The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Row or Strip-Tillage Ups and Downs

Published online: Feb 09, 2010 Feature Robert Downard, Amalgamated
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When I was asked to spearhead strip-tillage in the Amalgamated growing area I was excited. I always want to learn about new things and share that information.

We had a great experience during the 2008 growing season and wonderful success. After seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly I still have a desire to see it succeed but felt like I was on a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs.

I believe that strip-tillage is an operation that can benefit your farming operation if managed correctly.
Being aware of the benefits and challenges can help everyone utilize the practice more successfully.

I encourage you to share your experiences with me by sending an email to me at the address at the end of this article.


Wind Erosion: One of the major benefits of strip-tillage is being able to protect sugarbeets from wind damage. Wind tends to reduce plant growth and can destroy crops.

On sandy, sandy loam, or silt loam soils, strip-tilling is the best way to protect the beets. Over the past two years, those fields that were strip-tilled were not destroyed by wind.

Cost Savings: A big benefit in strip-tillage is the reduced tillage and labor costs. Strip-tillage reduces the tillage trips in a field from three to nine, saving $24 to $90 per acre.

On 100 acres, that would be a significant savings of $2,400 to $9,000.
Your actual savings can be calculated using the University of Idaho's Crop Budgets or Machine Cost Program at

On that site, click on resources, you will see Crops and Software. Using either one of these tools should help you evaluated the cost savings on your farm.

Effective fertilizer placement: By placing the fertilizer below the sugarbeet seed it is more effective in nutrient uptake early in plant growth. Especially in some Idaho soils which tend to tie up phosphorus, placement is essential for effective uptake.

This year, we have seen sugarbeets under strip-tillage take off when they reach the fertilizer band.
All fertilizer banded below the seed these past two years has been put down as a liquid and some have put all required fertilizer in the band.

Research still needs to be done on how much can be put down safely, but early indications show positive results for higher rates.

Less Compaction: Compaction and hard pans tend to restrict root growth. In sugarbeet production, we want unrestricted root growth for good water and nutrient uptake.

Fields which have been strip-tilled have shown less compaction in the row than those under a full-tillage operation.
This is due to fewer trips across the field and by pulling a shank in the seed row to break up hard pans or compaction layers. This allows the roots to grow unrestricted.

Reducing compaction also will allow for better water infiltration which will reduce risk of runoff.
Those who have done strip-till have seen better water infiltration for example less water puddling and runoff.

Versatility: Strip-tillage machines may be used in corn or bean production. This year, a few growers have used their strip-till machine for corn production and are satisfied with the results.
Also, numerous growers this year have tried it in beans and like what they see. This versatility adds value to the strip-till equipment.


Residue management: Plant residue in the row has been the biggest problem causing poor stands as we have embarked in strip-tillage. Early planning and proper management will help determine success or failure.

Residue management needs to be handled soon after harvest. Proper spreading of chaff during harvest will be the single most important thing you can do. It is important to distribute residue evenly in the field. This may be accomplished by attaching a spreader to the combine to distribute the residue correctly.

Having a spreader on the combine may be a must in strip-tillage. Also, chaff rows that run parallel to sugarbeet rows can be a problem if residue is not managed properly.

One solution is to plant and harvest grain at a different angle than the planted sugarbeets which will assist in dealing with residue.
Row cleaners on the strip-till machine and the planter will also help reduce problems. Remember, proper residue management is one of the most important things you can do prior to growing beets.

We still have more to learn about ways to improve residue management, but it is a manageable issue.

Strip-tilling or planting too wet: Working the ground, whether in strip-tillage or full-tillage, when it is too wet always causes problems. Soil worked too wet will reduce the good seed-to-soil contact.

Soil that was strip-tilled too wet creates clumps, slicks and other problems. The best solution is to wait and let it dry out.

Remaining on the Row: It is absolutely essential to form deep, well-defined corrugates behind the strip-tiller for the planter and the planter tractor to follow.

Without well-defined corrugates to drive in, the rear wheels of the tractor will drift toward the softer soil in the tilled zone, which then throws the planter off the row as well. The ability of the planter and planter tractor to follow the corrugates is critical for keeping the planter in the tilled zone and over the banded fertilizer row.

In high residue situations, it will be necessary to run a coulter ahead of the furrowing shank.
A method for leaving a mark the planter can follow can be accomplished with a single ribbed tire and a heavy-duty steel-guide wheel for the tractor to follow.

It is equally important to re-establish the guide marks behind the planter for subsequent field operations, i.e. crust breaking, spraying pesticides and furrowing for harvesting equipment.

An S-tine, a bull tongue or some other shank can be used to re-establish a mark. On hillsides or areas where the tractor tends to drift or slip, following the mark can be a problem and it may be necessary to turn off the GPS and drive.

Cutworm: This insect will be one of the most prevalent under the strip-till. On a few fields this year, we did not treat soon enough, which seems to be an issue.

Figure 3 shows cutworms in a strip-tilled field that had been in grain and alfalfa for several years.

This was just perfect for cutworms to survive and become a problem in this field. Treatment for cutworms needs to be done just as the sugarbeets begin emerging.

Waiting until damage is seen will reduce stands or may require replanting if infestation is bad enough. We need to make cutworm control a part of strip-tilling just as weed control is. Cutworm is a manageable problem.

Not enough Horsepower: The goal of a row or strip-till machine is to shatter any compaction zone, fertilizer placement and forming a seed bed.
Strip-till equipment usually requires about 5 mph or faster to do a good job. Power requirements for strip-tillage equipment vary among manufactures.

Soil type and depth will determine whether you need more or less horsepower. It is important that there is enough power to properly move the soil and to achieve the desired depth. Just as with any other piece of equipment, you don't want to be under powered.

Conclusions: Strip-tillage has benefits that are of value to sugarbeet production. Some of these are reducing wind erosion, cost savings, versatility and reduced compaction.
As with any new practice there is a learning curve that may take a couple of years to adapt to.

Some areas still needing improvement are: residue management, staying on the row, and cutworm control.
Row or strip-tillage does have a place in sugarbeet production but will require some patience. Strip-till takes planning ahead, so start planning for the next crop.

You can contact Robert Downard at