Strip-till styles

Coulters and shanks both have their supporters, but coulters seem to be increasing in popularity

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So you want to start strip-tilling – what type of unit should you buy?

For some, coulter-based strip tillers offer more effective fertilizer management and versatility. For others, shank systems might help address issues in heavier soils. Ultimately, more growers appear to be adopting coulters — but that doesn’t mean shanks should be completely overlooked.

Why it matters: Strip till is increasing in popularity and equipment best practices have yet to be sorted out.

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Better fertilizer management

For Morley Wallace, a grain grower and owner of GPS Ontario — a precision-agriculture company based in North Gower — coulter strip-till designs offer more efficient fertilizer management. More specifically, he says the shallower and more vigorous mixing-action of coulters means applied fertilizer is more directly available to plants. This appears to bring higher yields (Wallace says he has found up to 20 per cent gains in a series of corn trials) while reducing the amount of required fertilizer.

He adds in-furrow fertilizer application can be accomplished with shank systems. In his experience, however, plants have a higher burn risk as that fertilizer can fall and concentrate in the bottom of the furrow.

“It’s just a matter now of making sure that fertilizer is blended from the top down… I think it’s the leading program as far as better management practices are concerned,” Wallace says.

Tony Balkwill, an agronomist and operator of Nithfield Advanced Agronomy — a 650-acre Ontario research farm — also sees coulters as the preferred tool for fertilizer management. Speaking at the Southwest Agriculture Conference on Jan. 8, Balkwill says he transitioned away from shank-based systems in order to bookend fertilizer in two bands on either side of the strip. This makes it easier for crop roots to find fertility, while creating a slightly wider buffer zone in case the planter goes off track.

He adds the mixing action of his coulter-based system is also very effective at clearing crop residue within the strip.

Soil type matters

Jake Munroe, soil fertility specialist in field crops with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), says his experience investigating strip-till over the last two years illustrates the importance of soil characteristics. That is, the type or setup or machine employed is going to depend on soil type and what one is looking to do in the strip.

Shank-based machines, he says, can do a good job of breaking-up heavier soils, with large chunks being given a chance to break-up over winter (assuming the field is worked in the fall). Munroe adds his observations show coulters tend to be used more often in sandier ground and in the spring.

Regarding fertilizer incorporation, Munroe says he has seen cases where growers have seen different physical responses between test strips worked with coulters and shanks.

“It’s worth thinking about. What are our maximum safe rates for banding? If we’re looking at shank-based fertilizer application, consider what depth that shank is at,” he says.

Still, some have found success with coulters in harder soils. Tyler McBlain, a farmer from Brant County, says they have never tried shank-based strip-tilling because shank systems in other equipment (such as rippers) cause smearing in their heavy Haldimand Clay soil. Instead, they run a shallow coulter system — as either a single-pass on soybean stubble in the spring, or as a dual spring and fall pass if managing heavier residues.

“We prefer to blend fertilizer rather than band with shanks It seems to work a lot better. We go shallow because we don’t have a lot of topsoil,” McBlain says. “We’re just trying to warm up that top little band.”

He adds compaction is managed through an active cover crop program.

Ministry developing strip-till resources

Increasing interest in strip-tilling province-wide is also spurring OMAFRA to develop more outreach and research initiatives, says Munroe.

“Over the last couple years OMAFRA has been trying to get more producers on panels who are at different stages of strip-till adoption. These kinds of events are a great resource,” he says.

“It’s a big change potentially to the operation and I certainly think its worth some time and money. We’d like to create more of a hub for resources for producers here in Ontario.”

Munroe adds the ministry will be co-hosting four strip-till events across the province in the next couple seasons. Planning for this event series is currently underway.

About the author

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Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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