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More than 250 people from five states and Canada attended the Strip Till Expo Sept. 6 near Fergus Falls, Minn. The event was organized by University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University extension. (Derek Fletcher/Agweek)

Extension event highlights strip till

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Charlie Piekarski bubbled with enthusiasm as he looked at the 250-plus people from five states and Canada standing on his wheat stubble.

"All these people — here because they want to learn more about strip till. It's exciting," said the 70-year-old Fergus Falls, Minn., farmer.

Then he bent down and picked up a handful of soil in which an earthworm wriggled. "This is exciting, too. Just look at how healthy this soil is. That's why we're doing this; it's all about the soil," he said.

Piekarski hosted a Strip Till Expo Sept. 6 on a harvested wheat field on his farm. The event, organized by University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University extension agencies, was sponsored by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Minnesota Soybean & Research Promotion Council, North Dakota Corn Council and North Dakota Soybean Council.

The expo featured extension officials, farmers and equipment dealers who provided their insights and expertise on strip till. It concluded with a demonstration in which seven different strip-tillage implements were used in the wheat stubble.

Many variations exist, so there's no single or universally accepted definition of strip till. But the practice combines no till and conventional tilling using narrow strips tilled in crop stubble, typically six to 12 inches apart, with the area between the rows left undisturbed. (That keeps more crop residue on the soil.) The tilled strips correspond to planter row depths of the next year's crop, and seeds are planted directly into the tilled strips.

Experts say advantages include:

• Conserving energy because only part of the soil is tilled.

• Conserving soil moisture because most of the soil surface is covered with crop residue.

• Maintaining higher levels of soil organic matter.

• Reducing expenses by eliminating some tillage.

• Accelerating soil warm-up in the spring.

Many producers wonder if strip till hurts their ability to control weeds. But research shows that's not the case, said Dave Nicolai, a University of Minnesota extension educator who spoke at event.

The cost of strip-till equipment is a potential drawback, however, he said.

Soil types and cropping systems help to determine whether strip till might be a good fit on a particular farming operation, Nicolai said.

Historically, strip till and other minimum-till practices have been most popular in areas such as the western Dakotas with relatively light soil and modest precipitation. But interest in strip till is expanding geographically, said Phil Glogoza, a Moorhead, Minn.-based regional extension educator who attended the Fergus Falls expo.

Fergus Falls is in west-central Minnesota. Corn and soybeans are the area's dominant crops.

Try something new

Brothers Paul and John Dubbels, Fergus Falls farmers who were at the strip-till expo, were among the first in their area to work with minimum till. Anxious to reduce erosion and protect their soil, they began no till in 1982, transitioned into strip till in 2007 and moved even more heavily into it in 2013.

Recently developed strip-till equipment makes the practice easier and more efficient than when they first began it, Paul said.

But at least one potential obstacle remains, the brothers say.

Peer pressure.

"Sometimes farmers just don't want to try something new," Paul says.

Their best advice for farmers interested in trying strip till:

"Start small. But start," John said.

This is the third year extension educators have researched strip till on a 20-acre plot on Piekarski's farm.

He's pleased with the results so far, and encourages other producers to try it.

"If you want to keep your land good, you need to do some different things," he said.

More information on strip till: