COLUMBUS, Ohio -- No-till farmers looking to plant corn after corn this growing season have the option of practicing strip tillage to maintain soil conservation benefits while reducing production issues associated with no-till monoculture crop systems.
Randall Reeder, an Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer who specializes in conservation tillage practices, said that the same crops or like crops planted in the same field year after year creates a host of issues -- from pest buildup to root growth inhibition to yield reduction. Continuous corn, under no-till production systems, can suffer anywhere from a 5 percent to 15 percent yield reduction compared with no-till corn following soybeans.
"The best production practice is to rotate your crops. But some no-till farmers are going to want to grow corn after corn, and they are going to see the production advantages of some kind of tillage," said Reeder. "The challenge is how do we encourage them to do the least amount of tillage as necessary to maintain soil benefits while not losing anything on the production end?"
One answer is to strip till. Strip tillage is considered a no-till conservation practice whereby planting and tillage operations are limited to strips and the area between the rows is left untilled with crop residue. Conservation tillage practices offer a variety of benefits, including reduction in labor, reduction in machinery wear, increased organic matter, reduced soil erosion, improved soil quality, improved air quality by storing carbon, increased wildlife habitats and a better method of maintaining moisture.
"The advantage of strip tillage is that it prepares an ideal surface condition for corn planting, but still leaves residue between the strips like in no-till," said Reeder.
No-till farmers considering strip tillage as an option may want to keep some of the following suggestions in mind:
• Plant a few inches, say five, from the old corn row. "Running a depth gauge wheel on the planter on the old row would give uneven depth and poor soil to seed contact," said Reeder. "The goal of a successful corn crop is to have uniform spacing, uniform depth and uniform germination."
• Consider controlled traffic. "The idea of moving five inches from the old row can fit into a controlled traffic system," said Reeder. "But its accuracy is dependent on RTK auto steer systems."
• Run shallow strip tillage in the spring to avoid working wet soil. "Most farmers strip till in the fall and then let the natural weathering of the soil settle the soil structure," said Reeder. "In the spring, you don't have the freeze and thaw cycles, and big clods produced from strip tillage, or any other kind of tillage, can dry like chunks of concrete. They're hard to turn into a good seedbed."
• Avoid strip tillage uphill and downhill on slopes greater than 3 percent. "Water will get into the strip and run right down the row," said Reeder. "Strip-tillage on contour is fine."
• Use a fluffing harrow, or similar machine, if you don't have strip tillage equipment. "These machines till a couple of inches deep, mix a little soil with crop residue, and help smooth out the surface," said Reeder.
Ohio leads the Midwest in no-till adoption. Currently over 20 percent of the state's cornfields are in no-till, and that includes strip tillage. According to research conducted at Ohio State and Purdue universities, strip tillage produces comparable yields as fall chisel plowing in continuous corn production.
Tony Vyn, a Purdue University Extension agronomist, offers additional considerations when no-tilling continuous corn:
• Be realistic about costs.
• Pick the best drained and productive fields.
• Manage for in-row uniformity for root growth.
• Optimize no-till corn performance with superior management -- from hybrid selection to fertilizer use to pest control.
• Invest in research to compare multiple production systems.
"The bottom line is if farmers feel they need to till this spring, we encourage them to use the least amount of tillage that will still provide good yields," said Reeder.