For the past 20 years, one central Illinois farm family has used strip till to help improve soil and avoid runoff. To maximize efficiency and yields, they use a unique fertilizer system on their fields that helps save money, time and boost yield.

In strip till, you move a small amount of soil to provide a seed v-shaped mound while leaving most of the ground untouched to reduce runoff. Each fall, farming partner David Sass uses a tiller attachment to knife in anhydrous fertilizer while strip tilling. He knows the risk he faces with nitrogen leaching, and so with each fall application, he uses N-Serve nitrogen stabilizer to reduce the nutrient’s movement.

When spring comes, Sass plants directly into the anhydrous line. “When roots hit the zone it is right where you need it,” he says.

The Illinois farmer also applies liquid starter fertilizer while planting, placing nitrogen in furrow and broadcasting potassium and phosphorus. “We got started using starter fertilizer three years ago,” Sass says. “In colder soil, it gets the plants off to a quicker start. We used to come in with sidedress, but now we pretty much do just fall and spring applications.”

Strip till works for him because it saves him five to six gallons of diesel fuel per acre versus using a deep tillage chisel tool. This saves time too because you can’t move very quickly when tilling deeply. By optimizing his fertilizer system with strip till, he says they see a 5 bu. to 10 bu. per acre advantage by putting nutrients right where the crop needs them.

“The soil profile is so much better when you don’t have to tear it up every year and it controls soil erosion,” he says. “We only use conventional tilling when we absolutely have to. It’s just so time consuming and expensive.”

What to Consider About Starter Fertilizer

Sometimes, soil type and tillage changes how well starter fertilizer works, so it's important to know how and when it pays.

“Starter fertilizer will almost always give you bigger plants at V4 to V5 (corn) range, but the yield response at the end of the year has always been erratic,” says Joel DeJong, Iowa State Extension field agronomist. “It doesn’t always pay for itself—it just depends on the year.”

No-till, strip till or minimum till systems typically respond better to starter, he adds. Starter can also help fields with poor soil fertility conditions by getting crops the nutrients they need quickly that might not be available in the nutrient-deprived soil.

For those considering switching your tillage system, think through what possible changes you’ll need to make to your fertilizer system. Be sure to weigh changes and expenses with potential benefits to select best option for your fields.

“Strip till creates a fairly nice middle ground for those who want to reduce tillage but maybe not go full bore with no till,” DeJong says. “It keeps the soil where it belongs, doesn’t require as much energy (heat units) as no till at germination and builds up soil organic matter.”

Before you make any management decisions regarding fertilizer timing and placement or tillage, DeJong encourages you to look at local data. “Money back on your investment still depends on your environment. Remember to check your state’s data—you can’t use data from another state and assume the same results.”

For Sass, taking a risk with strip till along with fall and starter fertilizer has saved him money and time. “We have to be good stewards,” the farmer says. “It has worked for us, but we know there’s not many guys that do it.”

“Don’t be afraid to experiment with new fertilizer and tillage systems on fields in your operation," Sass says. " It could benefit you in the long run."