Saving Soil and Increasing Profits: Do Strip-Till and No-Till Have a Place on Your Operation?
January 18, 2023 | By Colin Rogers, Sustainable Systems Agronomist ForGround by Bayer
Why do we till our fields? Is it for weed control? Seedbed preparation? Perhaps to get a jumpstart in the spring and maximize yield? But, more critically, are your tillage practices affecting your profits? Tillage can provide solutions to many in-field problems, but it can also cause problems of its own (erosion, compaction, accessibility, etc.), necessitating a need to switch our mindsets toward a systems approach for farming moving forward. Improvements in crop genetics, seed treatments, herbicides, and fungicides have provided solutions from stand establishment to weed control to disease protection that counter the challenging environment of reduced tillage. To maximize on-farm profits it is important to ask, “What problem am I solving with my tillage pass, and have I already solved that with a product purchase?”.
Exploring information on no-till and strip-till farming can open a world of benefits for both practices. From field level improvements such as erosion control and soil structure, to cost reductions in fuel and labor. However, both are not necessarily ideal on the same fields and in the same farm management systems.
When it comes to conservation tillage systems, strip-till toolbars, like those from Orthman Ag and ETS Soil Warrior, are the multitools of the farm. Capable of repositioning residue, prepping the seedbed, breaking compacted layers, and precisely placing fertility for the following season’s seeding all in one pass. A single pass that accomplishes all of these activities can save substantial amounts of income on application costs. When reviewing the 2022 Iowa Farm Custom Rate Survey, the difference between strip-till and a 2-pass fall chisel/spring cultivation and fertility application equates to a $30.90/acre savings, while compared to a single pass vertical tillage operations netted $17.20/acre. (1) Most of these savings are realized in fuel and more importantly labor, which is getting harder for retail locations to acquire. Strip-till can also allow for reduced rates and higher utilization rates of fertility from being placed properly, as well as helping reduce losses from volatilization, leaching, and runoff.
In addition to the positive cost savings strip-till provides, arguably the greatest benefit provided is better soil health achieved while maintaining historic yields. Compared to no-till, strip-till provides conventional tillage-like planting conditions in the berm that is created, and when performed in the fall, provides a warmer (2), better drained seedbed to plant into. To no surprise, strip-tillage is very popular in areas with heavier, poorly drained soils, and is a good fit for operations trying to push the limits of crop maturity.
Strip-till conversion does come with challenges. New purchases should be viewed as an investment in future opportunities on your operation. With 52% savings in fuel (3) and 58% savings in labor (4) it does not take long for strip-till to begin paying dividends across your fields. Although most growers will have a compatibly capable tractor, there is a large horsepower requirement to pull the row units, generally between 25-35HP per row, so consider the size of your current equipment and see if you can justify the cost of a potentially larger tractor. When considering the purchase, also realize that you will be fixed on row width based on what the manufacturer can produce as well as what matches your current spacing; make sure you are confident in your row spacing decision now. Later changing a toolbar, planter, and combine head will be a very expensive endeavor.
- Unlike corn, soybeans do not typically see as much financial advantage in a strip-till system vs no-till. However, at current soybean prices, even small gains in yield can have significant financial advantages. Be sure to ask other growers in your area what their experiences have been with soybeans in strip-till, their results may be in your favor.
- If planting soybeans extraordinarily early, strip-till will typically show more benefits from the residue clearing, and effectively warming the soil vs no-till.
- Remember: ForGround by Bayer offers members exclusive discount on the Orthman Ag 1tRIPr and an account credit on the ETS SoilWarrior.
Lastly, strip-till requires precise planning. Since fertility is placed precisely in the berm, it is critical for the planter to follow the rows exactly. This will most likely require a repeatable GPS correction to the RTK/RTX level (2-4cm). Make sure you are happy with how the field was oriented this last season, and if so, simply upload the same guidance files (AB Lines) and repeat with the tool bar as if you were planting in the fall.
- Work with the dealer and manufacturer of the toolbar. Both Orthman Ag and ETS SoilWarrior have excellent agronomic support and will work with you and your dealer to:
- Make sure the fertilizer applicator is calibrated appropriately,
- Ensure GPS is appropriately calibrated to seamlessly transition between tillage and planting, and
- Set up the toolbar for ideal tillage in your soil.
