AGCO Sunflower 7600 Series

Like that shiny new tractor in the showroom that’s hard to ignore, farmers and equipment dealers alike are being drawn to the novel, gleaming lights of strip tillage.

But like opening the hood of a tractor to see what makes it run, there’s a lot of under-the-hood details equipment dealers must know about strip-till equipment — and the practice of strip-till itself — to be successful at selling it.

“I was selling potato and sugar-beet harvesting equipment, which is really specialized, and strip-till units are even harder than that to sell,” says Ken Lebsack, owner and manager of Magic Valley Equipment in Paul, Idaho. “There’s more to it than selling tractors, combines and balers.”

Strip-till is a practice where farmers use a toolbar with tillage and fertilizer attachments that create narrow berms — typically about 10 inches wide and about 6 inches deep — where they can apply fertilizer and later plant their crops. The system allows them to place residue between the strips, but not bury it.

It’s considered a compromise between full-width tillage that can damage soil structure — which can lead to soil moisture loss and wind and water erosion — and no-till, where farmers plant directly into the residue of a previous crop in an effort to preserve soil structure and eliminate tillage.

Proponents say that strip-till, vs. conventional tillage, can result in reduced passes, labor savings and potential increases in fertilizer efficiencies and water management. Many farmers are doing strip-till and fertilizing in one pass in hopes of saving money on fuel and labor and hours on their equipment.

“Strip-till has become more effective with the refinement and affordability of RTK guidance over the past 5 years,” says Curt Davis, marketing manager for Krause Corp.

“But for producers, the greatest benefit is decreased passes and optimization of fertilizer for increased yields. The by-product of this operation is an improved, well-conditioned seed bed that enhances yields and provides good soil and water conservation characteristics.”

Strip-till also “reduces the risk of cool, wet springs that makes strict no-till too risky in many environments,” says Rob Zemenchik, tillage marketing manager for Case IH.

While some strip-till units require large amounts of power to be used properly, “others can reduce fuel input costs substantially,” says Rodney Arthur of Dawn Equipment Co. “By eliminating multiple tillage passes, and an additional pass for fertilizer, even 500 acres can generate a large savings in fuel.”

A recent survey of 16 manufacturers by Farm Equipment shows the highest strip-till adoption rates in the Corn Belt region of the U.S., along with Texas, California, Kansas and Wyoming. They also see strip-till catching on in Idaho, Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon and Washington state.

Geography and moisture management have played a big role in the growth of strip-till. Such is the case with Orthman Manufacturing, located in the western Corn Belt in Lexington, Neb.

“Growing corn, soybeans, dry edible beans, sunflowers, sugar beets and grain sorghum is demanding a more conservation-minded approach to tillage due to both wind and water erosion, arid summers with less than 10 inches of rain during the growing season, and highly variable soil conditions and textures,” says Mike Petersen, an agronomist for Orthman.

“This has driven growers to be innovative on how to raise high-production crops at yields that sustain maximum profit.”

Spurred by advances in machine design, manufacturers report growing interest in strip-till in areas that have been traditionally more focused on conventional tillage. From Ohio to Texas to Oregon, Petersen says farmers are affected by drought, high input costs, increased labor and the need to get across fields quickly and plant as soon as possible.

“Wind and water erosion issues have come home to roost. In the colder northern-tier states, soils stay cold into the spring, and farmers need seedbeds to be ‘black,’ but dollars to burn diesel with 3-7 trips isn’t in the cards. Strip-tillage is the real answer,” he says.

“We’ve seen a great increase in strip-till sales out to Idaho and Colorado in the last year or so,” adds Eric Braun, sales and marketing representative for Elmer’s Manufacturing. “I think those areas of the U.S. are showing great potential with strip-till since the revolution of the Roundup Ready sugar beet.”

Gary Wallander, senior product support coordinator for Brillion, says strip-till adoption is growing in pockets of some states, but it’s premature to claim entire states have adopted.

