For generations, the farmer’s common practice of aggressively tilling fields resulted in successful yields. In the current era, weather changes, economics and conservation efforts to improve soil health and sustainability have led many farmers to embrace a no-till system.
Although producers often categorize themselves as either conventional tillage or no-till, there is a third option.
Strip-till farming can be seen as a halfway point between conventional and no-till practices, as well as a transitional step for those unable or unsure about going fully to a no-till system. Strip-till can provide many of the soil health advantages of no-till while at the same time providing the tilled seedbed for planting that is achieved with conventional tillage.
In strip-till farming, farmers till only the row where the seed and fertilizer will be placed, leaving the residue between the rows undisturbed. The strip is typically between four and eight inches deep and between six and 12 inches wide. Strips can be created in autumn after harvest or in spring prior to planting. Some systems utilize both a deep autumn strip tillage with a lighter spring “freshening” of the strip.
Farmers considering strip-till farming should weigh the pros and cons to determine whether or not the practice is right for their operation.
The benefits of strip-till farming:
- The reduced disruption and good cover of residue minimizes the potential for soil to erode from the field.
- Removing residue just above where the seed will be planted allows for the soil to be warmed by the sun in spring before planting, providing a more mellow seedbed.
- Fertilizer can be applied with more precision directly into the soil in the same pass as you move across the field, requiring less fertilizer overall. Strip-till machines can be set up for both dry or liquid fertilizer. Liquid fertilizer requires less horsepower per row to inject than a dry system.
- Leaving soil undisturbed allows for soil structure to form and reduced trips across the field minimizes soil compaction.
- Most strip-till systems rely on one tillage pass in autumn and no tillage in springtime.
- Conventional tilling often results in three to four passes, as opposed to the single pass needed for strip-till.
- One of the most important steps to a healthier soil is reducing disturbance. With less tillage, earthworms, fungi and other beneficial organisms can thrive in the soil and improve many soil health metrics including soil aggregation.
- By leaving most of the soil undisturbed, it’s possible to take a more advanced step toward soil health by allowing a cover crop to grow between rows. Strip-till operations can be performed after cover crop application to ensure a clean seed bed for next year’s crop while maintaining a cover crop on most of the field.
The drawbacks to strip-till farming:
- In a field with significant down slope, you risk water running down the strips (instead of moving slowly through the residue in the field). This could cause erosion and risk damaging the seed bed. This erosion can be most damaging after planting the crop. Many growers in this situation see an advantage to going full no-till.
- A wet year or a delayed harvest can restrict the amount of time available to create a strip, especially after harvest. A back-up plan of either spring strip-till or being comfortable with no-till is desirable in these situations.
- There is an upfront cost of additional or new equipment to transition to the practice.
- Sometimes soil is too mellow for good no-till planter performance.
In some instances, farmers who have already made the transition to no-till farming have seen reason to pull back to the strip-till model. For example, in 2018, Andrew Reuschel of Reuschel Farms in Golden, IL, had made his 1,200-acre operation a no-till model, experimenting with a variety of cover crops. He explained during the recent American Farm Bureau Convention that things were going well until the farm got hit with three straight years of overly heavy spring rains in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Fields drowned. Plantings were delayed for weeks and months. Even their cover crops suffered from excessive moisture. In a desperate effort to get crops in the ground and growing, the Reuschels quickly moved to strip-tillage to find a drier band in which to plant.
The experience made Reuschel realize that practicality must temper his ideals. “I don’t have the luxury to be a purist anymore,” he said. “We were on this track with 100% no-tillage into green cover crops. But it’s sad to watch your corn rot in the ground three years in a row because you’re trying to be a purist.”
That said, do your research before considering any change to your operation’s plans. Speak with other farmers and Extension specialists.
by Enrico Villamaino