Strip-till's profit boost

Dec 1, 2005 12:00 PM
By John Pocock

AG RETAIL businesses wanting to expand sales should investigate new ways to help current customers become more profitable, says Dan Towery, ag consultant, Ag Conservation Solutions, Lafayette, IN. With that goal in mind, he advises ag retailers and custom applicators to consider offering strip-till services, especially in areas where this practice can help farmers most.

“Strip-till fits best on poorly drained soils, soils with high clay content near the surface or where growers are making the transition from other tillage systems to continuous no-till,” Towery says. “Basically, strip-till provides a warmer and drier seedbed and saves moisture to help increase yield.”

Strip-till is a soil conservation system that integrates the best features of both no-till and conventional tillage. The practice creates tilled strips about 6 to 8 in. wide and leaves a large quantity of crop residue undisturbed between strips. Strip-till also creates a berm — or a ridge of loosened soil — about 4 to 5 in. high that warms and dries faster than surrounding soils left covered with crop residue. Applicators place anhydrous ammonia and/or liquid or dry fertilizer in the strip, which settles to about 1 to 2 in. high when planting seed into it in the spring.

In addition to warming, drying and loosening soils to create a better seedbed prior to planting, strip-till provides an efficient way to knife in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium where corn roots can easily reach them, points out Darrell Hora, agronomy manager, Mettler Fertilizer, Menno, SD. Mettler Fertilizer has been offering strip-till services for nearly five years.

“We started strip-till because some of our customers were having challenges with poor stands in no-till and they wanted better seed placement,” he explains. “The biggest benefit to strip-till is establishing a more consistent seedbed, which results in a better stand. If you want a good yield, you have to have a good stand.”

Better service, better business

Improved stand establishment and more efficient fertilizer use have helped boost profits for farmer-customers, Hora says. And by helping farmers become more successful, Mettler Fertilizer has benefited as well.

“Strip-till allows us to offer a service that puts us on more acres,” Hora says. “It allows us to do things that our competitors aren't doing, and that sets us apart. We're creating more loyalty from customers, and we're getting more business.”

The company also is selling more fertilizer now than it did before, even though its strip-till service allows growers to maximize yields with less fertilizer than they did before strip-tilling, Hora says. “In these strip-till bands, we might put one-third less fertilizer down than we would in a broadcast application,” he explains. “That way, we save the grower money and also help to produce better yields.”

Without the strip-till service, Mettler Fertilizer was less efficient, Hora adds. “This helps spread our workload out during the year,” he says. “We're making better use of our equipment, labor and facilities because we do about 40% of our fertilizer applications in the fall now, when a lot of other retailers are doing 80 to 90% of their fertilizer applications in the spring.”

Offering the strip-till service in the fall works well for both customers and the ag retailer. “We can go out on soybean ground when our customers are still combining corn,” Hora points out. “It gives the customer a real nice seedbed to plant into in the spring. It allows us to put a starter band down, warms and dries the soil and prepares it for planting.”

Fall strip-till fertilizer applications also help to reduce risk from wet weather that may interfere with spring applications. “Some years, if you didn't get your fertilizer applied in the fall,” Hora says, “you didn't get it done at all.”

Technology adds opportunity

For the more progressive farmer-customers, Mettler Fertilizer uses autosteer GPS guidance tools to apply fertilizer at a variable rate in the starter band, Hora says. The company charges $14.00 to $15.50/acre for the strip-till service, depending on the technology being used, the acres involved, the cost of fuel and the amount of fertilizer being applied.

“This may sound expensive, but we are replacing deep tillage, fall fertilizer application and seedbed preparation with one trip,” he says. “I can't emphasize enough that this saves trips over the field. We can also apply micronutrients in a band more efficiently with strip-till than with other tillage systems.”

Assisted steering and GPS capability can be useful for expanding services beyond strip-till, Towery points out. “Autosteer with RTK not only increases the benefits from strip-till, it also adds more service options for ag retailers,” he says. “The big factor with strip-till is whether co-ops can perform applications with varying row and planter sizes.”

Mettler Fertilizer started its strip-till services with a 16-row, 30-in. DMI toolbar, Hora says. However, this year the company bought a Redball strip-till rig to expand its service on a variety of row spacings.

“We bought the new toolbar to run on 24-row, 20-in.-spaced rows in addition to 30-in. rows,” he says. “The new Redball toolbar floats better through residue; it stops residue mound buildup; and it allows us to go through wetter residue than we could before.”

