Cover Story: The Strip-Tillage Method

Gusty Winds Didn't Blow Out These Beets in Dietrich, Idaho

Published online: Aug 01, 2008 Feature Nancy I. Butler, editor
Sandy soil, hard-blowing winds, pelting rain and delicate beet seeds aren't the ideal mixture for a successful spring planting. Determined to find a way to keep a field with those conditions in production, the Shaw family farm tried out a new method.
Acey Shaw recalls a professor he had in college years ago who argued that strip-till was the way.
Now that the beets have been planted and are up three or four inches those college day memories are returning and Shaw understands clearly what his professor was trying to say.
It takes courage and determination to be a trail blazer in the agriculture industry.
Today, that risk has paid off as the big smiles on the faces of Acey and his brother Andy can confirm. "The crops in that field get blown out way too often. To see those green rows of beets holding tight to the soil on that hill this time is a great sight," said Shaw.

DISCOVERING STRIP-TILL

A group of Amalgamated agriculturalists and a few sugarbeet growers met at the Shaw farm near Dietrich, Idaho, in June to see firsthand the successful strip-tilled field.
As the editor of Sugar Producer magazine, I was able to tag along. I found the view a little confusing at first. For instance, the field we drove out to see was covered with leftover corn trash from last fall's harvest. I wanted to know why a grower would plant beet seed in a field like that?
Although the beet plants looked nice and healthy sitting there among the old corn stalks, I was intrigued with the rationale.
Dennis Searle, Senior Agriculturalist for Amalgamated explained that strip-till will use less water, less fertilizer and less fuel. Another benefit is that the crop yields are expected to increase.
Dave Zimmerer with Schlagel Manufacturing in Torrington, Wyo., says it takes a new way of thinking. Zimmerer has been out in Idaho numerous times demonstrating the strip-till method and answers a plethora of questions and concerns. He has been working this method for over 15 years. He travels to areas wanting to learn about the operating mechanics of the equipment and how it compares to conventional tillage systems.
Zimmerer starts out with his presentation by saying bluntly that a grower needs to adjust his thinking about tillage, "What looks ugly and trashy on the surface to some looks beautiful to those of us using the strip-till method."
All those leftover corn stalks or grain straw is actually the foundation needed for successful strip-till.

PROTECTION


The trash, as Zimmerer calls it, is the residual left on the ground that protects the soil from gusty winds and hammering rain. Thus, it protects the seedlings.
In addition to protecting soil and seed, the water evaporation is reduced by retaining moisture and improving infiltration.
For a successful strip-till field Zimmerer says growers need to get educated on the method or technology and equipment to be used. It is a fairly new practice and research is ongoing in how to best use the tools with the various soil and crop types.
In a USDA-ARS report out of Sidney, Mont., the January 2006 strip-till study concluded that strip-tillage will produce yields comparable to conventionally tilled beets. Also, the technology should provide significant savings in fuel and time for growers.
The report also states that surface soil moisture is higher in strip-till plots compared to adjoining plots with conventional till method.

THE EVOLUTION

As tillage practices are evolving the culture for agriculture is improving to where growers have more choices in management and environmentally friendly results.
The initial phases in conservation tillage began with the moldboard plow replacing the chisel plow. Less aggressive disking, and in the 1970s the no-tillage practice arrived due to better planting equipment and herbicides.
Strip-till implements and methods are winding up for even better benefits. The strip-till equipment is designed to till a narrow strip about eight to 10 inches on the crop row centers. The space between the tilled strips is no-till and the area for the crop is tilled.
The equipment manufacturers have various designs but the basic pattern consist of coulters, disks and a subsurface knife.
The Shaws plan on purchasing strip-till equipment next year after the success they witnessed with the Hondos custom operator this year. The Hondos of Burley bought a strip-till machine and did custom work this spring. They plan to continue doing custom work and also implementing the strip-till method on their own farm.
It is transforming row-crop farming in the Wyoming and Nebraska areas and has made its way to Idaho. The Shaws are grateful they took a chance and brought a new game to their farm.