Editor's Note: This article was published by Don Lilliboe for Sugarbeet Grower magazine.

No sugarbeet-producing state had a higher percentage of its sugarbeet crop under a strip-till production system this past year than Nebraska. Roughly half of the state’s beet acreage was strip-tilled this season, says Jerry Darnell, Western Sugar Cooperative’s Scottsbluff-based agronomy manager. That percentage is quite likely to expand in 2010 and beyond, he adds.

Interestingly, one of the real veterans of strip-till sugarbeet production in western Nebraska is Darnell’s own father. Jim Darnell grew strip-till beets for the 12th consecutive season in 2009 on his farm located north of Scottsbluff.

Darnell, who grows all his row crops — beets, corn, dry beans, sunflower — under strip-till, cites a four-letter word as his primary motivation for getting into strip-till back in the latter ’90s: wind.

“Our biggest issue around here is wind erosion in the spring,” he affirms. “Everyone tries to do something to stop erosion.”

Prior to strip-till, area growers’ most-common answer was a straight plow-plant regimen, sucxh as moldboard plowing a couple days ahead of planting, and pulling a packer behind the plow to break down clods and firm the seedbed. While it usually resulted in an acceptable seedbed, the system was not very effective at blunting spring winds.

So Darnell next tried minimum tillage; then even ridge-till, which worked fine with corn and beans, but not so well in beets. Strip-till finally filled the bill

For the first 6 years, Darnell used a Till-N-Plant machine developed by Schlagel Mfg. of nearby Torrington, Wyo. Six years ago, he switched over to a 12-row DMI unit with its shallower tilling depth.

“An advantage of the Schlagel is you can go any depth you want. If you can pull it, you could go 20 inches deep,” Darnell says.

But since he always plants on top of the previous year’s rows, he didn’t feel that after 6 years there was a need to go as deep. While he had been at a 10- to 12-inch tillage depth with the Schlagel, now he runs at 8 to 9 inches with the DMI.

“Because we’re in the same row all the time, nothing drives on that row. We think we’d be wasting horsepower and fuel now [to go deeper],” he observes.

Most of Darnell’s beets follow corn, with RTK auto-steer helping to keep the strip-till machine atop the old corn rows. On his center-pivot fields, he’ll run a rolling stalk chopper prior to the strip-till pass; on his shrinking number of gravity-irrigated acres, a light discing is added.

Root balls from the corn crop are not a problem, he says, since the DMI unit’s coulters slice them and his planter’s row cleaners remove any remaining ones from the seed drop zone.

Some of Darnell’s 2009 beets went into wheat stubble, which he believes is ideal for both wind protection and the strip-till efficacy.

“But we don’t raise enough wheat to have all our beets in wheat stubble,” he notes.

The Scotts Bluff County producer does his strip-tilling in the spring. The time interval until he pulls in with his Case IH Early Riser 1200 Series planter can be anywhere from 24 hours up to a week to 10 days, depending on the weather and seedbed condition.

Some of his fertilizer will have gone on with the strip-till unit; the rest will be either sidedressed or applied through the center pivot.

“Our starter fertilizer applied during the strip-till pass goes on shallow, a couple inches below the row,” Darnell explains. “We put on the rest of it at the bottom of the shank, so it’s down about 9 inches deep.”

While some strip-till sugarbeet producers have cut back on their phosphorus rates, Darnell says his soil tests haven’t yet indicated he should be doing so.

Though he hasn’t conducted any side-by-side comparisons of yields and sugar content of strip-till versus conventional beets, Darnell is confident he is harvesting crops that are at least as productive — if not more so — than under a conventional system.

“Our stands are probably better than we used to have,” he emphasizes. “That’s a big part of it.”

Also, re-plants on account of wind erosion are a thing of the past.

“Our biggest benefit is wind-erosion control,” Darnell reiterates in explaining the benefits of strip-tilled beets for his Nebraska Panhandle farming operation. “The second thing is moisture.”

Since most of his beets are now grown under center pivots, the water savings attributable to strip-till aren’t as large as they were under a gravity irrigation program.

“But there’s still savings,” he states. “We’re not putting on as much water with the pivots” as would be the case under a conventional-tillage program. Plus, “when you do get a rain, nothing runs off. The infiltration is great,” he adds.

