Western Canadian row crop farmers Dean Toews in southern Manitoba and John Kolk in southern Alberta have different levels of experience with strip tillage, but both see the value of working up these eight-inch-wide strips of soil in their fields with a range of production and conservation benefits.
Toews, who is part of the family farm Toews Family Enterprises Ltd. at MacGregor, about 130 kilometres west of Winnipeg, has been using and learning about strip tillage for the past seven years. They were among one of the first in Manitoba to try the tillage technique, which is sort of a midway point between no-till farming and conventional tillage.
They’ve even just bought their second machine for the 2021 cropping season, which they’ll be using ahead of corn, soybeans and edible beans this spring, and also hope to do some custom strip tillage work as well. They are obviously convinced that strip tillage is a good way to grow row crops.
In southern Alberta, John Kolk, with Kolk Farms Conrich Ltd. in Picture Butte, about 30 kilometres north of Lethbridge, will be evaluating the second season this year using strip tillage on his corn, dry beans and seed canola row crops, produced under irrigation. Kolk says it took a fair bit of work getting a machine set up to till and also apply fertilizer in the same pass. The 2020 experience wasn’t a runaway success, but he did see value and figures it is definitely worth further trials on the farm.
WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT STRIP TILLAGE?
Strip tillage, believed to have started in Nebraska, has been used in various parts of the United States for 30 years or more. Using the tool on fields to be seeded to row crops can produce several benefits, but for both Toews’ and Kolk’s farms, one of the leading reasons was soil conservation.
Row crops can create different extremes at harvest. With grain corn, for example, there can be too much crop residue after harvest, making it difficult for planters to work through the stubble and stalks the following year, so often tillage is needed to work down the corn residue.
With other row crops, such as soybeans, dry beans and potatoes, on the other hand, there is often very little residue.
Either the tillage on corn stubble or lack of crop residue leaves ground exposed to wind erosion. Often row crop producers will seed cover crops on naked soil to keep the soil from blowing, but then depending on the planter performance, the cover crop has to be killed out before seeding.
Another concern was if fertilizer is applied before seeding, the cover crop could use a fair bit of the nutrients before the crop has a chance. The idea is that most years, it is best to keep cover crop standing as long as possible, to protect newly emerged crop seedlings from being sandblasted by blowing soil.
Strip tillage appears to be a middle-ground solution. Farmers can leave corn stubble on the fields to protect the soil, or leave fall-seeded cover crops green and growing and protecting soil until after seeding.
Strip tillage tools — and there are several makes and models — are used to till strips at whatever planter width is used. Toews plants row crops on a 30-inch row width, while Kolk seeds row crops on a 22-inch row width.
Toews bought the farm’s first 30-foot-wide, 12-row Orthman 1tRIPr strip tillage machine in 2013, with tillage shanks set on 30-inch row spacing. Kolk bought a Yetter Maverick HR Plus, 12-row tillage tool set on 22-inch row spacing. Both farms note the tillage tool is not cheap. New machines can cost in the range of $5,000 to $6,000 per row, although more reasonably priced used equipment can be found as well.
The tillage mechanism on both machines on each shank or row tills a strip about eight inches wide and six to eight inches deep. On heavy residue like corn, the tillage tool is aligned to place the tilled strips between the previous season’s corn rows. And the more precise RTK guidance system is used later to precisely guide the planter to place seed in the middle of the strip-tilled row.
With the strip tillage tool, most of the corn residue is left in place to protect the soil, while on a field seeded to a cover crop, most of the cover crop can be left green and growing until the crop is established.
Other benefits of strip tillage include the following:
- The tilled strip provides an excellent seedbed to seed the new crop into.
- The soil in that eight-inch-wide tilled strip can warm up before seeding.
- Under wetter field conditions, the tillage can help that strip to dry out before seeding.
- Under drier conditions, the strip tillage can be done just before seeding, leaving most crop. residue in place to help conserve moisture.