“For the most part, customers are resigning themselves to the fact that strip-till is a concept, not an event, that takes time to evolve. Many customers don’t want to invest the time or money to change from their current system that is working quite well.”

Dealership Challenges

Not only has the practice of strip-till grown, but also the number of manufacturers who, seeing the profit potential, are pouring money and effort into developing a line of machines.

One dealer told Farm Equipment there were only a handful of companies making strip-till implements in the early 1990s for 22-inch rows in his state. Today there are more than 20, and the level of support they offer customers and dealers varies widely.

Equipment dealers may be excited to have a new product they can sell. At the same time, they face a constantly changing world of precision agriculture, burgeoning farm sizes, increasing equipment prices and fickle farmers with a lot questions.

Dick Schwartzkopf, salesman for 21st Century Implement in Bridgeport, Neb., says strip-till business “really started to roll” in 2000, with farmers now using their second- or third-generation machines and getting into variable-rate application of fertilizers with some success.

His dealership sells Orthman, Deere and Schlagel strip-till units, which he says do a good job at handling different types of needs. There are 4 AMS staff members at 21st Century’s 6 locations in Nebraska with agronomy backgrounds.

But it’s hard for many dealers to anticipate what’s coming down the road. He pointed to implement steering systems being developed by Deere and Orthman that will put dealers back on the learning curve.

“You set up thinking you’re doing the right thing, and 2 years down the road, there’s something better out there,” says Schwartzkopf, who’s been with the dealership 10 years. “We have to rely on Orthman and Deere for guidance.”

Equipment prices are something else that can be hard to swallow for both dealers and farmers, especially with the up-and-down nature of commodity prices and unpredictable weather.

“There’s a point where they can’t get much higher, unless farmers start getting more for their product. We can’t continue down that road with $3 corn, we need to be in $5 to $7 corn prices. Wheat is the same way,” Schwartzkopf says. “The manufacturers need to give farmers a cost-effective tool.”

Lebsack started selling Schlagel and Twin Diamond strip-till units only 2.5 years ago, moving 15 units in a short time. Now farmers are in a “wait-and-see” mode to see how the early adopters handle the practice, he says.

He admits that he’s still learning the practice, and so are farmers and agronomists in his area. Some of the 20,000 total acres strip-tilled in Idaho last year weren’t fertilized at all because agronomists were unsure of how much fertilizer to apply in the narrow band.

“I would say 1 of 10 farmers are of the mindset that they’re ready to tackle strip-till,” Lebsack says. “A lot of guys think they’re supposed to do it because it’s the hottest thing out there, but they haven’t prepared themselves for it.

“And there are some dealers that have a strip-till line and say ‘Let’s sell it,’ and they’re leaving it with the farmer and leaving them on their own.”

Another challenge is getting farmers to change the way they’re thinking about their farming practices, Lebsack says. Farmers often wait until winter to think about strip-till when they should have started exploring it during the summer before they harvested their grain crop.

Succeed Early On

Dealerships that offer the right equipment line for their market area, and establish close relationships with agronomists and customers, are mostly likely to have success selling strip-till units.

Doug Anderson, principal and co-owner of Anderson Equipment in Washington Court House, Ohio, currently sells Remlinger strip-till equipment and got started with DMI about a decade ago. He carries Kinze and Great Plains shortlines but doesn’t have a mainline supplier.

Anderson says he farms about 2,800 acres with his brother and his son and they use the farming experience to sell tillage equipment, “and we also use that experience to not sell equipment. You can’t just sell a bunch of equipment that isn’t going to turn out well and then just hope.”

If a dealer is thinking about taking on a strip-till line, Anderson suggests they go out and meet with 15-20% of their best customers “and do a survey” on whether or they think a line of strip-till equipment will work in the area.

“Your best customers are the best ones for a reason. Maybe they just like you, but it’s probably because you take care of them, and you sell them what they need,” he says.

Schwartzkopf says it’s crucial to know a customer’s needs to guide them in acquiring the right equipment to get the results they want for the next 2-3 years.