Finally, there’s the savings in time and fuel from the reduced passes across the field with strip-till — especially the time.

“You only have so much time in the spring,” Darnell emphasizes. “You can buy more fuel if you have to, but you only have so much time.”

Like other strip-till sugarbeet growers, Jim Darnell says strip-till and the introduction of Roundup Ready beets has been a great marriage.

“Our beet program now consists of the rolling stalk chopper, the strip-till pass, planting, spraying and harvesting,” he points out. “That’s it. Sugarbeets went from being the toughest crop to grow and manage to where it’s now just as easy as corn, once you get the crop established.”

Nick Lapaseotes farms at Bridgeport, Neb., about 40 miles southeast of Jim Darnell. He didn’t jump into strip-till beets until 2008; but when he did, it was in a large way — and for similar reasons.

“The wind is a big issue around here,” states Lapaseotes, who has served as president of the Nebraska Beet Growers Association since 2003.

To counter its effects and protect beet stands, the Morrill County producer first transitioned into minimum till several years ago. He now plants virtually all his beet ground under either a minimum-till or strip-till system.

His minimum-till approach on lighter ground consists of a single pass with a Sunflower Land Finisher. On heavier ground, he runs a disc ripper pulling a packer — again, a one-pass operation.

Lapaseotes’ strip-till unit is a 12-row Orthman 1tRIPr outfitted with a liquid fertilizer setup.

Every field is soil sampled — which is even more important for the beets since Lapaseotes applies a lot of compost manure from his large feedlot. He applies just nitrogen with the strip-till pass — often in the range of 100 pounds per acre, depending, of course, on what the soil test calls for.

“Then, we’ll either put starter down with the planter or come back and sidedress the remaining fertility needs," he says.

The strip-till tractor (a John Deere 8530) runs with RTK guidance. One of his planter tractors also uses RTK; the other one is equipped with an SF2 system since some of his beets are grown in an area without RTK coverage.

“We’ve actually had real good luck running with the SF2 behind the strip-till unit,” Lapaseotes remarks. “As long as the strip-till pass is done right, we’re fairly comfortable with the SF2.”

Both planters are three-point types.

Much of Lapaseotes’ 2009 strip-tilled beet acreage went on corn ground, all of which is grazed. He wasn’t comfortable with planting atop the old corn rows; nor did he want to split the rows “because then you’re driving on top of the corn stalks, and that’s hard on tires,” he says.

So he strip-tilled and planted at angles of between 5 to 15 degrees from the corn rows, and was pleased with the resulting stand.

“And those standing stalks really helped protect the small beets against the wind,” he adds.

Like Jim Darnell, Lapaseotes appreciates the compatibility of strip-till and Roundup Ready sugarbeets. An unusually wet spring in the Nebraska Panhandle this year underscored the benefits of both, he notes.

“We sprayed one field once, and it took us 30 days to get back into that field,” he illustrates. “Fortunately, it didn’t have heavy weed pressure. But if we had been using a conventional program, we likely would have ended up ‘burning’ the beets, stunting them — and still not have controlled the weeds.”

Under a conventional production program, Lapaseotes probably would have made at least seven or eight trips across his beet fields to prepare the seedbed and perform in-season cultivations. Now, that’s reduced to the single strip-till pass.

Water-use efficiency is becoming more important with each passing year, and strip-till is a real asset there, too, given the reduced field operations and amount of trash cover. Water infiltration is better as well.

When Lapaseotes still had a substantial number of gravity-irrigated acres and plowed his fields, “we used to get a lot of silt running down the rows; the gated pipe was full of silt,” he recalls. “Now we don’t have the washing issues. We don’t have the erosion.”

The only real complication Lapaseotes encountered during his transition to strip-till came during the first pass with the sprayer. While he didn’t have a problem in some fields, in others the sprayer “just doesn’t want to track straight,” he explains. “So we’ll just spray crossways or at an angle to the beet rows that first time.”

Some of his fellow strip-tillers have mounted a shank to keep the sprayer parallel with the rows, and Lapaseotes is planning to do so for 2010.

Other than that, Lapaseotes is very pleased with the changes in his sugarbeet production program over the past couple years, noting that the combination of strip-till, Roundup Ready and guidance systems has made beets a much easier crop to raise.

“If you made people go back to the old style now, it probably would be tough to get enough acres planted,” he says.