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Developing an integrated spring strip tillage system for corn

Principal Investigator: Greg Stewart

Research Institution: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)

Timeline: November 2013 – December 2015

Objectives:

  • Determine which strip-till equipment can perform well under spring soil conditions and provide a “one-pass” system.
  • Determine the performance of applying a full fertility program (NPK) with the strip-till pass, including a slow-release nitrogen component to mitigate fertilizer toxicity issues in the seed zone.
  • Determine the feasibility of employing contour strip-tillage and contour planting operations through GPS guidance with the inclusion of implement steering in addition to the tractor autosteer.

Impacts:

  • The development of a widely adoptable cropping systems practice that will enhance soil cover from previous crop or cover crop residues and reduce soil erosion risk and improve soil health will allow farmers to produce their crops in a sustainable manner. 
  • Simplification of above cropping system – evaluation of ability of meet fertility requirements in a single spring pass
  • Impact #3

Scientific Summary:

The majority of Ontario corn is produced through conventional tillage which results in unprotected soil surfaces that are highly vulnerable to erosion. While the call for a shift towards more reduced-tillage corn production has been made for decades, adoption has been limited due to productivity and logistical issues. Predictions for an increase in the intensity and duration of rainfall events in the future due to climate change are expected to exacerbate soil erosion losses from conventional tillage systems, and reinforce the requirement to develop simple and effective methods of reduced-tillage in corn. Strip tillage is one reduced tillage system which has demonstrated a capability to achieve corn yields similar to conventional tillage while still providing meaningful protection against soil erosion. Unfortunately, the economic and environmental incentives of strip tillage have not been enough to convince corn producers to overcome the logistical hurdles associated with the conversion from a conventional-till system.

This research project has worked towards developing a simple one-pass spring strip-tillage system which integrates various technologies to help simplify the transition from conventional-till systems, and promote its adoption to produce a more environmentally resilient corn production model. Over the duration of this project, ten trial locations were established which allowed for the investigation of various placement methods of phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) fertilizer either on the strip tiller or on the planter or on the strip tiller or nitrogen (N) fertilizer through side-dress applications. Some locations also allowed the comparison of different tillage systems (conventional till, fall strip-till, no-till) to spring strip-tillage. Two proof-of-concept contour spring strip tillage sites were also established to investigate and demonstrate the ease of setup and practicality of strip tillage contoured to topography across field slopes  in attempts of further reducing soil erosion.

There were a few key learnings from the results of this project.

Tillage: At many locations included in this trial, reduced tillage could be performed (strip tillage relative to conventional tillage, or no-till relative to strip-tillage) where yields were not significantly different between methods, suggesting reduced tillage can be as productive as conventional tillage.

Fertilizer Placement: One benefit growers perceive with strip tillage is the option to move starter fertilizer off the planter and onto the strip tiller in attempts to improve planting efficiency in the spring (reduced down-time for filling fertilizer etc.). At the locations tested, moving starter P and K fertilizer from the planter to the strip tiller did not result in any significant differences in yields. Soil tests may have an influence on this response; these locations ranged from moderately responsive to low responsive to P and K fertilizers, additional research on low testing sites could help verify this observation. Similarly, testing of P and K placement into fall strips relative to placing fertilizer on the planter should be conducted to verify that practice as well.

Nitrogen Management: At many locations, there were instances where nitrogen could be delivered with the strip tiller and result in yields no different than where the same amount of N was applied as a sidedress application, particularly where N-rates were moderate (ie. 135 lb-N/ac). This demonstrates that there is an ability to safely place nitrogen in the fertilizer strip. There were also cases where significant injury results in reduced plant stands and yields. High rates of N fertilizer (ie. 160 lb-N/ac) and the addition of fertilizer banding tubes which concentrated the fertilizer in the strips appeared to increase risk. Further research may develop some strategies to mitigate these risks.

Contour Strip Tillage: With the correct equipment (RTK quality GPS, active implement control) and the ability to develop a topographic contour map (tractor GPS and mapping software), the concept of contour strip tillage was relatively easy to adopt, even without significant GPS/Software experience. There were a few learning challenges during the course of this experiment. One learning curve was to not create curves which are too tight, as this can create equipment steering and harvest issues. Another is that portable base stations can be hard to replicate if strip tilling and planting are not done at the same time and the correction base station is removed during the process, which creates issues for following strips with the planter. One common challenge to both contour strip tillage sites was that hilly ground did not always work up well with spring strip tillage; soil tended to be blocky and did not always produce a great seedbed.

Funding Partners: Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario (IFAO)

The Ontario Farm Innovation Program is funded through Growing Forward 2 (GF2), a federal provincial-territorial initiative. The Agricultural Adaptation Council assists in the delivery of GF2 in Ontario.

Project Related Scientific and Popular Publications:

Rosser, B. 2016. Integrating Technologies to Enhance the Simplicity of Strip Tillage Systems. Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association Crop Advances.  https://www.ontariosoilcrop.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/V12-2015CrpAdv_Cor6_Intergrating-Technologies-to-Enhance-The-Simplicity-of-Strip-Tillage-Systems.pdf

Stewart, G and B. Rosser. 2015. Integrating Technologies to Enhance the Simplicity of Strip Tillage Systems. Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association Crop Advances. https://www.ontariosoilcrop.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/v11-2014crpadv_cor10_integrating_technologies_to_enhance_conservation_cropping_strip_tillage_systems.pdf

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