There’s more than one way to strip-till a field.
During this year’s Canada’s Digital Farm Show, Woodstock-area grain growers Ken Martin and Wes Hart shared their lessons learned, and triumphs experienced, in making the hybrid tillage system work for their businesses.
Why it matters: Strip-tillage continues to attract interest as a workable midway approach to soil management, but how it’s employed differs based on farm conditions – as well as farmer preferences.
Ken Martin – input consultant, seed salesperson, and machinery operator for Veldale Farms – says the heavier soils comprising his company’s farmland posed unique challenges when it came to incorporating strip-till into their management plan.
Ensuring adequate soil penetration, and doing so without increasing localized compaction risk, was the first concern. For this reason, Martin says the company purchased a 12-row Soil Warrior with coulters and a dry fertilizer application system.
“We needed a unit that’s heavy enough to penetrate those heavy clay soils. The discussion over a coulter or shank was one they talked about. It seems using a shank in that type of soil we’re very worried about sidewall compaction and smearing, especially [when] we’re working with wetter soils,” says Martin.
“It has two coulters. It’s got the single deep-tillage coulter for the fall, then we switch to a double wavy coulter for the spring.”
Managing residue and soil in the machine itself was another challenge. Martin says it was not uncommon for metering rolls to clog, which caused application rate inconsistencies. Crop residue also had a habit of covering berms.
“We run a chopping corn head. Our first Soil Warrior did not have row cleaners on it, so we switched to one that did. That made a big difference,” he says.
Martin and his colleagues had to adopt an even greater level of patience as well. When those employing conventional tillage were able to enter the field, the strip-till approach meant they usually had to wait another few days before getting to work. Otherwise the compaction risk was too great.
However, Martin adds their experience thus far suggests an earlier start is possible so long as no one drives on the berms themselves.
“Keeping the sprayer off the berms is very important as well. I can see where the sprayer drives on the berm, especially if its been planted already, it really hurts the yield,” he says.
“Also weed control is something. The spectrum shifts to a little more perennial pressure. Sow thistle and that kind of thing become more of an issue.”
Increasing operational efficiency
Reduced labour costs and more efficient field preparation have made strip-till a welcome approach for Wes Hart, a grower working 1,100 acres north of Woodstock.
Achieving those goals required a lot of learning, though, starting with an early attempt at strip-till using what Hart colloquially describes as “the corn planter from Hell” – a 12-row Unverferth coulter cart purchased by his family in the late 1990s. It featured a tillage system in front of planter units, as well as a dry fertilizer box. It could also be augmented for soybeans.
A 900 gallon liquid fertilizer tank on the tractor used to pull the unit allowed for an all-in-one planting and fertility package.
“We’d call that strip-till today, I’d say,” Hart says.
But there were challenges. The row units would loosen and not track well within the strips – an issue made worse since precision guidance systems were still in their infancy – and parts for the unique machine were hard to find.
Eventually the coulter cart was sold in favour of a 1770 John Deere corn planter, which they used in tandem with a liquid fertilizer tank. While the setup worked very well, Hart says fertilizer capacity limitation made operations very slow. Separate soybean planting systems were also required.
“With that much going on, even with auto-steer, it was a little bit hard to keep an eye on everything. It just was a very complicated machine,” says Hart.
Eventually Hart’s Deere and Unverferth approaches were combined. After adventures with a no-till fertilizer applicator, as well as another combined corn-soybean planter, a coulter-based Soil Warrior was purchased in 2019.
“We figured if we’re dragging something across the field we may as well do a little tillage,” says Hart, later adding they went with coulters rather than shanks due to concerns about rocks and setting fertilizer too deep. Home modifications incorporating row cleaners and additional coulters ensured the Soil Warrior was better equipped for their specific growing style.
Hart reiterates the main benefits of their strip-till system have been in greater productivity with a reduced labour pool, equipment consolidation, and not paying for separately applied fertilizer. He also hopes the augmentations will help them further improve operational efficiency, including more variable rate seeding and fertility treatments.
“Something we need to improve on is our GPS. I looked into going to the implement steer, but it’s a very expensive addition. I might get there in a year or two,” says Hart,
“Chopping corn stalks, right now we’re running a chopping head. I think we can get away from doing that. I think what we’re dealing with machine wise will chop up the stalks and move them away well enough, and that will save a lot of diesel at harvest. And I want to figure out if we can get away from a fall pass in beans at all. Spring is a good time, as long as you get the weather.”