Dresden farmer limits tillage in sugar beets and tomatoes to build soil structure

Mark Richards used his experience in strip tilling in other crops to make it work in vegetable crops


Mark Richards.
photo: Courtesy Innovative Farmers of Ontario

This story was part of Farmtario’s Chatham-Kent Farm Show guide


Mark Richards has worked hard to assess and improve his farming practices over the last 20 years.

He began with cover crops, then progressed into no till and strip till, notably in sugar beets and tomatoes, a practice not typically used in those crops.

Richards lives on the family farm near Dresden where he farms with his father, his uncle and his cousin.

They share equipment and resources to manage more than 2,000 acres growing processing tomatoes, sugar beets, corn, soybeans and wheat.

The Richards have been using no-till in soybeans and wheat for many years, while planting cover crops in conjunction with their vegetable production.

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Having used no-till farming practices successfully in non-specialty crop rotations, tomatoes and sugar beets, the Richards experimented further. In 2010, they began to experiment with strip tillage in corn and sugar beets.

In 2013, the Richards bought an Orthman 1tRipR. Later a Montag cart was purchased to apply fertilizer with the strip tiller. They now are committed to a strip-tillage system in corn and sugar beets.

Their approach to strip tilling includes a zero-till section between the strip-till rows to improve soil structure by alleviating traffic compaction issues, and to use more cover crops in the rotation.

As for tomato strip tilling, the Richards used their experience from other crops, keeping in mind the need for clean, well-tilled strips to plant into.

To achieve this, some alterations were made to the strip-till units, including replacing rolling baskets with a culti-packer to form the strip and eliminate soil lumps, and adding a system to apply pre-plant incorporated herbicides.

They adopted banded-nutrient applications in 2017 after fabricating changes to a strip tiller. The machine was built using a BluJet Tracker hitch, Yetter fertilizer openers, a six-row Orthman 1tRipR and a Valmar 3255 air system.

The cost of tillage was also a motivator to alter their practices because Richards finds the cost of a two-pass strip tillage substantially more cost effective than conventional tillage practices.

“We achieve higher efficiency in the spring applying all the fertilizer with the strip-till rig, mainly due to the size of the fertilizer tank and the speed at which we can fill it.

“Probably the biggest challenge,” Richards says, “was trusting that the systems would work as we had planned.”

But the results are positive, as Richards feels they have better water infiltration in the strip-tilled fields, and they are starting to see more stable and structured soils, their crop yields are at or above county averages, and diesel fuel consumption and hours on machinery have both been reduced by about one-third. He continues to look for ways to further decrease tractor hours and fuel consumption and maintenance.

Richard was the winner of the 2018 Innovative Farmer of the Year award.

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