When Jason Lay attended a conference last year, he was amazed by the level of interest in strip-till.
"I personally talked with eight producers who had strip-till bars on order," says Lay, who farms 2,700 acres roughly 3 miles west of Normal, Ill. "Strip-till is a lot further along than it was even 2 years ago. A lot of producers are strongly considering it and many are trying it."
Lay should know. He is one of them.
After doing a lot of reading and talking with successful strip-till farmers, Lay decided to take the plunge, creating his first strips during his anhydrous application in fall of 2006.
"We're pretty heavy corn on corn, which is very labor-intensive with very high input costs," Lay explains. "A lot of the things we were doing were good; we just needed to simplify."
The real clincher for Lay was that every producer he talked with had maintained the same yields with strip-till with a lot less labor, time and money.
"Let me put it this way," he says. "I talked with I don't know how many folks who have been in strip-till for a number of years, and I have yet to find any person who has discontinued doing it."
Lay projects that with strip-till, he will burn roughly one-third as much diesel fuel as with his old program: a fall chisel trip, followed by anhydrous ammonia and a dry fertilizer trip. In the spring, he was lucky if he only had to hit the ground once with a soil finisher before planting.
"We can take four of those trips and basically condense them into one strip-till trip without sacrificing yield," he says. "Also, with strip-till, you're going to get the benefits of growing continuous corn, controlling erosion and building organic matter over time."
In addition to the fuel and soil savings, time constraints are triggering a surge of interest in strip-till, especially among the larger farmers, says Bob Frazee, a University of Illinois Extension natural resources educator.
"Many larger operations are looking very carefully at strip-till just because of the savings on time," Frazee says. "That's where strip-till and no-till can be a life-saver."
Frazee believes that the growing interest in strip-till, especially strip-till corn, is one reason that no-till corn acreage expanded in Illinois, from 14.9% of all corn acreage in 2005 to 16.7%, according to the 2006 Tillage and Erosion Survey. Strip-till is classified as a form of no-till; and this year's significant increase reverses a 5-year decline in no-till corn.
Strip-till removes the major stumbling block to no-till corn: cool, wet seedbeds that can stunt early season growth. With the narrow strip, free of residue, and the mounds created in the fall, strip-till offers an ideal seedbed for corn.
Lay says he decided to go into strip-till full throttle by putting all of his corn-on-corn land into the system, which amounts to roughly seven-eighths of his farmland. He also invested in his own strip-till bar, rather than leasing it, and he bought a real-time kinematic, or RTK, guidance system to stay on the strips.
With all there is to learn with strip-till, he says, "We thought we'd be in better control of our destiny if we owned our own toolbar."
Owning the toolbar also gave Lay and his father flexibility in the inputs they choose. They fall-applied liquid phosphorus and potassium along with the anhydrous, but plan to experiment next year with different formulations of liquids for phosphorus and potassium.
Lay says the biggest challenge so far has been dealing with heavy residue when using his anhydrous applicator.
"We're dealing with residue in corn on corn, so it's more challenging than running an anhydrous toolbar through chiseled stalks," he notes. "But we knew that going into it."
For those considering strip-till, Lay suggests you set out a long-term vision and plan for where you want to be.
"Do you want to try to do more with less?" he asks. "Do you want to control the same amount of acres 5 years from now and still do it yourself?
"It's not an easy decision. It's not for everybody. But I'm only 33 years old and plan on making a career of it."
Lay compares the commitment to that of a marriage.
"Once you're committed, you've got to put in the effort and the patience."