Strip-till can be the best of both worlds as a tillage system: A way to balance the seedbed preparation benefits of tillage with the crop residue benefits of no-till or minimum tillage.
Adopting strip-till starts by answering a simple question: Why? There are several reasons, according to the University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources CropWatch.
1. Dry out wet soils. If you have flat fields with poor drainage that tend to stay damp well into the spring, strip-till can help dry out those soils without disrupting the soil structure.
2. Warm up cool soils. Though crop residue helps insulate and protect soils through the winter and into spring, it can also hinder warming that soil, and that can slow planting progress. Removing residue in strips where the crop will be planted helps warm up the seedbed while retaining the benefits of that residue between rows.
3. Apply fertilizer where it's needed. Fertilizer applications in bands exactly where they're needed can help maximize the nutrient uptake of a young crop, especially when a starter or "pop-up" treatment is applied.
4. Ease soil compaction. Field-wide tillage can sometimes cause compaction by destroying soil structures. Strip-till can help keep soil structure intact between tilled rows.
In most strip-till systems, strips around six inches wide are tilled anywhere between four and eight inches deep. Residue is removed from those strips, though it remains between them. The strips become the target of more surgically applied crop inputs, namely fertilizer.
"Fertilizer is often incorporated at the time of strip tillage for better seed placement. The seeds are planted directly into the strip of loosened soil," according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). "Where soil moisture conditions are suitable, strip-till creates narrow-width tilled strips, traditionally in the fall, to increase early spring soil moisture evaporation and increase soil temperature in the top two inches."
Strip-till does save farmers money, but that's only part of its benefits in the right situations. AgDirect Territory Manager Scott Welden, who also farms with his family in Michigan, says while cost savings is important, strip-till is ultimately about achieving higher yields.
"If I put fertilizer right where I need it and don't broadcast it, we will get more response out of it. So, instead of raising 200-bushel corn, we can raise 250-bushel corn," he says. "Saving your way to prosperity can be dangerous. Don't put on less fertilizer, but do a better job of putting it where it needs to go and you'll get a better yield because of it."
Strip-till machinery needs
There are a lot of different options for strip-till machinery on the market today. Manufacturers often market machines for the production system fairly similar to conventional implements, with a few modified components and features.
"Most equipment manufacturers market machines with similar features, including coulter blades, row cleaners, tillage shanks, berm-building disks and packing wheels or conditioning baskets," says John Nowatzki, Agricultural Machine Systems Specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service. "Some strip-till equipment designs include paired coulters or a large disk without a tillage shank."
The basis for strip-till is the tillage shank – the blade used to till the strips, often alongside a fertilizer applicator tube. Here are more parts important to an effective strip-till machinery lineup, according to Nowatzki.
1. Coulter blades. These flexible blades clear soil and residue ahead of a tillage shank. The size of coulter blades required depends on the amount of residue present.
2. Row cleaners. Designed to clear residue in front of the tillage shank, typically mounted behind the coulter and ahead of the tillage shank.
3. Disks. Mounted on either side of the tillage shank, disks help build berms around tilled strips to help dry soils in the spring or increase soil moisture heading into winter.
4. Conditioners. Conditioning baskets are mounted behind the tillage shanks to smooth out the soil surface and break up clods.
Though strip-till involves deeper tillage, it only takes place in strips, not the entire field. That means higher per-strip horsepower requirements don't increase overall power necessary to make the system work.
“The power requirement of strip-till equipment varies depending on the equipment design, number of row units, components used, soil properties, shank depth, field conditions and operator adjustments,” Nowatzki says in a university report. “The power requirement listed in the equipment specifications by several strip-till equipment manufacturers ranges from 12 to 30 horsepower per row unit. However, because only about one-third of the field surface is tilled with strip-till equipment, the energy requirement is less than with conventional tillage systems.”
Purchasing strip-till equipment
Overall, strip-till components and equipment have become specialized greatly in recent years. While that can make it more of a challenge to purchase the right tools, it can also help farmers find exactly the right lineup for their strip-till operations, Welden says.
"Manufacturers have done a good job of perfecting these strip-till machines. Operators want to work smarter, not harder, and this technology will do that," he says. "With strip-till – just like any more sophisticated machinery – the challenge is for the grower to balance the added work of adopting it with future returns. How well you utilize new technology and strip-till machinery is what affects your ROI."
Overall, it's important to consider this ROI when making strip-till machinery purchase decisions. Though it may not be immediate, it should be a high priority in selecting specific tools in making the transition from conventional tillage systems.
"It ultimately falls on growers to maximize the return strip-till practices and the use of the tools on their farms," Welden says. "With AgDirect, we have resources and programs to finance these tools."
If you're interested in integrating strip-till into your operation and would like to learn more about financing the machinery to get started, contact your nearest AgDirect representative.
Image courtesy of Strip Till Farmer.