Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Should I Strip Till or No-Till?

I found this treasure on Crop Talk today from my friend NoTill Tom, Cleghorn, Iowa in response to a farmer in Minnesota considering moving away from conventional tillage:


From my name, you know I am a proponent of highly reduced tillage systems. That's my thing.

From your post, it is clear you are trying to make a good decision. I hope my questions will help you find your path because it really doesn't matter what other people say or do on their farms... including me. You have to figure out why you wish to change and how strong you think you are in pursuing that path.

Yes, there are lots of people who "try" no-till/strip-till systems and return to some conventional way of farming. I really don't believe "trying" it will set you on a path to success. The move away from full-width tillage as you move north is not easy. The wetter the soils and shorter the season makes things a bit tougher... not impossible, but will be tougher. So, "trying" a change often becomes "trying it until I prove it doesn't work and return to my comfort zone".

Here's what I recommend for questions you need to answer to see if you are going into this thing aware.

1- You must have a reason to change. If you don't understand why you want to change, you won't stay the course. In the first 3-5 years, something will happen that will send you a gut-check. If you don't know where you want to be, you are highly likely to give up about then.

2- You must make a list of all the things you don't like about your current (conventional) tillage system. This may have elements specific to your farm or are universal issues with a conventional program. When the "gut-check" happens, you WILL remember all the things you liked about what you used to do. Those memories will seduce you and try to make you give up and return. If you forget what you didn't like about past practices, you are at risk of quitting.

3- You need to try understanding if you have the capacity or resources for the change. If fall strip-till is your planned approach, do you have the time, horsepower, and equipment to get the work done. Strip till is "planting" your "planting zone". You can't hire a kid for a few bucks to run the strip machine while you may have been hiring one to run a heavy tillage machine. Especially with COC, those strips should be done right. It takes a lot of power to do fall strip till on tough soils following corn as the days get short and winter is approaching. If you don't get the strips in, do you have a vision of plan "B"? Strip-till isn't always a cheaper way to farm. It can be, but not always.

4- Do you know how you handle the stress of things you might not understand or are not used to? How do you define "not-success" is different than for other guys. I have seen guys stress about 2-5 bu/ac perceived yield reduction with "no-till" type systems and are always searching for that reduced yield. It is almost like they are looking for reasons to give up. So, to not have to worry about reduced yield, they are willing to spend many more hours in the field doing tillage. Tillage isn't free.

5- Do you have reasonable land tenure and trusted, successful neighbors doing the practice? If you are going alone, it is tougher. For some, they really don't want to be the lone guy doing it and they quit. If you are in fear of losing land or being ridiculed, it is tougher.

In summary, you will note I don't talk about color of equipment paint, strip machines or planter attachments. I didn't mention brands or types of seed corn, fertilizer, fungicides, insecticides or herbicides. I really didn't talk about a specific soil type or yield level, tile drainage, or land slope. Those things are the localized issues that you will need to figure out along the path. I have no idea of your particular circumstance and how you currently have to manage around the issues local or specific to your farm... you are managing or tolerating various issues you likely don't even realize you are dealing with but are now used to.

What I do believe is the biggest thing for success is how well you identify your objectives, figure out how to achieve them, and if you understand your ability to tolerate the gut-check events as they occur. The reason "conventional" farming is conventional is that there is a lot of experience that carries people through the surprises. There are negative events in any approach to tillage and cropping. As custom and convention evolve, dealing with them becomes less a problem. As a newbie to strip-till, there is more history you have to learn on your own.

If you are willing to do what it takes, learn from the bumps along the road, and adapt as needed, you will likely be successful. It won't be easy, but when the system starts to "work", you will find it rewarding.

If you wish to talk specifics (ways to manage issues), that comes along as you begin to learn what you don't know.
Thomas E. Oswald
Oswald Family Farm
Cleghorn Iowa

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