Soil health concerns prompted sugarbeet grower Brian Ryberg to take a look at strip tillage. The time and cost savings became clear later.
“We knew we needed to make some changes to reduce costs and improve soil structure,” says Ryberg, who farms tiled, silty clay loam soils in Renville County, Minn. His appreciation of the link between soil health and yields sharpened when he converted a grove and pasture to crop production. “The corn was so much better in that area due to better soil structure,” he says.
That got him thinking more about the long-term consequences of his three-pass tillage program. He was shredding cornstalks, then running a Wishek Disc on continuous corn and sugarbeet ground, followed by a ripper and spring field cultivation — tillage that was costing him more than $40 per acre.
Yet, even more than cost, soil conservation is the No. 1 reason farmers pursue strip tillage, says Tom Peters, University of Minnesota Extension sugarbeet agronomist. During the dry, open winter of 2015-16, farmers watched their unprotected topsoil blow and drift, prompting them to ask what they could do.
In the fall of 2014, Ryberg tried strip tillage on 200 acres of sugarbeet and corn ground. He leased a SoilWarrior strip-till machine designed for 22-inch rows from Environmental Tillage Systems, Faribault. In 2015, he compared yields on those strip-tilled acres with his conventionally tilled acres. His conclusion: no difference.
Impressed with the cost and time savings, Ryberg plunged into strip-till that fall, converting all of his 3,500 acres to the new practice.
Ryberg’s 24-row SoilWarrior uses a deep cog wheel and wavy coulters to clear and loosen an 8-inch-wide strip of soil. Ryberg tried a shank-type machine first, but had problems with plugging. The cog wheel design performs better on his soils, he says. The SoilWarrior tills about 5 inches deep and builds a 3-inch-tall berm, or seedbed, that settles over the winter.
The machine, which is equipped with dual fertilizer tanks, also bands variable rates of dry or liquid fertilizer under the strip. For sugarbeets, Ryberg puts on potassium and phosphorus in the fall, and applies nitrogen in the spring. The strip-till rig, which requires 20 horsepower per row unit, can cover about 350 acres per day.
Strip tillage has really simplified things, Ryberg says, cutting field operations on most of his acreage to five: building fall strips and banding fertilizer, planting, spraying, sidedressing and harvesting. And there’s less need to pick rocks now because conventional tillage isn’t bringing them to the surface anymore.
This translates into significant savings. Ryberg’s diesel fuel use dropped from 5 gallons per acre with his conventional tillage program, to 1.2 gallons per acre for strip-tilling with the deep cog wheels and coulters, or 0.6 gallons per acre for strip-tilling with the wavy coulters alone. Tractor engine hours dropped from 430 per season to 210. Ryberg estimates his average cost for strip tillage with fertilizer application at about $24 per acre — 40% less than his previous tillage program.
There have been some fertilizer savings, too. Ryberg was able to drop to a 75% rate of P and K due to better uptake efficiency. Banding is a great way to combat nutrient tie-up in high-pH and P-fixing soils, which are common in Minnesota, says crop consultant Peter Kramer, Gibbon, Minn.
“You can’t improve on nutrient placement with strip till,” Kramer says.
Banding also cuts the risk of nutrient loss to the environment, adds Curt Burns of Stewart, Minn., Ryberg’s agronomist.
Strip tillage has cut Ryberg’s production expense by about $90,000, he estimates. He offset a portion of the cost of the $300,000 strip-till machine by selling one of his two high-horsepower, four-wheel-drive tractors, and his Wishek Disk and ripper.
Planting accuracy a must
Ryberg uses RTK GPS steering to strip-till and plant between the old rows. Even with 1-inch guidance accuracy, Ryberg had trouble holding his planter units in the center of the strips. The issue turned out to be the number of pivots on his planting rig, which included a 4wd articulated tractor and 36-row planter. When Ryberg switched to a JD 8335r planter, reducing the number of pivots, the guidance system worked perfectly, he says.
COST SAVINGS: Strip-tilled sugarbeets grow in 22-inch rows on Brian and Sandy Ryberg’s farm near Buffalo Lake, Minn., in 2016. Strip tillage, which is rare in Minnesota for sugarbeets, helped the Rybergs trim their production costs and improve soil conservation. (Photo by ETS)
Good row cleaners on the planter are also a must.
Adds Ryberg: “In sugarbeets, any kind of trash in the seedbed is a problem.”
Strip-till advantages for sugarbeets
Ryberg’s 2016 sugarbeet stands were as good — or even better — than those with conventional tillage. His 600 acres of strip-tilled sugarbeets produced yields in the low- to mid-20 ton-per-acre range, comparable to conventionally tilled sugarbeet yields in the region.
AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Buffalo Lake, Minn., farmer Brian Ryberg strip-tills after the 2016 harvest. Ryberg is a state leader in using strip tillage for sugarbeet production. Immediately after harvest, the Rybergs seeded a cover crop of cereal rye to help protect the soil over the winter. (Photo by ETS)
Strip tillage works well with a fall-planted cover crop. Immediately after corn harvest in 2015 and 2016, Ryberg seeded cereal rye, then built his strips in the emerging cover crop. In the spring, the cereal rye comes up between the strips, providing wind protection for the beet seedlings. He killed the cereal rye with his regular weed-and-feed application. This past fall, Ryberg used the same cover crop strategy in harvested sugarbeet fields to protect the bare soil over the winter.
Initially, Ryberg worried about spring soil warm-up in a strip-till system. Any practice that delays sugarbeet planting beyond early May costs yield, says Mike Metzger, research agronomist for Minn-Dak Farmers Co-op in Wahpeton, N.D. But that wasn’t a problem, says Ryberg — who went out and measured. Soil temperatures in his cleared strips were identical to his neighbor’s DMI-tilled field, he says.
Strip till’s extra residue cover improved field trafficability during the wet 2016 harvest, he adds. While many of the neighbors struggled with muddy fields and stuck combines, the Rybergs did not have any issues with their combine sinking.
After his first full year of strip tillage, Ryberg says he is very satisfied with it.
“We’re doing better soil stewardship than we’ve done in the past,” he says, “and we continue to get a lot of people looking and asking questions about what we’re doing.”
Morrison is a freelance writer from Morris, Minn.
Editor’s note: Additional stories about strip tillage for sugarbeets are appearing this week on The Farmer’s website. See "Strip-tillage sweet spot" from Monday, Nov. 28.