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Minimum tillage works well on rolling hills of Pope County
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Minimum tillage works well on rolling hills of Pope County

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Strip-Tilling

A variety of strip-tillage machines were demonstrated at the Soil Health Expo. Photo by Andrea Johnson.

BARRETT, Minn. – Gregg and Denise Stoen farm about 900 acres near Lowry, in Pope County.

Gregg spoke at the recent Soil Health Expo about how their operation has changed over the years to adopt new minimum tillage techniques.

They got their interest in strip-till from Gregg’s dad, who was a commercial ag retailer. They first learned about-strip till in 2005.

“In the summer, a co-op had a machine and we did one field to try it out,” he said.

In 2006, he signed up for EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) and the program paid for the cost of a custom strip-tiller.

The next year, the Stoens used the balance of the EQIP dollars to purchase an Ag Systems, Inc., single-hopper fertilizer output shank-type with wheel drive strip-till machine.

“We just put the strips down in the fall and ‘eyed’ the planter and started that way,” Gregg said. “It got hard to watch the machine because it had sheer bolts for rocks. So we purchased our first autosteer with free signal that had sub-foot accuracy. It worked fine for stripping, but to try to follow with the planter in the spring, it just wouldn’t stay on the berm.”

They decided to upgrade the GPS technology, which allowed them to obtain 4-inch autosteer accuracy that made strip-tillage more manageable.

When the Conservation Security Program (CSP) arrived, the Stoens were accepted for a precision placement fertilizer and nitrogen stabilizer grant. They purchased a Hiniker strip-till machine with a dual hopper system. The tillage tool gave them the ability to variable-rate apply P and K. It also offered automatic reset shanks so there were no more sheered bolts to deal with.

Gregg was very interested in variable rate applications of fertilizer, and he and his father had worked with Centrol Crop Consulting since 1985.

Centrol divided the fields into two acre grids and soil sampled each grid. Then along with using the Stoens’ yield maps, they made fertilizer application prescriptions for the farm.

As precision agriculture, GPS, autosteer, variable rate mapping and more was developed, Gregg kept upgrading the technology on the farm to improve soil health and yield and to understand what was happening on the farmland.

Most recently, the Stoens have upgraded their GPS system for 1.4-inch accuracy. The precision placement of seed and nutrients on the berm helps corn get a good start and maintain yield potential from the start.

“You don’t realize how much your field changes,” he said. “We had up to 600 pounds per acre variability on a two crop application in two-acre grids in the same field.”

The strip-till fertility system today includes applying MicroEssentials SZ. The fertilizer includes N, P, sulfur and zinc in one granule. Potash is added via its own hopper bottom tank on the strip-till machine. The fertilizer is variable-rate applied.

In the spring of the year, right after corn planting is done, the Stoens watch the weather forecasts for a nice rain to apply the N.

The co-op broadcasts urea with a nitrogen stabilizer (Agrotain) that keeps the N from volatilizing for about seven days.

If the fall is a wet one, it can be difficult to lay down nice strips. Putting down strips in the spring is advisable with a shank type unit because of the amount of wet soil that would be pulled up.

“We start right when we are done with soybean harvest. We go right into strip-till and wait for the corn harvest,” he said, adding that the soybeans and corn are custom harvested. “The soil is too warm for the N, so that is the reason for the spring application of N.”

It takes him about a week to complete strip-tilling in the fall – about the same amount of time as it takes to plant corn.

With the very wet and cold conditions of 2019, Gregg wasn’t able to finish strip tillage in a low-lying area. So he went back with a vertical tiller and worked some broadcast fertilizer into the soil. This spring, he planted through the area and will go back to strip-tillage this fall.

He added that it’s important to get a little bit of a “berm” on that strip.

“If you don’t have a nice little mound of soil above the other soil, you’ll get a divot,” he said. “It can wash out those strips on the hillsides.”

Gregg listed several pluses of operating a minimum tillage farm. Those items include reducing water and wind soil erosion. He is able to make the strips and apply fertilizer himself, which saves on application costs.

His early spring projects include taking a four-wheeler up and down the fields and picking up rocks. Sometimes he has to get the three-point digger and pull up some big rocks, then he’s ready to plant in the nice seed bed that was made the previous fall. It works great for a one-person spring work operation, he said.

“You save moisture because you are not working your field in the spring,” he said.

The Pope County strip-till farmer has also reduced white mold in soybeans.

He added that the entire operation only uses two tractors, and he only puts about 110 hours per year on the main tractor. That’s less than half the hours they used to put on the tractor.

As far as negatives, strip-tillage changes the weed spectrum and it’s necessary to put down glyphosate or some type of weed burndown in the spring along with the preemerge chemical application.

“Because you don’t have your spring tillage pass, it can green up. Tiling is important – especially with the no-till or strip-till,” he said.

Gregg appreciated the opportunity to talk about his operation, as he enjoys listening to what other farmers do on their land.

“There is not one system that fits every piece of ground or farm,” he said. “It’s nice to talk to each other, to find out what other farmers have done. You can pick up a lot of information at these seminars.”

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