When federal water-quality rulings become reality, some Illinois farmers intend to be ahead of the curve.

How? By taking a proactive approach that demonstrates the value of strip-till on corn for growers who have been disappointed with no-till.

Twelve Illinois farmers, mostly no-till veterans with some strip-till experience, are participating in a conservation tillage project started last year called SOILS (Save Our Illinois Soils).

The effort is being spearheaded by Alan Gulso, water-quality coordinator for the Bureau of Land and Water Resources, a division of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Jim Kinsella, a no-till and strip-till pioneer, and his son, Brien, of Lexington, IL, are providing coordination and technical assistance.

Primary financial support for the project, which is scheduled to run three to five years, is provided by the Illinois Department of Agriculture and county soil and water conservation districts.

“We see the adoption of conservation tillage, especially no-till and strip-till, as one of the key best management practices to reduce sediment loading in our streams, rivers and lakes,” Gulso declares.

“Bringing soil erosion down to that tolerable level, or T value, is still a critical requirement,” Gulso adds. “But water quality has become the new focus of federal and state efforts. So we're very interested in doing whatever we can to promote what we call a voluntary, incentive-based program to come up with answers for these high-residue management systems for corn before it might become mandatory through regulation.”

The 12 cooperating farmers are spread across Illinois. All farm close to highways to provide maximum visibility.

The goal is to demonstrate to area farmers through plot field days and other means that strip-till can overcome the impact of a cold, wet spring and produce yields equal to those of full-width conservation tillage.

Each cooperator set aside 80 acres for the project: 40 acres divided into two replications of six-plus acre plots of strip-till, no-till and mulch-till on corn, while 40 acres are planted to no-till soybeans. Each 40 will be rotated each year.

The project was not designed to convince farmer cooperators of the value of no-till or strip-till. They're already convinced.

“It was hard to convince some of these long-term no-tillers to till those 15 acres for comparison purposes,” says Kinsella.

Wayne Pedersen, a University of Illinois crop scientist on the SOILS Project Committee, is excited about the farm-size demonstration project. “They're doing this the right way. Take it to the farmer, put it on his field in farmer-sized test areas and demonstrate to him and other farmers that it works.”

Based on conservation tillage research by Pedersen, and research and farm experience by Kinsella, project cooperators were told ahead of time that if Mother Nature produced a warm, dry spring, the advantages of strip-till would be largely negated.

In 2000, one of the earliest springs in years was recorded over much of the northern Corn Belt, producing quick soil warming and drying.

The results? A virtual toss-up for the three systems. Actual corn yield averages were: mulch-till — 159.6 bu/acre; strip-till — 158.3; no-till — 158.1.

After throwing in the costs and keeping everything else identical, Kinsella says no-till actually came out the most profitable, then strip-till, then mulch-till.

Gulso, the Kinsellas and most cooperators actually expected a bigger yield advantage for mulch-till that first year.

“When you take a long-term no-till field and till it, there's increased mineralization of nitrogen and release of other nutrients, which typically produces a yield spike for the tillage at least that first year,” Gulso explains. “So we were pleased that all systems were as close as they were the first year.”

Another bias against strip-till was that, under those ideal planting conditions, all fields in the project were planted at the same time. The main advantage of strip-till is that the small soil berms warm up and dry out faster than residue-covered ground. Therefore, strip-till corn can often be planted a week or so earlier than no-till, giving not only the early planting yield advantage but also a better stand.

If some cooler, wetter springs return, these farmer cooperators and project leaders expect a nice yield and profit advantage for strip-till.

Project cooperators Gary and Dennis Ford, of Tonica, edged into no-till starting in ’83 and went all no-till on corn and beans in ’88. Last fall, they made strips for strip-till for the fifth year.

“We had some corn emergence problems some years in the tank tracks made by the anhydrous rig,” says Gary. “When we started strip-tilling our corn, that just flat ended our emergence problems. We're pretty convinced about the value of strip-till for corn, and that it's the best system we have now for keeping most of the advantages of no-tilling corn.”

Greg Sullivan, a project cooperator from Paris, has no-tilled 100% of his corn and beans since 1990. He really hasn't been dissatisfied with no-till for either crop. But he's always looking for a better way that produces more profit. He also wanted to help state leaders demonstrate better ways to reduce soil erosion and water-quality problems.

“I wanted to make sure I was not missing out on something that could help our bottom line and the environment,” Sullivan says. “The federal government's water-quality initiative is going to force us to use the most effective systems to cut soil erosion and nitrogen and other crop nutrients in surface and groundwater.

“It's going to get tough,” Sullivan says. “And even with strip-till we don't have near the soil disturbance that we do with full-width tillage.”