Look for fall strip tillage to wipe away the black eye no-till corn has been wearing in the northern Corn Belt.
That's the reading from several scientists who have been hitting that challenge hard with solid research the last couple of years.
They're confirming what a few innovative farmers already had found out to their satisfaction. That is, strip-till delivers many of no-till's benefits, plus it can generally match the yields of conventionally tilled cornfields.
These scientists are happy because surveys showed slow-starting, uneven stands of wimpy-looking corn, especially in cold, wet springs so typical in the 1990s, was a big-time concern for no-tillers and wannabe no-tillers.
Consider this Monsanto survey of 1,800 Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois farmers who no-till soybeans and have at least tried no-till corn.
"First and foremost, 22% said lower yield with no-till on corn was the problem," notes Pete Hill, a former Purdue University agronomist working on no-till and now a conservation tillage specialist with Monsanto.
"So, obviously, we must be suffering a yield loss, or certainly a perceived yield loss, that goes beyond any kind of savings that we get from using the no-till system," Hill asserts.
Paul Carter, a former University of Wisconsin corn specialist and now a Pioneer agronomist, found about the same thing in a survey of company agronomists.
"By far and away, whether in the northern or central or southern part of the country, that cold, wet soil problem for no-till corn was at the very top of the list of problems."
Scientists, like innovative farmers who are determined to solve the challenges of no-tilling corn, have gone through scads of equipment, and devices such as different coulter designs, row cleaners, etc., trying to solve the riddle. And the zone-till system pioneered by Michigan no-till guru Ray Rawson has been the answer in some areas.
But Wayne Pedersen, University of Illinois plant pathologist, has gone through eight planters - not just modifications - in his search to get a 90% stand of no-till corn. He finally did it with the strip-till system.
In fact, in 1996, with good weather and this system, he got 247-bu/acre no-till corn. He also got 93-bu/acre soybeans using a pure no-till system.
Pedersen has compared fall strip-till against spring strip-till and mulch tillage. And the fall strip-till system has equaled or surpassed mulch-till.
"In 1997, we ended up with a very dry July and early August, and fall strip-tilling, followed by no-tilling corn in the spring on those strips, outyielded everything else - and did it significantly," he notes.
"It certainly appears," Pedersen declares, "that fall strip-till is a viable option for corn, not only in east-central Illinois but in a lot of areas that have had difficulty trying to use no-till systems for corn."
Pete Hill, whose research now focuses almost exclusively on no-till, states flatly: "Strip-till for no-till corn is an outstanding system that has worked for almost 100% of these challenge areas that no-till corn is encountering. It's an excellent system and it's here now - not something for which we need to wait several years."
Gyles Randall, University of Minnesota soil scientist located on the heavy, slow-to-warm soils at Waseca, echoes that evaluation.
"I'm really optimistic on this fall strip-till system for solving the no-till challenges with corn in the North," says Randall. "I think it will displace pure no-till for corn in the northern part of the Corn Belt.
"It seems to me we have two goals for the future," the scientist adds. "One is to maintain some crop residue cover, and the second is to incorporate nutrients so that any water running off the soil surface isn't carrying phosphorus, which can pollute lakes and streams. The strip-till system allows for both - so you have the best of both worlds here."
The big challenges with no-till corn, especially in the North, are slow, uneven emergence and poor stands. Everybody has been blaming colder, wetter soils and their effect on germination and early growth.
That's part of the equation but not all of it, insists Wayne Pedersen. As a plant pathologist, he's found that the cool, wet conditions strongly favor pythium, which often is the real culprit. The disease "loves" soil temps between 48 degrees and 55 degrees, Pedersen explains.
"So when we're below 55 degrees in the soil, we're favoring this pathogen," Pedersen adds. "It can do anything from rotting the seed so it doesn't emerge, to removing the roots after the seedling is established, to even causing stalk rot in the late season. Of course, the seed treatment on corn helps, but it's not enough under those cool, wet soil conditions.
"Pythium is the major problem in trying to control stand loss in pure no-till corn," Pedersen insists. "But I have been getting unbelievable consistency in stand with this fall strip-till system."
Here's why. Pedersen, like Hill, Randall and other scientists working with fall strip-till, has found the soil is 5-9 degrees warmer in the strip-till planting zone than in pure no-till. That makes it comparable to mulch-till, says Pedersen. On a sunny afternoon, the difference can be 10-12 degrees, even up to 15 degrees, he adds.
Pedersen also has had good results with spring strip tillage. It usually has outyielded straight no-till but has not equaled fall strip tillage. It's an option, however, if foul weather prevents a farmer from getting all of his stripping done in fall, he says.
Randall doesn't see much hope for spring strip-till in Minnesota. Therefore, he cautions growers to think through the fall stripping system and visit with growers who have mastered it before jumping in.
To assure getting it done, he advises growers to apply fertilizer while fall stripping right after soybean harvest and before corn harvest. That brings up the risk of losing some nitrogen because soil temperatures are too high yet.
"I strongly suggest adding N-Serve to their anhydrous to avoid losing too much of it. The alternative is to spring-apply their N."
Some growers and scientists are cobbling up their own strip-till rigs. Others are buying commercial units that handle dry and/or liquid fertilizer. They're available from several companies, but some work better than others, caution growers with experience. So they advise checking with growers using commercial rigs before plunking down your money.
One other management input that shouldn't be overlooked is hybrid selection, caution Hill and Carter.
"Strong emergence and seed quality are key under these challenging, early planting conditions with no-till corn," asserts Carter. "Start by looking at the highest-yielding hybrid in the area, whether it's under a conservation tillage system or mold- board plow. But make sure it has good disease resistance and strong establishment traits."
"A lot of folks are abandoning the traits that are necessary for successful no-till corn production in order to get Bt or some other transgenic trait," says a regretful Pete Hill.
"To me, that's a crucial mistake. That technology is wonderful, but it's extremely important that we do not lose sight of why the hybrids we have liked so well in the past have worked so well for us."