- The strip tillage pass is an opportunity to place fertilizer in the seed row and available to the crop.
THE KOLK LEARNING CURVE
John Kolk admits there is a lot of fine-tuning to be done on his farm before he gives strip tillage that final stamp of approval, but after one season it appears as though the tillage tool will help achieve most objectives, including soil conservation.
Kolk says he had been looking for a way to apply no-till practices to the row crops, but one big hurdle was figuring out how to get a precision planter to work through crop residue and get seed and fertilizer applied at the proper depths.
“There was no easy or cost-effective way to modify the planter to get enough down pressure applied to work through residue,” says Kolk. “And even if we did, then it still wouldn’t have solved the problem of cool soils. We looked at our options and strip tillage was, sort of, the halfway point — a good compromise between zero till and conventional tillage.”
While Kolk didn’t go overboard with conventional tillage, depending on the year, some fields were treated with a vertical tillage tool, and if manure was applied it needed to be disked in. Generally, after harvest, he tried to leave most fields undisturbed. And then in spring, depending on the field or crop, there could be a pass with a cultivator along with heavy harrow packing before seeding. Sometimes field work involved cultivation to incorporate granular herbicide.
The exposed soil would be at risk of soil erosion due to strong spring winds and the very real risk of seedlings being damaged or killed.
With many good strip tillage tools on the market, Kolk went with the Yetter Maverick HR Plus for the 2020 cropping season. It is 22-feet wide with 12 rows and matched the width and row spacing of his planter. His unit included the optional roller basket at the back that further tills and conditions the soil.
Kolk believes it would be best to apply strip tillage in the fall and touch up with a light pass in the spring. He’s hoping he can get on that schedule starting in the fall of 2021. He used strip tillage on fields to be seeded to grain corn, dry beans and seed canola in the spring of 2020. The tillage tool ran about eight inches deep. In the tillage pass, granular fertilizer for corn was placed about five inches deep, while during seeding operations the corn seed was placed about two inches deep or about three inches above the fertilizer.
Kolk says he still needs to do some work to fine-tune fertilizer application and he also learned not to rush into seeding after the tillage pass. He seeded corn almost immediately after the tillage pass last spring and the soil really hadn’t had a chance to warm up and also the tilled soil was too loose — too much air — and it made for poor seed-to-soil contact.
“We had uneven germination and I estimate we lost about 11 per cent of the seed, which is way too high,” he says. “I should have waited a few days for the soil to firm up and warm up. So that was our mistake.”
On the other hand, Kolk says by waiting two or three days for the soil to settle and warm up, there was excellent emergence with the dry beans and seed canola seeded into strip tillage.
“And I believe strip tillage did help to reduce soil erosion by wind,” says Kolk. While he didn’t measure it scientifically, his observation was that “it didn’t eliminate erosion, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.” He’s hoping to do more on-farm trials, to see how strip tillage works with fall-seeded cover crops such as fall rye.
Kolk says, overall, he figures strip tillage has an economical fit. There is potential to reduce the cost of field operations and, at the same time, potential to increase yields. He estimates the machine will provide a timely payback on farms seeding at least 500 to 600 acres of row crops.
THE TOEWS’ EXPERIENCE WITH STRIP TILL
Toews says they were looking for a way to get fertilizer applied into cover crops, ahead of seeding their corn, soybeans or dry beans. On one hand it was important to keep the cover crop growing for soil conservation reasons, but at the same time they didn’t want the cover crop using up nutrients intended for the corn or soybeans. Strip tillage appeared to provide the balance.
About 40 to 50 per cent of the Toews’ cropped acres are seeded to corn, along with other row crops such as soybeans and dry beans. They also produce wheat and oats and, some years, sunflowers.
