said, he wants to see chunky soil in the strip with some plant residue in it.

“I don’t want to throw all the residue out (with the row cleaners), I want to see some. We seem to be getting a lot of big rains in January, February on frozen ground. There is some serious erosion in the winter that is hard to address with any tillage system, and strip-tillage is not immune to this,” Schneckenburger said.

He said growers should try to achieve a berm two-inches high with their strip-tillage implement.

“The berm is in direct proportion to how much air you added to the soil. By spring it had better be flat again. If you have a ridge, you’re throwing the soil out,” he said.

“If you have a hill you’re probably pulling too much soil in, and these are going to give you some erosion issues.”

Placing fertilizer in the fall for the following year has helped Schneckenburger for two reasons: the nutrients placed in a band are less likely to be lost to the environment compared to a spring broadcast application and it takes the pressure off the spring work.

“A good thing about switching to fertilizing in the fall is there is no lineup at the fertilizer plant in October or November,” Schneckenburger said.

“I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to be out there strip-tilling and you’re not putting down fertilizer, don’t bother. The fertilizer is really what makes the whole system work.”

The spring pass is performed to clean up crop residue from the rows, which was brought in by winter runoff.

For the spring pass the strip-tiller is run at a high speed — nine to 11 m.p.h. at about 2.5 to three inches deep while applying some nitrogen and sulfur.

Schneckenburger prefers to see a residue-free soil similar to potting soil after the spring tillage pass.

After the spring tillage pass, he tries to plant the corn within six hours to reduce soil moisture losses.

Schneckenburger said using strip-till in a corn-on-corn rotation is the most difficult situation to use it in, but it’s also the most rewarding.

It’s difficult because knifing in nitrogen in-season is hard to do because of the intact plant residue in between the rows.

This is why he now uses a 120-foot sprayer equipped with Y-drop tubes to place liquid fertilizer in season at the base of the corn.

This is just one of the changes Schneckenburger had to make to his operation in order to use strip-till.

Moving to strip-till “is a management decision, it’s not just a tillage decision. You can’t just go strip-tilling, you have to change your entire outlook on how you’re going to farm,” he said.

For instance, his weed management program changed once strip-till was introduced because the weed spectrum on his fields has changed and more perennial weeds are now present.

“We’re seeing more no-till weeds like fleabane, we’re seeing more dandelion pressure for sure. But then you also have that nice tilled zone where grasses are going to come, lambs quarter is going to come, and it’s giving us a bit of an issue,” Schneckenburger said.

The biggest changes to the farm’s weed control program is that Roundup is now included in the first pass.

He said yellow foxtail had historically been the farm’s most troublesome weed because tillage is a good way to drag it around the field and propagate it.

However, since switching to strip-tillage it’s not a serious issue.

“Over the last two season our incidence of having to do a rescue spray in our corn is about 40 percent lower than our conventional tillage acres. Not sure why it is, but it seems likely the higher residues shade the soils, giving less in-season weed emergence,” he said.

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