You can switch to strip-till for all the right reasons but work against the benefits with a lax approach to soil preparation.
The appeal of strip-till is that it offers a profitable and more environmentally sound alternative to conventional tillage. It involves tilling narrow strips and building berms, or small ridges, 3" to 4" high. The operation is performed in the fall, and fertilizer can be banded in the strips.
To stack your odds for success, loosen compacted layers of soil, optimize pH and fertility levels and modify your weed control program. If you strip-till continuous corn, you'll want to pay special attention to disease management and harvest technique. You'll also need a backup plan in case weather prevents you from making strips in the fall.
Strip-till is becoming common around the Corn Belt. Tom Endress and his brother Mike, who farm near Tremont in central Illinois, began experimenting with strip-till in 1996. Now they use the technique on all their corn acres.
"We weren't happy with the soil finishing tools that were available in the late 1990s,” Tom says. "They often put in a compaction layer at 3" or 4".”
The brothers compared corn plants' root growth in strip-till and in their full-width tillage system, which included a disk ripper running shanks 14" to 16" deep. In strip-till, the roots of a corn plant less than 3' tall penetrated 42" into the soil. In full-width tillage, the roots penetrated only as far as a compacted layer 4" beneath the surface, then grew horizontally, putting plants at risk in a dry year.
"Strip-till also saves immensely on time, labor and fuel,” Tom says. "It makes your spring workload easy if you get strip-till completed in the fall.” So far, the brothers have always been able to do that.
After more than a dozen years in a corn–soybean rotation, strip-till corn yields as well as or better than corn grown with conventional tillage, Tom reports. In continuous corn, the brothers' strip-till yields have been less consistent (more on that later), but the improvement in soil condition keeps them strip-tilling.
The Endresses' experience parallels what Purdue University Extension cropping specialist Tony Vyn learned from research studies.
"My research has confirmed that strip-till is a viable alternative to the most common tillage practices in this area, such as chisel plowing and disk ripping,” Vyn explains. "That is true for either continuous corn or a corn–soybean rotation.”
"With corn following soybeans, strip-till doesn't necessarily produce a higher yield than conventional tillage,” he adds. "But compared to no-till, it provides more planting flexibility in the spring, along with earlier planting opportunities, which can increase yield substantially. Done correctly, strip-till yields better than no-till in high-residue environments, such as continuous corn or corn following wheat.”