Miserable spring weather too often has dealt no-till corn a telling setback the last few years in the Corn Belt. But some farmers are doing something about it - mostly with happy results.
Dedicated no-tillers, who are worried more about their bottom lines than about being purists, are fighting back against the challenge of cold, wet soil.
From Minnesota to Missouri, they're working the wrinkles out of a modified or alternative form of no-till called strip-till. The system offers many of the benefits of no-till. But also it appears to eliminate the wimpy start that often occurs with no-till corn, enabling it to match the yields of mulch-tilled or conventionally tilled fields.
The main idea of strip-till - tilling narrow bands or strips of soil to plant in while leaving the remainder untouched - is to warm up and dry out cold, wet soil. That's especially a problem with today's earlier planting. Fertilizer is usually injected in the strip-till operation.
"It's a good alternative to no-till in that it keeps residue on the surface and provides a very friendly area for seed placement and early growth," notes Gyles Randall, University of Minnesota soil scientist.
Adds Wayne Pedersen, University of Illinois plant pathologist: "In our university test plots, we've created a planting zone that is 5-9 degrees warmer than regular no-till, making it comparable to mulch-till."
The concern over uneven emergence and slower early growth for no-till corn in the recent cold, wet springs has many veteran no-tillers in a quandary as to what to do.
The reason: The so-called yield hit with no-till corn often doesn't happen.
That's the case even though the early season appearance of no-till corn sometimes is embarrassing. In fact, in years that turn dry in August, no-till corn may whip conventional corn in yield because it holds moisture better.
So the yield reduction problem, at least in more-normal springs than we have often had in recent years, may be more of a perception or expectation than a fact. In several university research studies, in fact, what looked like a sure yield hit in the early season turned into a yield toss-up for no-till and conventional-till corn when precise yield measurements were taken at harvest.
Nevertheless, whether the corn yield reduction is only perception or documented fact, no-till corn acreage has taken a hit the past couple of years. Many farmers are simply afraid they are sacrificing yield - and profit.
For details on farmer and researcher experience with strip-till and solving the Northern no-till corn-growing challenge, read the articles that follow in this Special Report.