Dealers should also know what’s coming down the road with technology, so their sales people are on top of strip-till developments.

“Farmers buy product because they know it’s the way to go, but the usage can get pretty complicated,” Schwartzkopf says. “If you can’t support them correctly, then they’re not getting the full return on their investment.”

Once the important questions are answered, Lebsack says, dealers must sell farmers the right implement the first time, and be willing to take equipment back if it doesn’t get results. He knows a little about this issue, having accumulated some inventory over the past 2.5 years.

“Dealers are seeing there’s money to be made, but I’ve wound up having to clean up problems created by that mentality — farmers who got equipment and couldn’t make it work. And if it doesn’t work, they want to trade it in,” he says.

“They need to be dead serious about it. Each customer is a little different, their needs are different, and the soils are different. It’s better to make it work and make them future customers, or you’ll wind up with a yard full of items that were custom built.”

Advice for New Strip-Tillers

Manufacturers surveyed by Farm Equipment identified many variables for the first-time strip-tiller to consider, and dealers should share this information with customers.

These variables include crop rotations, soil types, drainage patterns, time management of the operation, and planter setup for the spring.

Farmers must also ask themselves if they can fertilize in a band and still get their work done in a timely fashion, if their tractor is capable of pulling the implement, and which fertilizers work best with strip-till.

A lack of experience with strip-till can leave farmers frustrated — especially if they don’t understand guidance or aren’t getting results with their strip-till unit.

“Experienced strip tillers will often say their best advice is not to try to convert the entire farm too quickly,” says Zemenchik. “Select fields with the least amount of variability early on, and then gradually adjust practices to fit that field before moving to fields where conditions are less understood or highly variable.”

“This is a producers’ only shot at a seedbed, so it’s important to set the machine correctly and make adjustments when needed,” says David Wendt, product manager for John Deere.

“Making adjustments to the planter may be the most overlooked item for a customer that has been no-tilling and now wants to strip-till,” says Davis of Krause. “The planter should be adjusted to the strip-till application, because if it’s set up for no-till, seeds may be placed too deep, there could be too much down pressure on row units, or the row cleaners may be too aggressive.”

Roger Westbeld, sales manager for Remlinger Manufacturing, says farmers must make sure their field is ready for strip-till. “If there is a soil compaction issue, address that first.”

Farmers should also be careful with wheel traffic from grain carts and combines in the fall to avoid tearing up the fields, says Hiniker Sales Manager Wayne Buck.

What’s Ahead for Spring

With the late harvest in 2009, it’s possible that many acres didn’t get strip-tilled. One equipment dealer said recently that only 15% of acres in his territory in Illinois were strip-tilled last year.

Farm Equipment asked manufacturers what they would recommend dealers do differently this spring in discussing strip-till methods with customers.

“The simple answer is, ‘What are your soils like?’ ” says Wendt of Deere. “A good comparison is for a producer to look at the tillage they’re currently doing. If they farm in an area where the soils do not work well in the spring deeper than 6 inches, and they do all their primary tillage in the fall, this same reasoning can be carried over to strip-till.”

Wendt says a recent survey of strip-tillers across the U.S. revealed that it was about a 50-50 split between fall and spring operation. “Producers will need to look at how soon they will be planting following the strip-till applicator.

“If they will be planting 2-4 weeks after strip-tilling, they will not have the benefit of Mother Nature to help condition the berms, and they’ll need to look at creating a short berm and incorporate the use of baskets.”

Wallander says producers need to study the situation “very cautiously” this spring, and that “messed up fields may be in a ‘back to basics’ mode.

“Actual building of a plantable strip will be one of the largest challenges. The key will be to manage residue over the strip by either cutting it or moving it. Once that’s under control, the tillage operation will have to prepare the growth environment into a plantable medium and place the nutrients. Finishing off the strip with a slight berm that will be firm enough to ensure proper seed placement should finish the job.

“Patience is going to play a big part of the success of this concept in the spring of 2010,” says Wallander.