Ask farmers about fall versus spring strip-building and you get convincing arguments for both.
Choosing spring or fall strip-till “depends on so many factors; only you can decide,” says Brad Meister, Bourbon, Ind. “Soil type, coulter machine or shank machine, whether you have any erodible land, the amount of time you have in the fall to do it; how long it takes for your ground to mellow out in the spring, and whether you put down phosphorus or potassium with it.”
Consider Iowa farmer Jim Sladek, who believes so strongly in spring strip-till that he’s willing to staff up with skilled operators in the busy planting season to make it happen.
“It’s important to use the right strip-till equipment for spring operation,” says the Iowa City continuous-corn farmer, for “shallower spring operations.” He uses a Dawn Pluribus, “a coulter-based unit designed for wetter spring soils,” he says. “Much different from a shank-style, deep-rip-type unit used in the fall. I build my spring strip, let it dry off, then plant,” he says.
Corn+Soybean Digest asked strip-tillers which season they prefer for stripping; the answers hinge on people’s soils, equipment and manpower.
Another advantage to spring strip-till, Sladek adds, is the mellow, aerated seedbed from spring strips. “You avoid the smearing you can get from a soil finisher or field cultivator used in the spring when it’s too wet. That smearing can limit root growth for the rest of the season,” he says.
Spring strip-till reduces soil erosion because the strips aren’t subjected to fall, winter and early spring precipitation, Sladek adds. These agronomic and conservation benefits far outweigh the more demanding spring logistics – more field passes, requiring skilled operators, plus hauling fertilizer to tend the planter and strip-till bars, he says. “But, from our standpoint, spring strip-till is the best agronomically.”
Paul Musick, Camp Point, Ill., has always built his strips in the spring. “It gives you a much better seedbed, and you avoid losing nitrogen over the winter,” he says.
However, Iowa State University Extension Agronomist Mahdi Al-Kaisi challenges that logic: Nitrogen can be lost in both spring and fall strip-till, he says. “In the fall, there’s risk of nitrogen loss, especially if soil temperature is above 50° F and enough time passes before planting to allow fall-applied nitrogen to be lost. In spring strip-tillage, wet conditions create large clods and large spaces between soil clods that can allow nitrogen to escape as well,” he says.
Chris Bowman, DeWitt, Iowa, does both spring and fall strip-till. Agronomically, he prefers placing nutrients in a spring strip. “Logistically, fall is much better – just pull in and plant,” he says.
“I like a shank machine to place nutrients deeper than a coulter-only unit. This helps reduce nutrient stratification issues and increases crop safety as the corn seedlings are placed over nutrients, but not directly in them. Shortly after emergence, roots find the banded fertilizer, and crop and root growth explodes. I would prefer to have my strips in place in fall, but wait until spring on highly erodible land to reduce the time soil is exposed to erosion potential. My strips are fairly clear of residue, which is great for crop growth but can lead to increased risk of washing out strip in heavy rains. The nice thing is more residue is on the surface strip-tilling over conventional tillage, reducing total erosion potential, whether done in fall or spring,” Bowman says. “I have seen an explosion in earthworm activity in my fields and believe overall soil health has improved since adopting strip-tillage.”
Scott Brown, Carthage, Ill., used spring strip-till this year because his ground “is not good for any fall deep tillage without a cover crop. We are new to this, so we will see,” he says.
Nick Hermanson, Des Moines, splits the difference, and makes two passes: A deep pass in the fall to mix in turkey manure, “then a shallow spring pass to freshen the strip, smooth things out and apply 32% nitrogen,” he says.
“For us in the heavy gumbo, we prefer a shank-type strip-till bar in the fall, which gives our ground time to mellow out and creates a nearly perfect seedbed come spring,” says Brad Meister, Bourbon, Ind. “I would never run a shank-type machine in the spring on my ground, you run the risk of smearing the sidewalls and drying the ground out too much. For us, the planting window is too narrow in the spring to do both. If it’s fit to make strips, it’s fit to plant,” Meister says.
Adam Nechanicky, Buckingham, Iowa, likes the peace of mind of having the trips over with and done. Plus, “My fall strips were far nicer than my spring strips,” he says. “I think a lot of it had to do with timing. I like to get them done in the fall; I’m concerned about getting strips and planting done in a timely manner. And, I use anhydrous ammonia, so I need a waiting period before planting (they say).”
“So true (waiting after the ammonia),” says University of Minnesota Extension Regional Educator Jodi DeJong-Hughes, who waited five days this spring before planting after applying her anhydrous ammonia to spring-built strips.”
Northern Iowa farmer John Schwarckis another fan of fall strip-till. “Because we have cold, wet springs 70% of the time, I feel it necessary to strip in the fall, then go over the strip lightly in the spring again to dry it out so we can plant several days earlier compared to waiting for a fall shank strip to dry enough to plant.
“Freshened fall strips work up much nicer than untouched ground in the spring if the ground is damp. My Pluribus really shone this spring doing exactly that. My corn looks as good or better than any I've seen in the area. This is continuous corn, too. I should give some of the credit to my GFX row cleaners and more so to RFX hydraulic down-force. I probably have the most even emergence and stand I've ever had, and it was a cold, wet spring, too,” Schwarck says. “The biggest advantage of coulter rigs (used for spring strips) is their flexibility.”
Patrick Gerke, Pilot Grove, Mo., prefers fall strip-till “if the weather cooperates. This year, I did all of mine in the spring, though, and it’s worked out OK so far.
“I use an anhydrous shank-type machine either spring or fall. That’s probably part of the reason I prefer fall if the weather cooperates. The overwintering of the fall strip helps to break down any clods, and the strip plants great in the spring then. The only problem I’ve had using it in the spring is when it’s slightly wet when stripping, the clods will sometimes dry out really fast, and the only option for planting is to set the row cleaners low enough to move the clods out of the way. That wasn’t a problem this spring, as conditions were near perfect and I had rain between stripping and planting to settle the strips,” Gerke says.
Fall strips are the first choice for Iowa State University Extension Agronomist Al-Kaisi. “The soil moisture in the fall generally makes better strips; it has fewer large clods and is better drained. This means a more consistent seedbed,” he says.
“Iowa does not have a good spring window for field work, especially between planting and tillage. Very wet spring soil creates a lot of problems, including soil compaction in the strip zone and between rows, which can restrict root growth and ultimately reduce yield.”
Soil drainage is the main consideration for choosing fall or spring strip-tillage, Al-Kaisi says. “Well-drained soil may be more suited to spring strip-till than poorly drained soil.”