Smart-Till: Fits in with Conservation Practices

Dr. Daniel Davidson, Agronomist

Charles Rice of Mapleton, IL, reports 2011 was another interesting yield. “Weather never seems to be predictable, even in Illinois,” said Rice. “It started off wet and then turned dry and hot, and the tiles dried up in August, but we still had a good yield for the year.”

He reports that corn yielded from 140 to 190 bushels per acre; whole beans yielded about 50 bushels on white, light timber soils and 58 to 60 bushels on good, heavy soils. And he was pleased the corn dried down rapidly last fall.

“When I harvested early corn it came off at 24%. [I] was surprised how quickly it came down, and I ended up harvesting corn at 14%. However, I also ended up harvesting beans at 8 to 9%,” he said. While Rice lamented about how dry the beans got and the bushels he lost at market, he also appreciated not having to spend to dry corn at the elevator.

Rice is a believer in all things conservation and wants to be a good land steward, so the Smart-Till he owns fits right in. Take a drive around his farm or just talk to him about his farming practices, and you’ll learn he routinely rotates corn with beans; he is a no-tiller striving to keep all the residue on the soil surface; he strip-tills before planting corn to place nutrients in a concentrated band; he has built terraces in key locations, grassed waterways, buffer strips, and added tile drainage for runoff management; and he is beginning to incorporate winter cover crops on landscape considered highly erodible.

And he is very interested in the use of cover crop, because he hears good things. “Rye stops soil erosion; builds soil tilth and biology; suppresses weeds; and when planted after soybeans, helps the next crop,” Rice said. He is enrolled in the Conservation Security Program and recently added an enhancement that pays him to plant rye on 29 acres of erodible land every fall. He might expand if the price of rye dropped back to $8 to $9 a bag (56 lbs). Rice is already looking toward 2012 and has ordered his rye seed, which was in short supply in 2011.

Rice explains that the Smart-Till fits wonderfully in this system because it allows him to maintain all the residue on the surface, yet overcome some of the problems this residue can create when planting or by keeping the soil moist and cool in the spring.

After harvesting corn, he runs the Smart-Till over cornstalks with his McFarland stalk chopper attachment. This helps process the stalks and ties them down with soil to stimulate decay. Come spring, he will plant his beans into the cornstalks using a planter with row cleaners. He says these high-residue fields appear ugly in the spring but plant beautifully, and he ends up with excellent stands.

After harvesting beans, he uses a strip-till rig to deep band ammonia, dry phosphorus, and potassium. Then in the spring he runs his Smart-Till rig across the top with his rotary attachment to fluff the soil surface before planting corn over the top of the still visible strip-till berms. He says fluffing the residue and scratching the surface improves aeration, drying, and warming, which are key to getting quick and even establishment.

With the good harvest and initial fall tillage and fertilizer application done, Rice is not too worried about getting back into the field in a timely manner next spring, because he has the Smart-Till in reserve to help prep the soil for planting if the spring is late, cool, and wet.