Although strip-till may not be a service that fits all ag retailers, sometimes companies need to take a chance and do something different to increase income, Hora says. “Strip-till services are not a cheap investment, especially with autosteer,” he says. “The equipment costs are pretty high, but autosteer is the wave of the future. It's better for the operator and helps reduce stress.”


An investment in strip-till services now may also pay off beyond its short-term profit potential, says Bill Romshek, agronomy marketing manager, Heritage FS, Gilman, IL.

“Strip-till is definitely a trend of the future,” says Romshek, who manages eight Heritage FS retail outlets in east-central Illinois. “Government programs are going in the direction where they will be rebating farmers for these conservation practices.”

Even without government rebates, strip-till has gradually gained popularity in Romshek's sales area. The company has five strip-till rigs available to customers, which now cover more than 14,000 acres.

The demand for anhydrous ammonia strip-till applications has been gradually tapering off recently as the demand for dry-fertilizer strip-till applications has increased, Romshek says. As a result, Heritage FS plans to purchase a second dry-fertilizer rig to strip-till apply diammonium phosphate (DAP) and potash.

“Our goal for the future is to apply variable-rate DAP across strips in the field in the fall, depending on soil test needs, and then come back and apply variable-rate nitrogen in the spring, taking into consideration the nitrogen credit for fall application of DAP,” Romshek says. “We would sidedress 28% UAN [urea ammonium nitrate] or anhydrous ammonia after fall DAP and potash applications.”

Growers currently pay $10.00/acre for strip-tilling anhydrous ammonia and $12.50/acre for ammonia and dry fertilizer, Romshek says. This compares to $6.25/acre for standard fall ammonia applications.

“I see variable-rate nitrogen strip-till services taking off pretty fast, especially with input costs as high as they are now,” he says. “With today's price of fuel, more guys are looking at ways to reduce trips across the field.”

Farmers using the strip-till services are benefiting from the practice and so is Heritage FS. “We've had a lot of success with strip-till in heavier soils, which warmed up faster with strip-till than with no-till,” Romshek says, “and we picked up two more customers this fall. As a company, we will continue to grow our business, because of the growing need of this service.”

Strip-till Q&A

HAVE QUESTIONS about the practice of strip-till? No problem. Dan Towery, founder and owner of Ag Conservation Solutions, an ag consulting business based in Lafayette, IN, has the answers.

What is strip-till?

Strip-till is a soil conservation tillage system that creates tilled strips about 6 to 8 in. wide while also leaving a large quantity of crop residue undisturbed between strips. The practice, which fits under the USDA's definition of “no-till,” helps provide a seedbed of loosened soil that warms and dries faster than soils left covered with crop residue.

Where is strip-till being used?

Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan are the primary states where it is practiced in the eastern Corn Belt. In the western Corn Belt, it is primarily practiced in Colorado, Nebraska, and in the Texas Panhandle, on irrigated, continuous corn ground. Also a different type of strip-till, similar to a vertical tillage system, is done in the Southeast. Farmers there run a ripper about 14 in. deep, either about three weeks prior to planting or attached to the planter, and they use it on sandy Coastal Plain soils that naturally compact.

What are the benefits of strip-till?

Strip-till improves seedbed conditions (warmer and drier), which results in earlier planting and better stands; allows one-pass nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium applications; works well on continuous corn acres; improves soil quality (more organic matter, more water infiltration, more moisture available for later in the growing season); and reduces the amount of phosphorus and potassium required.

What are the drawbacks to strip-till?

The biggest problem with strip-till is the short application window. The short window in which to get strip-till done in the fall (after soils cool enough to apply nitrogen fertilizers, but before fall rains begin) is a deterrent to large farming operations. Strip-till is predominately practiced on middle-sized farms, those with 800 to 3,000 acres.

How are strip-till technologies changing the way fertilizer is being applied?

The big difference is applying nutrients in the strip and then planting directly on the strip. This is a very efficient way to apply phosphorus and potassium. However, a grower should not expect a yield increase from doing this unless the soil test indicates that the soil is low in phosphorus and potassium.

How could ag businesses benefit from a trend toward strip-till?

They could benefit by offering either strip-till toolbars or custom strip-till services, which could provide an additional income stream. In doing so, they might also increase their customer base and loyalty and the opportunity to sell more fertilizer, herbicides, seed and yield-mapping and record-keeping services.


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