Illinois strip-tiller Mike Bland admits that he’s a stickler when it comes to equipment maintenance.

The last thing he wants when heading into the fields to build fall strips is wasting time diagnosing and fixing a problem that could have been prevented.

Since he began strip-tilling 6 years ago, Bland prides himself on making sure his two strip-till rigs — a 12-row Thurston Mfg./Blu-Jet and a 12-row Redball — are ready to roll after harvest.

“I’m a big advocate of making sure mechanical systems are working properly before I start building my strips and applying fertilizer,” he says. “Summer is always a good time to check the equipment and make sure it runs.”

This includes changing out worn anhydrous knives and taking preventative measures like spraying down rigs in the off-season with diesel to ward off rust caused by corrosive dry fertilizer.

Bland strip-tills about 1,200 acres of corn near Bethany, Ill., and primarily no-tills 800 acres of soybeans, although he has tried strip-tilling them in the past.

Keeping his rigs functioning is a priority and his first year strip-tilling, Bland learned a valuable lesson about maintaining his coulter blades.

“The first year we used a 16-row toolbar that we worked pretty hard, so we got the torch out and did some bending of the blades,” he says. “The next year, we got some big humps. And when they’re 8 inches high, they don’t settle down.

“We had a real dry spring and the planter wouldn’t stay on top. It would get on top of the strip, then slide off to one side because it was too tall and hard.”

Bland narrowed the coulters so they wouldn’t build as big of a berm, which has proven easier to plant into every year since. Today, checking the coulter width is a routine part of the maintenance of his strip-till units.

But Bland and other industry experts point out that inspection and upkeep of strip-till machinery is only part of equation to maintaining a successful operation.

“There are really three pieces that strip-tillers need to look at each year,” says Curt Davis, marketing manager with Kuhn Krause. “Equipment is one aspect, as well as the technology or outside data components, and the environmental factors.”

Machinery Checklist

Before heading into the fields each season, strip-tillers should make sure their rigs are in working order — inspecting everything from the fertilizer hoses to the row units — because worn parts can lead to in-field breakdowns.

“You get acres done as long as the machine moves,” Davis says. “It’s the mechanical wearing parts like the knife points, hosing and rate-control systems that really need to be looked at and evaluated.”

If the strip-till unit is set up for anhydrous application, make sure to test the system for leaks, because it’s a lot easier to fix a problem in the shop than risk a dangerous leak in the field, says Kevin Kuehn, product specialist with Environmental Tillage Systems.

Checking and replacing thin or damaged lines that deliver liquid fertilizer through the strip-till rig is critical. Running water through the system to test for leaks is safer and cheaper as a way to pinpoint problems then waiting to see if fertilizer drains into the field, Kuehn says.

“Calibrate liquid-flow rates to make sure flow-meter pulses per gallon are set correctly, and the section valves turn on and off,” he says. “Doing this prior to loading your fertilizer into the system is a good idea because a lot of monitors require pulse width modulation (PWM) flow calibration and getting the RPM over 100. It’s extremely difficult to do that with fertilizer in the system.”

Calibration is also essential when it comes to dry-fertilizer application. A common frustration Indiana strip-tiller Adam Souder sees from strip-tillers is inconsistency with the dry fertilizer products in the marketplace.

He encourages strip-tillers to calibrate their metering system before they head to the field and to keep an eye on calibrations throughout the season so that application rates are accurate.

“I always encourage them to do a calibration of their system, in case they’ve changed anything on the electronic or metering side,” he says. “If they see any bad bearings, or hear anything out of the ordinary, they can correct it before they get into the field.”

Dry fertilizer can also cause row units to rust, and during his time as a territory manager for Orthman Mfg., Souder fielded calls from customers each season with questions about when they should replace their coulters or knife points. Soil conditions and residue are often factors as to whether coulters or knives will hold up another season, but heading into this fall, Souder says strip-tillers may be more inclined to replace those parts, given the wetter spring weather in parts of the country.

“Obviously, in 2013 we had a lot of vegetative growth, and in central Indiana where I come from, I’ve told farmers that if they want to replace any of their lead coulters or row cleaners, do it so they’ll get a nice, clean strip, and the residue will be moved away and they will be set up for an optimal seedbed next spring.”

While replacement time differs for each strip-tiller, preventative measures can be taken to extend the life of parts. Bland will spray his older Redball unit with diesel fuel, or a diesel fuel/hydraulic-fluid mix to prevent rust.

Last winter, he removed the closing blades on the row units and sandblasted them to remove rust, and also cleaned the scrapers on the inside of the blades to help prevent mud buildup.

