Strip-till has heightened Tom Muller’s appreciation for soil organic matter, labor efficiencies and frugal fertilizer use.
Since he began strip-tilling 14 years ago on his Windom, MN, farm, his soil organic matter has increased to 3%. The organic matter has “drought-proofed” his soil by increasing water infiltration. “I see no mud on our tires anymore when the neighbor is getting stuck,” Muller says.
“Those top 2 in. of soil get very firm because the roots remain intact. That residue stays like a sponge that springs back after driving on it. How do you put a price on better water drainage and infiltration?”
His yields have remained steady or increased.
He sold his homemade strip-till bar and now pays the local co-op to strip-till, so that he, his father and brother can spend more time in the combine and save on horsepower needs. Leveraging their labor resources enabled them to add 320 acres to their 2,800 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. The spring wheat diversified their rotation.
“The co-op builds the strips and lays down the fertilizer in the fall, and all we have to do is find that black strip and plant in the spring; your fertilizer is already there.
“We can get by with one 220-hp. tractor instead of a 400-hp. one,” Muller adds. “We are sipping instead of guzzling fuel.”
Weeds have shifted since Muller went to a strip-till system. “We now have dandelions instead of cockleburs,” he says.
Speaking to a group of aspiring strip-tillers at a recent field day, Muller advised tiling fields wherever possible and getting rid of your stalk chopper. The stalk chopping operations amount to $10.63/acre, based on 2007 fuel prices, according to University of Minnesota data.
“Also, the higher the strip mound in the fall, the better,” adds Jodi DeJong-Hughes, Minnesota Regional Extension Educator-Crops and Soil. “It will erode down to 0-2 in. by spring.
“Strip-till’s added crop residue boosts soil fertility by feeding the soil’s organic matter. A handful of soil contains 9 billion microbes, and they thrive on carbon. Your crop residue is 40% carbon. That residue anchors nutrients in your soil and reduces erosion. I’ve seen wheat yields drop in half where the topsoil eroded away, taking soil nutrients with it.”
Being able to band fertilizer instead of broadcast it saves one-third of costs, and nutrient are more available.
Patience is the biggest barrier to adapting no-till, observes Jim Fasching, an independent agronomist and soil lab representative from Omaha. Waiting for spring soils to dry out while neighbors are rolling requires a new mindset.
He also recommends taking as many soil core samples as possible and making sure that you remedy soil pH issues before stripping because it precludes incorporating the lime.
“There isn’t a right or a wrong way to strip-till,” adds DeJong-Hughes. “Growers adapt it to their soils and equipment. Either way, you are operating more efficiently, and that saves time, money and soil.”