Gary Mulch figures he¹s putting less than 400 hours annually on each of his
tractors, compared to probably 1,200 a few years ago.
Joedy Hartman reports fuel consumption on his farm dropped to the point where he received a call from his regular supplier, asking if he had started buying his fuel
Two words sum up what¹s behind these developments: strip till.
Mulch and Hartman, who farm near Burlington, Colo., have produced irrigated corn and sunflower crops under a strip-till system for the past several years. They've parked their disks and cultivators, relying instead on custom-built strip-till implements as their only seedbed preparation
The circular-pattern strip-till pass he makes each fall is the sole tillage performed in his center-pivot fields, Hartman explains. Working eight-inch-wide zones with his 12-row machine, he'll apply his nitrogen and phosphate needs in the same operation. A spring burndown(glyphosate) application, if needed, is the only other field operation prior to planting.
Previously, Hartman's conventional-till program consisted of at least seven different operations: (1) chopping the harvested corn stalks; (2) fall disking; (3) anhydrous ammonia application; (4) second disking; (5) field cultivator pass; (6) planting; and (7) in-season cultivation. Little surprise, then, that those calls to his fuel supplier are now less frequent!
Along with saving the cost of several trips across the field (and their accompanying labor requirements), moisture conservation was a primary reason for moving into strip till, say Hartman and Mulch. Like much of the High Plains, east central Colorado has endured several years of drought. That -
coupled with the declining pumping capacity of many irrigation wells and the
concurrent higher cost of pumping - has put a water squeeze on irrigators as
well as dryland producers.
Hartman estimates he saves about two inches of soil moisture annually with his strip-till production system compared to
conventional. "You're going to lose a half inch of moisture each time you
disk or run the field cultivator," he points out.
The approach also helps protect young plants, add Hartman and Mulch. Except when corn follows wheat (photo at left), the preceding crop is typically corn, with the strip-tilled planting zone running between the old 30-inch corn rows. "So all the corn stalks are still standing however tall
they were when we harvested," Hartman observes. Those stalks provide excellent protection for the young sunflower or corn plants against High Plains spring winds.
The two Kit Carson County neighbors prefer to do all their strip tilling in
the fall, time and field conditions permitting. Mulch runs his strip tiller
at an eight- or nine-inch depth, while Hartman usually goes 10 or 11 inches
deep. That depth challenges his JD 8760 - with traction in the heavy corn
residue, not horsepower, being the main constraint. A minimum 25-30 horsepower per row is required to pull his 12-row unit at that depth, Hartman says.
His first strip-till unit was constructed from a toolbar off an anhydrous ammonia applicator. It wasn't as durable as needed, however, and the wing sections sometimes twisted and lifted when pulling hard.
In 2002 Hartman came up with a design concept for a new strip tiller which he brought to Hitchcock, Inc., in Burlington for the actual fabrication. Four 4x4 tubes comprise the frame for the heavy-duty
implement. "Some guys run a double 7x7 bar," Hartman says, "but the parts
we already had (clamps, etc.) fit a 4x4, so we went with that."
DMI 24-inch straight coulters slice through the heavy residue between the old crop rows. The coulters are followed by mole knives mounted on solid shanks. The mole knife - whose face is about two inches wide - heaves the ground, creating a raised berm (ridge). A pair of 12-inch angled disks act like rolling shields, keeping virtually all the soil within that eight-inch zone. "We'll actually throw more dirt when we come back in to plant than we will [while strip tilling]," Hartman relates.
Since he's also applying anhydrous while strip tilling, Hartman had Hitchcock extend the back of his machine's frame to carry two wavy coulters. These coulters, spaced 60 inches apart, run atop two of the old crop rows. Their sole function is to cut through corn stalks and knobs to provide a
softer track for the NH3 tank. That way the tank tires stay on top of the old rows and don't trail within just-tilled planting zones.
Mulch installed rolling baskets on his strip-till machine, but he seldom employs them. "If we were going to be planting right behind [the strip-till pass], I'd probably use them" for firming the till zone, he says. But both he and Hartman prewater their fields in early spring, and that watering sufficiently firms the seedbed.
If he's operating in wheat stubble, Hartman pulls the markers off his grain drill and mounts them on the strip-till unit. "But when we're running in corn stalks, we don't need markers."
Hartman has Sunco row cleaners on his planter to clear away crop residue within the seedbed for his corn or sunflower. "It's amazing what they'll go
through," he says of the row cleaners. "We'd have places where thistles had blown in solid on the edge of the field, just as tall as the corn stalks,
and [the cleaners] would cut right through and we'd plant."
Both Hartman and Mulch operate full-section center pivots on some of their irrigated ground. "I'll plant half of it to corn, a fourth to sunflower and a fourth to wheat," Hartman says. "My sunflower goes in
behind two years of corn; and I'll rotate everything a fourth of the circle each year." So the portion he had sunflower on in 2004 ended up being drilled into wheat after the 'flower harvest. Mulch splits his full-section circle into thirds.
Both men "water up" their corn and sunflower ground after planting to incorporate herbicides. On sunflower, that's Spartan (Hartman) or a Spartan/Prowl tank mix (Mulch). They agree that weed control in their strip-till fields as been as good as - if not better - that of prior years'conventional fields.
After the prewatering, Hartman's next watering pass on sunflower comes following an application of Furadan (for stem weevil, his biggest insect problem) when the 'flowers are about eight inches tall. Depending on rainfall amounts, he'll typically irrigate again at early bloom and then give the sunflower a final watering during seed fill.
Achieving a sunflower yield goal of 2,800-2,900 pounds per acre takes about half the water required for 200-bushel corn in an average year, Mulch and Hartman indicate. Of course, there haven't been many "average" years in east central Colorado lately. But even so, these two neighbors still come through with some impressive sunflower crops. In 2003 Hartman harvested a nearly 2,800-pound average off a field despite having to deprive the 'flowers of water at a critical time due to corn demands from the shared
sprinkler. That same year, Mulch hit 3,800 pounds of some of his 'flowers
with their oil content approaching 43%.
As of September the two friends were jesting about who would come out on top in 2004. Mulch ended up averaging about 3,200 pounds across 900-plus sunflower acres, while Hartman was just shy of 3,000 (2,996 to be exact).
But one of his circles went 3,300 with nearly 43% oil. So both men have some viable "ammunition" for this winter's jousting sessions! -- Don Lilleboe
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