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Fertilizer and Tillage in Lockstep

Tillage can play a role in how and when you use fertilizer

For the past 20 years, one central Illinois farm family has used strip-till to help improve soil and avoid runoff. To maximize efficiency and profits, they also use a unique fertilizer system to help save money, time and boost yield.

In strip-till, you move a small amount of soil to provide a V-shaped mound while leaving most of the ground untouched to reduce runoff. Each fall, David Sass, a partner in the Streator, Ill., operation, uses a tiller attachment to knife-in anhydrous fertilizer while strip-tilling. He knows the risk he faces with nitrogen leaching and with each fall application he uses N-Serve nitrogen stabilizer to reduce the nutrient’s movement.

When spring comes, he plants directly into the anhydrous line. “When roots hit the zone, it is right where you need it,” he says.

Sass also applies liquid starter fertilizer while planting, placing nitrogen in furrow and broadcasting potassium and phosphorus. “We got started using starter fertilizer three years ago,” he says. “In colder soil, it gets the plants off to a quicker start. We used to come in with sidedress, but now we do just fall and spring applications.”

Strip-till works for him because it saves him 5 gal. to 6 gal. of diesel per acre, versus using a deep tillage chisel tool. This saves time too because tractors can’t move as quickly when tilling deeply. By optimizing his fertilizer system with strip-till, Sass sees a 5 bu. to 10 bu. per acre advantage by putting nutrients right where the crop needs it.

“The soil profile is so much better when you don’t have to tear it up every year and it controls soil erosion,” he says. “We only use conventional tilling when we absolutely have to. It’s just so time consuming and expensive.”

Six hundred miles southwest, Darin Williams of Waverly, Kan., finds success with no-till. “In order to live my dream of farming, we had to do it in a new way,” Williams says. “We’ve used no-till since I came back to the farm in 2010.”

He says using no-till paired with cover crops has substantially increased his soil’s organic matter and water infiltration, which has led to fewer fertilizer expenses and less ponding. “Everything about our system is geared toward increasing organic matter, which, in turn, gives us the option to use less fertilizer.”

Williams broadcasts fertilizer in the spring, when he says it quickly integrates into the soil. Currently, he uses liquid fertilizer through sprayer stream bars, but will be adding poultry litter in the future. He only sidedresses nitrogen midseason when absolutely necessary because it is more volatile, and he doesn’t want to risk that much loss, he says.

An increase in the soil’s organic matter has helped Williams reduce the need to apply some nutrients because they can be found in the leftover residue and converted into usable forms by a healthy microbial system. He says there’s a noticeable difference between ground that has been in no-till and ground that hasn’t.

“In our newer ground that hasn’t been in no-till and cover crops, we know we’ll have to spend more money on fertilizer,” Williams explains. “On our five-year [fields], we don’t spend as much.”

Williams has begun testing the effect of lower levels of applied nitrogen on yields. Much to his surprise and excitement, he’s been able to cut his fertilizer use by 25% on no-till ground that has had cover crops for three years. He also sees big benefits in five-year no-till corn ground where he can use only 80 units of nitrogen and maintain yield at 125 bu. to 150 bu. per acre. 

While those yields aren’t going to blow anyone out of the water, they are profitable, which is what really matters, he says.

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 Kansas farmer Darin Williams  says while he might not have the  highest yields, he’s profitable.

“We’re still in the learning stages; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” Williams says. “We’ve put 
in the effort and set the stage. Now we’re able to pull off decreased nitrogen rates.”

Williams has also seen significant increases in organic matter, less compaction and better water infiltration in just five years.

“Healthy soil gives you the opportunity to decrease inputs and save yields,” he adds. “But you’ve got to be a good student and make decisions quickly. Don’t forget to be honest with yourself to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

Sometimes, soil type and tillage change how well starter fertilizer works. It’s important to know how and when it pays.

“Starter fertilizer will almost always give you bigger plants at V4 to V5 [corn] range, but the yield response at the end of the year has always been erratic,” says Joel DeJong, Iowa State Extension field agronomist. 

“It doesn’t always pay for itself, it just depends on the year,” he says.

No-till, strip-till or minimum-till systems typically respond better to starter, he adds. Starter can also help fields with poor soil fertility by getting crops the nutrients they need quickly. In nutrient-deprived soil, nutrients might not be available when plants need it. 

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 Cover crops help aerate no-till,  minimum-till and strip-till soils, and  add organic matter into the soil,  which can help reduce fertilizer  needs.

For those considering switching to different tillage systems, think through the changes you’ll need to make to your fertilizer system.

“Strip-till creates a fairly nice middle ground for those who want to reduce tillage but maybe not go full bore with no-till,” DeJong says. 

“It keeps the soil where it belongs, doesn’t require as much energy [heat units] as no-till at germination and builds up soil organic matter,” he adds.

When making management decisions regarding fertilizer timing and placement or tillage, consider local data, DeJong says. “[Getting] money back on your investment depends on your environment. Remember to check your state’s data—you can’t use data from another state and assume the same results,” he adds.

For Illinois farmer David Sass, taking a risk with strip-till and fall and starter fertilizer has saved him money and time. “It’s worked for us, but we know there aren’t many who do it.” 

To those, Sass has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to experiment with new fertilizer and tillage systems on fields in your operation, it could benefit you in the long run,” he adds.

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