Simultaneous strip-till, fertilizer application and planting is the right springtime combination for Fayette County corn-and-soybean producer Collin Jensen, who saves fuel, reduces soil erosion, improves soil quality and lessens compaction by farming this way.
“You can cut back on equipment, machinery, fuel and man hours per acre compared to conventional farming, and at the same time lose less soil," Jensen says. "What else are you looking for?”
Jensen, who owns and rents 1,800 acres on several northeast Iowa farms, needs to manage for several soil types. Some of his soils are heavier, sit on flatland and drain poorly — typical of wet spring conditions. His other soils are more typical of the area — better draining soils that sit on steeper slopes.
Besides minimal subsoiling, Jensen leaves crop residue untouched until planting time. That’s when he uses Yetter Sharktooth trash whippers to prepare the soil for planting. He uses a 24-row planter, and plants rows 20 inches apart at a 1.25- to 2-inch depth.
He says the trash whippers handle crop residue very well.
In the fall, Jensen spreads dry chicken litter and performs minimal subsoiling to help lift compacted areas. In the spring, he applies 18 to 50 gallons (48 to 133 pounds) of 32% nitrogen with Dawn fertilizer coulters at a 4-inch depth, ahead of trash whippers while planting.
Jensen performs soil sampling every 3 to 4 years by soil type to make efficient use of his fertilizer.
“Most every farm I run, I’ve farmed so long I know where all the old field lines are,” he says. “I usually sample 5-acre areas.”
He says much of his land was moldboard plowed before he began farming it in the 1960s. He reports dramatic increases in organic matter from years of practicing residue management.
“In my soils, there is a lot of decomposed material. It looks like good stuff you would see in a compost pile,” he says. “Over time, the soil at planting depth has built up more structure and doesn’t crust easily.”
Years of running a high residue cropping system has undoubtedly saved soil for Jensen, but it has also helped improve the quality and performance of his soils. He feels that if he can plant his crops at the same time other farmers do, he has a shot at the same yields everybody else does.
“There’s give and take — no system is the best every year,” he says.
Jensen cuts costs by performing his own fertilizing, planting and harvesting. Since he only makes a couple trips through fields, he has much lower fuel costs than producers who till conventionally. He says he uses approximately 0.75 gallon per acre of fuel annually to fertilize and plant his crops.
It's important to plant on the contour in Jensen’s system because the stripped area can be susceptible to washing after planting, since rows sit lower than the crop residue. Jensen plants continuous corn on steeper slopes. He says continuous corn helps reduce erosion, particularly during heavy rains, because of the high amount of residue.
Another challenge for Jensen, as with any high-residue system, is waiting until soils dry before planting.
“Particularly with corn residue, I have to wait longer to get in the field than guys who chisel,” he says.
Jensen's Management Tips
1. Leave Stalks Standing
Collin Jensen believes it's important to leave cornstalks standing. He calls them the “pipeline by which water gets into the soil.”
He says corn root mass left untouched holds more soil, and doesn’t wash into the ditches.
“I like to leave stalks as tall as I can so I don’t have more matting than I want on the soil,” he says.
2. Worms Are Your Friend
Earthworms are an important part of Jensen’s system. They help improve the quality of his soil by increasing the availability of nutrients, improving physical properties of the soil, moving residue deep inside the soil and enhancing beneficial microorganisms. In addition, earthworm channels help remove excess rainfall and snowmelt.