While the Eastern Corn Belt and Great Lakes Regions have been home to the most strip-till farmers for years, the practice continues to grow within that region as well as steadily adding acres in the Western and Southern Plains states.

Farm equipment dealers should keep an eye on this trend. Recent survey findings show the producers using strip-till are keen on the right equipment, the latest in auto-guidance signals and systems, and are at the top of their game in fertilizer management and the use of cover crops. Also, surveys show those using strip-till are largely in the “late-early-adopter” phase of technology transfer, with most starting to strip-till only in the past few years.

In fact, the 3rd Annual Strip-Till Operational Practices Benchmark Study conducted by Strip-Till Farmer indicates the niche farming method is becoming increasingly popular among corn and soybean producers throughout the country. About 7 in 10 respondents to the 2015 survey reported they were not strip-tilling 10 years ago.

Jack Zemlicka, managing editor of Strip-Till Farmer says this year’s survey showed 42.7% of respondents to the 36 question survey reported having strip-tilled for less than 5 years. Another 27.9% have been using strip-till at least 10 years — the smallest number in the 3 year history of the benchmark study.

In addition to a growing following of producers eager to put new practices into place on their farms, the benchmark study shows the top strip-tillers are making good use of variable-rate (VR) fertilizer technology, as well as adopting cover cropping systems to their farms. Both categories are at the core of increasing awareness of best management practices for nutrient management and soil health issues, plus they are both proven yield builders.

Taken together, strip-till, VR fertilizer application and cover crops are boosting yields for the top producers in the benchmark survey.

For respondents to the survey whose yields were in the top 10%, strip-till corn averaged 191 bushels per acre, consistent with the 2015 survey of 2014 crop year results, and strip-tilled soybeans averaged 57 bushels per acre, up 3 bushels from the previous year’s results. Those results compare with no-till corn yields reported in the 8th Annual No-Till Benchmark Study, conducted by No-Till Farmer, of 168 bushels per acre and no-till soybean yields of 52 bushels per acre.

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Looking at the 5-year average (2011-15) from the No-Till Farmer Operational Benchmark Study, strip-tilled corn topped other conservation tillage systems with 177 bushels per acre, compared with 156 bushels for no-till and 166 bushels for minimum tillage, Zemlicka explains.

“Strip-tilled soybean yields have seen more dramatic and steady 4-bushel-per year increases since 2013. That year, the top-yielding strip-tillers reported an average of 50 bushels per acre for soybeans, followed by 54 in 2014 and 58 last year,” he notes. “These yields remained competitive with other tillage systems evaluated by No-Till Farmer. During each of the last 3 years, strip-tilled soybeans progressively out-yielded no-tilled soybeans by 1, 2 and 3 bushels per acre, respectively.”

Managing Crop Nutrients

Strip-tillers often cite targeted fertilizer placement and timing as keys to their yield successes, and this year’s study shows nearly 70% are sidedressing their crops with nitrogen (N), up from just under 54% who did so in 2013. Nearly 38% say they applied N in fall strips, and 44% report building spring strips with N applications — consistent with the previous 2 years’ results.

Although the debate continues over consistent benefits of VR fertilizer application, many strip-tillers are using the technology to apply whatever source of N or other nutrients they find economically feasible. Use of VR increased to 43.2% of respondents, up from 36.2% in 2014 and 31.5% in 2013.

Cover Cropping Component

This year’s study showed for the first time, more than half of strip-tillers responding to the survey are planting cover crops to conserve moisture and reduce erosion. The results showed 53.3% of respondents using covers, up from 48.4% in 2014 and 44.1% in 2013.

“Nearly 65% of those reporting using cover crops, say they are planting cereal rye,” Zemlicka explains. “That’s up more than 4 percentage points over 2014 figures.”

The second most popular cover crop by a wide marge were tillage radishes, at 50.2%, and the biggest gainer in cover crop choice by strip-tillers in the survey was rapeseed, which jumped from 9.7% to 21.8%.