Of course, no writing about farm resiliency, soil structure, or on-farm profit is complete without discussing the importance of no-till farming. No-till farming is not a new concept, but it may be a concept that has escaped some operations for some time now that should consider it to increase their profits. As stated earlier, managing the great improvements in crop genetics, seed treatments, herbicides, and fungicides, as a whole farm system takes substantial risk out transitioning to no-till farming. Plant breeding has improved emergence and early seedling vigor, new seed treatments have protected that seed until emergence occurs, new premixes of herbicides keep rows weed free until canopy closure, and fungicides help protect plants in a cooler, damp, residue heavy environment.
Dollar for dollar, and hour for hour, no tillage practice change nets a higher return on investment than not tilling at all. This is not to say that there are not challenges. The first few years of no-till can be especially challenging, with a return to normal 3 to 5 years after beginning, and this adjustment to normal is very environmentally specific. Things like growing zone, annual rainfall, soil type, and average temperatures all play into success rates. In drier climates with sandier soils, no-till tends to outperform conventional tillage, but in wet, heavy clay soils the transition will test any great farmers patience. It may take years of patiently waiting in the spring while others are planting their fields before your soils marginalize, but rest assured that early starts do not necessarily equate to higher yields, and higher yields certainly do not mean higher profits. Generally, corn performs at maximum yield potential when it is planted when soil temperature, moisture, and air temperature all favor for fast, even stand establishment. Late emerging plants from uneven emergence often provide no economic return, and as such more emphasis should be placed on great stand establishment to take advantage of a very costly input.
If you get into a situation where fields are almost fit, but the weather looks less than ideal in the next week, and you just need to get started with something, consider planting soybeans instead. Wait to plant corn until the weather is more guaranteed.
- Soybeans have a slower emergence, and as such will be protected from above ground conditions longer than corn.
- Soybean yields are less affected by population reductions, so long as the final stand is uniform enough for maximum light reception.
These challenges can also be overcome with planter modifications. Equipment such as row cleaners improve emergence rates and vigor, as do notched/spiked closing wheels that have more of a furrow sidewall chipping capability (virtually anything other than a round rubber wheel). These are both low cost, high return modifications to invest in. A more expensive modification to reduce compaction, in combination with controlled traffic patterns, are hydraulic downforce systems. These systems help marginalized fields that may still be a little on the wet side and help keep the sidewall of the furrow fully intact without creating sidewall compaction. But lastly, if you are currently no-tilling or abut to switch, always consider on the planter fertility applications. Not only do these save a trip across the field (labor and fuel), but they also allow for less mobile nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium to be appropriately placed near the seed, and lower rates of nitrogen, further maximizing your investment in inputs. Ideally this application would happen in a 2x2 or 2x2x2 system, however placing phosphorus and potassium in-furrow with seed firmers and dribbling nitrogen on over the top is also highly effective, just be cautious of how much salt is being applied.
The world economic market is changing. Agricultural commodities and inputs have been on an incredible rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, with inputs, fuel, and labor at all-time highs. Farm resiliency is possibly more important than ever to think about, and no-till and strip-till can be a large contributor to make your operation thrive. Think of all the input costs that can be saved -- less fertility, less fuel, less labor. For those not no-till farming, think of how many acres you currently till. How long does that take? What does that cost you per acre? Now, if land was available, how many acres could you harvest instead? Remember the agronomist team at ForGround by Bayer is here to help support you as you begin your journey into no-till and strip-till or look to modify your current practices to become more efficient with your inputs.
- Plastina, A., Johanns, A., Gleisner, A., and Qualman, A. 2022. 2022 Iowa Farm Custom Rate Survey. [Fact sheet]. Iowa State University. https://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/crops/pdf/a3-10.pdf.
- Licht, M.A. and Al-Kaisi, M. Strip-tillage effect on seedbed soil temperature and other soil physical properties. Soil and Tillage Research, Volume 80, Issues 1–2,2005,Pages 233-249,ISSN 0167-1987. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167198704001011#:~:text=Strip%2Dtillage%20has%20the%20potential,soil%20temperature%2C%20and%20penetration%20resistance.
- CropWatch. 2018. Labor Requirements. University of Nebraska – Lincoln. https://cropwatch.unl.edu/tillage/labor
- CropWatch. 2018. Fuel Requirements. University of Nebraska – Lincoln. https://cropwatch.unl.edu/tillage/fuel
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