The question shot out of the crowd at a grower meeting. “If strip-till is so good, why aren't you using it for soybeans, too?”
Illinois farmer and veteran strip-tiller Tim Seifert didn't have an answer. At least, not then.
Seifert planted 30 acres of tests in strip-till beans in 2002 and will put in another 100 acres this year.
“Based on this past year's results, I think I'll get 3-5 bu/acre more, compared to 15” no-till beans. And because I'm planting rather than drilling, I can save $8-9/acre,” he says. “I figure $15-20 net is what I'm putting back in my pocket.”
Seifert, Auburn, IL, isn't the only one who has been fielding those questions about strip-till beans. University of Illinois crop scientist Wayne Pedersen had enough farmers ask him about the system that he put out plots, too.
“We've got some guys going back to 30” rows because of problems with white mold, and they're interested,” he says. “In 2002, strip-till soybeans outyielded mulch-till fields by 6 bu. And, based on the results so far, it's telling me we might be able to reduce the need for seed treatment with strip-till.”
One scientist with considerable soybean strip-till experience is Purdue's Tony Vyn. He helped Canadian farmers fine-tune the system when he was on the staff at the University of Guelph. In the northern climate, farmers needed to plant twin rows in soybean strips to get high yields.
So, will it work here, too? Vyn just initiated strip-tillage research for soybeans at Purdue in 2002, but is willing to extrapolate his prior results some. “Strip-tillage looks most promising in early planted beans vs. optimal planting,” he says. “It sometimes looks more promising where there's excessive rainfall early followed by drought later and where soils are compacted. The tap root is less inhibited in the tilled strip.”
Vyn adds, “My guess is that twin-rows might show a yield increase over single-row beans in strip-till here. But the benefit in Group III or IV maturity zones wouldn't be as evident as it was for Group I or II maturity soybeans in Canada. There's also the opportunity for nutrient banding and deeper placement in nutrient-stratified soils. That can be particularly important for K uptake. Potassium is a regulator that opens and closes the stomata. That helps protect soybean plants in both wet and dry soil conditions. We've even seen no-till beans respond to nutrient banding in just the corn crop.”
Seifert's experience is similar.
“I'm looking for more uniformity in the field. With liquid you can put fertilizer right where you want it,” he says. “Since I've started to use the strips in corn, my soil tests have balanced out.”
Corn is where it all started for Seifert. “I've strip-tilled corn for nine years. Before that I tried no-till corn but I wasn't happy with it. The soil was always either too cool or too wet. I ended up planting in conditions I didn't want to, or I wouldn't have gotten the crop in.”
These days, when Seifert turns off the combine, he cranks up a tractor equipped with a strip-till bar and fertilizer tanks. Then he heads right back to the field.
“I use liquid fertilizer to apply a maintenance level of fertilizer 6-8” deep under the strips,” he says. “I'm in a 50/50 rotation and if I want to boost P and K for soybeans, I'll spread it dry over the cornstalks.”
Seifert ends up with a band 4-6” wide that's tilled but the residue is still there to hold moisture and reduce weed pressure. “At planting, the strip will be 6-8° warmer in the afternoon. I've got one extra trip over the field compared to no-till, but if you're going to spread fertilizer on the stalks, you're making that trip anyway,” he says.
“With the strips I don't need no-till coulters on my planter, although I do use residue managers,” he adds. “Sometimes the heavy corn residue gave me problems in the fall. So, I tried some strips on top of the corn row and some down the middle of the rows. It was less hassle to put the strips in the middle, and I didn't see any yield differences at harvest.”
While he admits that a strip-till system might take more management, he never thought no-till was particularly simple, either.
“I've been told that no-tilling beans is a no-brainer. But you have to use more seed and constantly be watching your seed depth,” he says. “The guys who make it work do a really good job. I don't know that I'm disciplined enough.”
Some of the benefits of strip-till soybeans became evident as soon as the crop was up. It's no surprise that Seifert's planter spaced the seeds and maintained the depth more consistently than his no-till drill.
Combined with the warmth of the strips, those soybeans germinated quicker and more evenly than his no-till fields.
“Even germination means fewer green beans at harvest. That's especially important in a late year like 2002,” he says. “A crop that comes up even is ready to cut even. That can save 3-5 days at harvest because you don't have to wait for the late beans to dry down.”
While it doesn't have much to do with strip-till, Seifert says the row beans prevent plant damage when he's spraying. He estimates that saves 3 bu/acre. The open rows allow more air flow and sunlight, which also help in years when the weather favors disease development.
There are some equipment efficiencies to consider also, says Seifert. “It's a lot easier to switch from corn to beans when everything is put in with the same planter,” he says. “And at harvest, I can use a row-crop bean head and eliminate a reel that can bat seed down on the ground.”
Siefert also likes the conservation aspect of strip-tillage. “It wouldn't surprise me if I end up with more residue than no-till,” he says. “I live in a 160,000-acre watershed and whatever leaves the farm ends up in the lake. I want to be sure that what I apply to the field stays where it belongs.”
So why not more acres if it's so good? That answer is easy: Landlords. “You don't just walk into strip-tillage. You have to be able to farm ugly,” he says. “I'm just doing this on my own ground right now. I don't feel comfortable introducing it to my landlords yet. I've got a number of landlords to look after and I have to be accountable.”
There's a flip side to that situation. Some of his landlords are already asking Seifert when he'll use strips for soybeans on their farms. “They're sharp. They know their bottom line, too,” he says.
But there's more to the system than just bigger yields. “I'm not worried about getting the highest yield; I'm worried about being efficient,” Seifert says. “I think this system gives us the opportunity to produce a quality crop without breaking the bank. Strip-till soybeans lets me put out the best crop I can and be done with it in one shot.”