“We were ending up with a gap, and that didn’t leave us a nice strip — and in some cases, it was even concave,” Bland says. “So we’d come back and scrape the blades off by hand. It works for a few acres, but then you have to clean them again.

“We initially had scrapers on, but they were pretty rusty. So we went back to square one with sandblasting them, then put on some good paint and hopefully it will stay slick this season.”

Updating Technology

An increasingly vital part of a strip-tiller’s off-season preparation is making sure their precision-farming technology is current and functional. This includes everything from updating guidance software in the tractor to managing yield data and soil-sample results.

“Be sure to consult with your GPS or IT technician for whatever system you have to make sure your monitor, strip-till module nodes and software is all up to date,” says Kuehn. “Make sure to transfer the right A-B lines to the strip-till unit and monitor so you’ve got them intact. I’ve arrived at farms to help set up the field and everyone is running around with flash drives to get the A-B lines in the tractor.”

Precision-farming companies are routinely updating software and strip-tillers don’t always keep current with the latest upgrades, Kuehn says. But outdated or improper software can lead to confusion in the field and, eventually, hurt a farmer’s profits.

Kuehn and others have worked with strip-tillers who struggled with technology compatibility because they didn’t update their guidance software and the A-B lines didn’t properly transfer to the tractor.

“If you are off half an inch, you’ll watch it on the yield monitor next season and just see those bushels per acre drop off,” say David Fickel, territory manager for Thurston Mfg./Blu-Jet. “It’s pretty critical to make sure all that stuff is in tune with each other.”

It’s also important to have a game plan for collecting and using precision data, since information is an increasingly valuable commodity to improve crop production and make better management decisions.

Fickel and others encourage customers to set up strip-till test plots and utilize soil sampling as ways to help paint a picture of organic matter and soil health.

“Review those soil tests, take soil samples and just develop a program,” Kuehn says. “Get those prescription applications programmed into the software and use that harvest data to make better decisions in your strip-till operation.”

Environmental Prep

If the last 2 years has taught strip-tillers anything, it’s that Mother Nature is anything but predictable. A wetter-than-average spring in 2013 quenched the thirst of many drought-parched fields, but many areas of the country endured prolonged dry spells heading into the fall.

It’s important that strip-tillers make sure their rigs are equipped with the right tools to match their soils. Although some areas of the country are wetter, that isn’t the case everywhere and building strips into dry soils can quickly wear down coulters. Kevin Kimberley, a strip-till consultant based in Iowa, offers some tips on how to match coulters to soil types in this recent feature.

Davis says it’s important to know what’s beneath the soil before building strips.

“In spring 2013 we had very wet weather and I’ll bet there wasn’t much nitrogen left in the soil,” he says. “Here in Illinois, for example, the crops looked good, but they used a lot of nitrogen.

“We know a lot of nitrogen probably didn’t make it to the plant because of the water carrying it off. Thinking about the environmental side, we need to be a little heavier in management of nitrogen application for either the fall or spring.”

Fickel has advised strip-tillers to monitor application rates this fall with their strip-till units. With a later 2013 harvest in some parts of the country, strip-tillers wanted to be conscious of how much fertilizer they are applying, so as not to loose valuable nutrients come spring.

“2013 was a lot wetter than last year and we didn’t want that wash-off,” Fickel says. “We want to make sure that nothing turns into nitrates because farmers spend too much time and money on a machine and on the practice to just watch their nutrients evaporate.”

Experts also recommend farmers do test runs with their strip-till rigs before hitting the field so they can tinker with mechanical issues and properly calibrate precision-farming tools.

Souder encourages strip-tillers to run their rigs in wheat fields across 10 to 12 acres to test the hydraulics, hoses and row units.

“Whether you’re applying a product or not, this gives you a feel for how the rig will run, and often something else will jump out at you,” Souder says. “Ideally, we want strip-tillers to be done in fall and set up for a good seedbed in spring.”

A Strip-Tiller’s Maintenance Checklist

Prior to getting into the fields in fall, manufacturers say strip-tillers need to consider three areas; equipment, technology and environment. Here are their top tips to prepare for successful strip-tilling:

  1. Change out worn anhydrous knives and check fertilizer hoses for leaks and calibrate systems to avoid losing fertilizer in the field.
  2. Spray rigs with a diesel mix and clean coulters in the off-season to prevent rust.
  3. Test drive strip-till rigs across 10 to 12 acres to make sure the machine functions properly.
  4. Check soil nutrient contents after harvest to manage fall application rates accordingly.
  5. Update and calibrate GPS systems so they accurately transfer A-B lines to the tractor.