Wimpy looking early season no-till corn for most farmers is almost worse than an argument with a cranky mother-in-law. It's downright embarrassing.

Especially when their neighbors' conventional-till corn is growing like gangbusters.

Steel-willed, true no-till believers have gone through piles of iron to solve the Northern no-till corn challenge. But uneven stands of pale-green, early season corn sometimes end up with a hit on yield.

It appears that's beginning to change.

Thanks to strip-till, wannabe corn no-tillers no longer will be tempted to sneak out and do a little "rotational tillage" before corn planting.

That's short for staying with no-till on their soybeans but doing some tillage to warm up and dry out the ground before planting early season corn.

Strip-tilling, preferably in the fall, is done with a machine that tills narrow strips or bands from 6 to 8" wide and 4 to 8" deep. That hastens the warming and drying of soil the following spring, leaving a friendly area for seed placement and early growth. Usually, fertilizer is injected into the band at the same time.

Listen to what two southern Minnesota farmers, a central Iowa farmer and a long-time Illinois no-tiller have to say about this system.

"This spring, it was the nicest planting under the strips of any of the four systems in our tests," declares Ray Rauenhorst of Easton, MN. He has no-tilled seven years and fall strip-tilled the last four.

"Only harvest will give the yield results, but the preliminary indications are, of the four systems tested, strip-till provided by far the nicest seedbed. It worked out real well."

Rauenhorst is one of several cooperators with Monsanto, which has established what it calls Centers of Excellence on farms in the northern Corn Belt. Systems compared for corn were: strip-till, pure no-till, stale seedbed (worked once lightly in the fall) and conventional tillage. Rauenhorst uses a DMI strip-till unit.

When asked if he thinks the bottom-line verdict will be that strip-till can solve the Northern no-tillcorn challenge, he answered, "yes" without hesitation.

Roger Kennell, Roanoke, IL, agrees. And he has five years of yield comparisons to back up his evaluation. He first strip-tilled fields in the fall of '92 for the '93 corn crop.

"The corn in the strip-tilled plots has outyielded the pure no-till corn by an average of 12.4 bu/acre over the five years we have made the comparisons."

His fall-made strips are about 7 1/2" wide. Anhydrous is placed about 8" deep and dry P and K about 2" above that.

"It's a management system, and any management system has to be adjusted to fit your particular situation," he reminds. "But it's a way to increase corn yields over pure no-till and yet obtain the other benefits that you have with no-till."

For Kennell, who also uses a DMI strip-till unit, strip-till corn is a win-win situation.

"I think a farmer can strip-till and get yields equal to conventional tillage, do it for less cost, especially less machinery cost, and keep soil and fertilizer in the field for a cleaner environment," he declares.

Roy Bardole, another Center of Excellence cooperator and six-year no-tiller from Rippey, IA, has been successfully no-tilling soybeans but fighting the challenges of no-till corn - until now. He planted the test-strip comparisons on April 24 after a very wet early spring in his area. The remainder of his corn acreage was all strip-tilled with a new unit from Progressive Farm Products.

"The temperature in the strip-till was very similar to the temp in the full-till treatment that had virtually no residue cover," Bardole enthuses. "The standard no-till was much cooler. The corn in the strip-till came up just as consistent and even as the conventional-till corn.

"The no-till corn came up like it nearly always does - sporadic. Later, when the strip-till corn was shoulder high, the no-till corn was elbow high. The difference stayed with it clear through tasseling."

Bardole feels mighty good about fall strip-till, but says he'll investigate spring strip-till, too, because bad weather can sometimes beat you.

"In farming, you need backup plans two, three and sometimes four," he says.

Tom Muller, Windom, MN, farms with his brother Steve and father Dave. They built their own strip-till rig four seasons ago - and couldn't be happier with it and the results.

The 12-row, 30' strip-till unit fall-applies anhydrous ammonia and also P and K, through an air-delivery system. It has a mole knife, similar to a subsoiler point, mounted on an anhydrous shank, with a coulter in front and 18" closing disks behind.

"The benefit of that nearly black strip of soil really shows up for corn," says Muller. "Corn just seems to enjoy that little bit of tillage in the row zone. It has been exciting for us."