“We were renting some land from a potato farmer and after the potatoes were harvested they seeded fall rye as a cover crop,” says Toews, who along with his parents, Bernie and Edna Toews, farms with his brothers, Devin and Darren. “If we broadcast applied fertilizer and worked it in, there was a good chance of losing the cover crop cover. And if we used an air seeding system to apply the fertilizer, there was a good chance the cover crop would be using nutrients intended for the corn crop. So that wasn’t very efficient.”
In 2013, the Toews family bought a 30-foot-wide, 12-row Orthman 1tRIPr strip tillage machine. It was a learning curve, but they found it worked well in cover crops to provide an eight-inch-wide strip of tillage on 30-inch-wide crop row centres. Each assembly on the shank rows tilled the soil eight inches wide and eight inches deep. In that same tillage pass, they also placed all fertilizer below the seed row. Aside from the eight-inch tilled strip, the rest of the cover crop was left green and growing.
If fact, Toews refined the fertilizer application to apply two types of fertilizer at once. Granular potash and phosphorus are placed about eight inches deep, while a second tube delivers liquid nitrogen and sulphur about two inches above the granular products. During the seeding pass, the planter places corn seed about two inches deep. That leaves about a four- to five-inch separation between the nitrogen band and the seed.
Toews prefers to do the strip tillage in the spring because of the sandy soils. With excess moisture some years being a concern, there is a real risk of fall-applied liquid fertilizer being leached out of the soil.
“Our preference is spring strip tillage, ideally just as soon as the frost is out of the ground,” says Toews. “Depending on soil moisture conditions, we can get fertilizer placed and get that strip of soil exposed so it warms up.” With the preferred cover crop being fall rye, it continues to grow until after the spring crop is seeded, and then it is killed out with the first in-crop herbicide application.
In a drier spring like 2021, they will delay strip tillage as late as possible, getting it done a few days before seeding, just to conserve as much soil moisture as possible.
While harvest conditions and timing can vary, ideally, they like to seed the fall rye cover crop post-harvest by late September or early October so it can get established going into winter. “Occasionally, we have been as late as early November,” he says. “And the rye really doesn’t do much, but come spring it starts popping up early. It is a very hardy crop.”
Toews says they were a bit surprised, but learned during some University of Manitoba research on their farm that strip tillage worked well even in corn residue. A conventional practice (before strip tillage) would have been to cultivate corn residue with two or three tillage passes to prepare a field for seeding soybeans with a planter.
“But two or three years of these research trials showed that one pass with the strip tillage through corn residue placed fertilizer and prepared an excellent seed bed for seeding soybeans,” says Toews. To improve harvestability, he does make a pass with a land roller after strip tillage just to make sure all corn stalks and leaves are flush to the ground. “It is amazing how quickly that residue breaks down during the growing season,” says Toews.
While strip tillage is still a relatively new practice in Western Canada, Toews says they have added a second strip till machine to their equipment line as demand for custom strip tillage appears to be increasing. They bought a second-hand, 40-foot Orthman 1tRIPr strip tillage machine last year. They do about 1,000 acres of strip tillage for one customer and other requests have been coming in.
Toews says they’ve identified several definite advantages to using strip tillage. They have fewer field operations, less tillage which reduces fuel costs, yields have increased by 10 to 15 bushels per acre, and they are achieving better yields with more efficient use of fertilizer.
“With corn, for example, since it is our biggest crop, the rule of thumb has been one pound of nitrogen for each bushel of corn,” says Toews. “But we find with proper placement of fertilizer, the crop is making more efficient use of the nutrient.”
Toews normally applies about 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre, but on-farm research trials have shown yields more in the 150 to 160 bushel per acre range. The trials even increased nitrogen to 180 pounds, but higher rates didn’t produce any significant yield increase.
“Using less fertilizer and getting the same yield has really piqued our interest,” says Toews. “We are seeing a one-bushel return with a 0.6-pound rate of nitrogen, where normal is one pound per bushel. If we can continue growing those extra 10 to 14 bushels with less nitrogen and just one pass for tillage with fertilizer, the numbers will really start adding up.”