COLUMBUS, Ohio - Corn growers considering fall tillage to alleviate soil compaction may find strip tillage a viable alternative to conventional tillage.
Randall Reeder, an Ohio State University agricultural engineer, said strip tillage provides the best of both no-till and conventional tillage practices in that only a strip of soil is tilled while the soil between planting rows remains untouched. The result is planting strips that produce conditions similar to a conventionally tilled field, with surrounding untilled soil protecting the field from erosion, conserving carbon and improving soil quality.
"A no-till farmer who is thinking about tilling his field this fall because of compaction concerns should consider strip tillage," said Reeder. "Instead of tilling 100 percent of a field, a grower can just till a seven-or eight-inch strip of soil for each row and that's all the tillage that's needed."
This season's unusual weather - a wet spring, followed by a summer drought, and ending in more rain - has created compaction problems in some Ohio no-till fields.
"This has been a bad year for compaction. Because of the wet May, then the dry summer and then wet weather from the hurricanes, we've had equipment running over wet soil causing compaction in the top few inches," said Reeder. "Planting into compacted ground affects seed germination and you end up with a shallow root system, poor root development and ultimately poor plant growth."
Reeder said strip tillage affords growers a variety of benefits, including a lower cost, ease of spring planting and its compatibility with other production systems like controlled traffic and precision agriculture.
"A grower will save money with strip tillage because it is less costly to till a strip of soil, rather than an entire field," said Reeder. "Also with strip tillage, once spring arrives growers can immediately plant. Most other fall tillage operations require another tillage pass in the spring before planting."
Reeder said that compared to no-till, strip tillage allows the soil to dry out and warm up quicker, speeding up planting. In most cases, soil temperatures can be as much as six to 10 degrees warmer on sunny spring afternoons than residue-covered areas between the strips.
Reeder added that strip tillage adds additional value to other farm management practices, like controlled traffic - a method to manage soil compaction, in which all farm equipment is the same width and traffic is confined to specific paths year after year - and GPS technology, that helps growers locate strip-tilled rows when fields are revisited in the spring.
Like most farm management practices, however, growers, researchers, consultants and the like have argued whether or not strip tilling is just as or even more profitable than other tillage systems.
Four years of Ohio State research comparing yield results of strip tillage to no-till, conventional tillage and subsoiling produced inconsistent results. Some years showed conventional tillage producing higher yields than strip tillage, which produced higher yields than no-till. In other years, strip tillage and no-till produced better yields than conventional tillage, but subsoiling beat them all.
Reeder said many factors are involved that can impact the overall success of a specific tillage operation, including time of planting, soil properties, emergence rate, plant population and insect and disease impact.
Despite the inconsistent Ohio research results, Reeder said that there are situations where strip tillage is beneficial.
"I have never seen strip tillage that yielded less than tilled ground over a several-year span of operation. Strip tillage should give the same yields as tilled ground and yet keep the advantages of no-till," said Reeder. "So if some no-till growers feel they need to do some tilling this fall, then strip tillage might be a good system to try out."