Building strip-till confidence to manage variability

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It can take years for strip-tillers to find the right combination of equipment and a suitable fertility program to make the most of their operation.

For Mark Bauer, an essential part of the journey is having the confidence to invest in a system and stick with it. After trying no-till and other surface-tillage practices, the Faribault, Minn., farmer and founder of Environmental Tillage Systems (ETS) committed to a two-pass system for strip-till, despite not knowing if it would work.

“I really didn’t have a comfort level if this was going to be a sustainable methodology at the time we made the commitment to build the first machine,” he says.

But if he could duplicate what was being done with conventional tillage, it would give him the edge that has been missing in strip-till. By duplicate, he means primary tillage in the fall and then with the same machine, fluff and warm the strips spring.

“A lot of farmers have a backup plan, or have two systems on their farm,” Bauer says. “We took a chance that the methodology would allow us to farm our variable soils with whatever Mother Nature threw at us, without having to go buy something else.”

It’s been more than 10 years since Bauer built the first Soil Warrior strip-till unit, and his commitment to building fall strips on 1,700 acres of corn and soybeans, then making a secondary pass with the unit prior to planting, has paid off with consistent yields, improved soil health and overall efficiency.

But sticking to the strip-till system isn't without its challenges. Bauer admits it’s taken patience and persistence to realize the benefits.

Managing Variability

Like many farmers in southeastern Minnesota, Bauer deals with unpredictable weather patterns, a range of soil types and varying topography, all of which can contribute to inconsistent crop productivity.

His soils are predominantly silt loams and tend to be highly erosive, so finding a way to keep those soils in place and maintain yield consistency throughout extreme weather was difficult, Bauer says.

“We have organic matters of 0.5% to as high as 9%, and slopes as high as 8% or 9%, so we have to work around basins and waterways,” he says. “It was very difficult to find a machine that would function in every aspect of our soil types and topography.”

He started with a 40-foot, 16-row Soil Warrior with 30-inch cogwheels and serrated coulters to build 10-inch-wide, and 8- to 10 inch-deep strips in the fall. Then in spring, Bauer swaps out the cogwheels for 20-inch wavy coulters, which turn over and warm up the top few inches of soil in the strip.

He ran that machine for about 5 years. Bauer says he felt that the soil had made such a conversion that he wasn’t seeing compaction anymore. Plus, he had gained a comfort level with his GPS guidance system and didn’t need as big a zone, so he switched to a machine called the ETS Mini.

Now in the fall, his primary tillage is only 3 to 5 inches deep, and after fluffing in the spring the plantable zone is about 8 inches wide. Bauer closely monitors issues from possible compaction below the depth of the tillage.

Since going to the shallower tillage, he has tweaked his fall fertility with hopes that deeper tillage can be avoided. So far, early root development in the tram lines suggest that the deep tillage might not be needed.

Proven Payback

This spring, he was among many farmers in the Midwest who struggled with overly wet conditions that delayed planting. On May 21, he still had 60% of his crop to plant.

Despite the pressure, Bauer says he wasn’t overly concerned about getting his strips for corn and soybeans dried out in time to get the crop into the ground. He’s established enough of a track record improving soil structure and stabilizing yields through strip-till to handle a few curveballs from Mother Nature.

Bauer consistently yields in the top 20% of his tri-county area of the state — ranging from 190 to 220 bushels per acre of corn and 50 to 60 bushels per acre of soybeans. Yield data analysis and input cost evaluations in a two-pass system are also saving money and increasing efficiency.

“We found that for labor, fuel, repairs and depreciation, we’re about $85 an acre less than the average farmer with our size operation in our three-county area,” Bauer says. “On the high end, it’s as much as $130 an acre because each year, we’ve been able to run more efficiently and gain more confidence in our system.

“I have a comfort level that when we do go back out there in spring, this methodology is going to allow us to push it without damaging that seed zone.”

Unlike some neighbors whose fields were flooded into late spring, Bauer says he’s been able to get out earlier with his strip-till unit, pulled by 300-horsepower Challenger tractor, and fluff the strips without having to worry about smearing or compacting root zones.

“Some guys will say, ‘We really shouldn’t be out there, the soil just isn’t ready,’ but I’ll ask them, ‘What’s your window of opportunity? How far do you want to push it?’” Bauer says. “From the standpoint of where the seed’s going to go, with GPS technology, we’re not going to be driving on it because of the strip-till methodology.”

Fertility Investment

Even prior to strip-tilling, Bauer began to examine soil structure to get a better handle on nutrient variability and organic matter. In some cases, soil health has grown dramatically.

“My very first soil samples were in one field 30 years ago and I had phosphorous levels down at 7 to 12 parts per million,” he says. “We always had sows or nursery manure, so we never really applied that much phosphorous there and that’s never been turkey littered. Now we’re around 90 to 96 parts per million on phosphorous.”

Organic matter in that field increased from 3.5% to about 5% in those 30 years, which has allowed Bauer to cut back his phosphorous application to as low as 20 pounds per acre.

He split applies nutrients with the strip-till rig, putting the phosphorous and potassium in fall strips, with a small amount of ammonium sulfate and micronutrients.

In fall, he uses a two-tank system — dry fertilizer and phosphorous in the front, and potassium in the back — to variable-rate according to soil type. Bauer admits that he spends a bit more on his fertility budget than the average.

Phosphorous is a combination of monoammonium phosphate (MAP) and soft rock phosphate, which is slow to release, but is high in humates and calcium. Bauer’s potassium is a combination of sulfate of potash (0-0-50) and murate (0-0-60). The potassium mix is where he typically adds the micro package because there is a more consistent application rate for the potash.

During the last couple of years, Bauer has spiked his potash blend with some additional calcium sulfate and he believes that is enhancing his early root development.

Nitrogen Application

He prefers applying the majority of his phosphorous and potassium in fall corn and soybean strips because of their stability. Then in spring, Bauer removes the dry tanks and attaches a liquid tank to apply 60 to 100 units per acre of either 28% or 32% with the strip-till unit.

For nitrogen, Bauer bucks conventional wisdom when it comes to application amounts, based on organic matter.

“If we’ve got low organic matter we never go over 60 units of nitrogen. If the organic matter is greater than 4%, we’ll go as high as 100 units of nitrogen in the strip,” he says. “I’ve gone at nitrogen from the standpoint that low organic matter soil can’t hold the nitrogen into June and profile in the root zone through wetter rain events.

“So in low organic matter soil, I typically lower my application rates, and then we sidedress at a later date.”

This past year, Bauer and his son, Skyler, began using SMS software to grid sample and create their own soil test maps to further fine-tune fertilizer applications based on organic matter.

“Our grids were predominantly five-acre grids. Some guys are doing two, but we figured if we can’t master five, then two is just going to get us confused,” Bauer says. “Skyler has done some work with the SMS software layering the maps, and then stacking the yield data on top so we can analyze it all. We’re looking to take it further.”


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