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Ridge till, strip cropping taking hold in eastern Ontario

 

by Pierre-Yves Gasser & Hugh Maynard

 

Until a few years ago, minimum and no-till farms were mostly to be found in faraway places such as Indiana and Illinois. Strip cropping was for mega-sized cash croppers in the U.S. Corn Belt.

Slowly, these alternative cropping methods have made their way up to south-western Ontario and now are becoming more commonplace in eastern Ontario and southern Quebec.

The fact that these practices are adaptable to eastern Canadian conditions was beyond doubt during the Ontario Ridge Till and Strip Cropping Club's tour of five farms in eastern Ontario near the Quebec border. About thirty farmers who had also started minimum tillage practices, or were contemplating doing so, visited fields and talked with the host farmers to pick up insight into the do's and don'ts of changing cultivation practices.

 

Each unto their own

Four of the five farmers visited had implemented ridge tillage systems combined with strip cropping, alternating grain corn and soybeans in six-row strips across their fields. Jacques Grenier of Ste-Rose-de-Prescott also grows barley for seed in between the strips of corn. The fifth, Jack Fraser, a dairy farmer in Maxville, has 300 acres of no-till corn and soybeans. All the farmers had taken the basic principles of minimum tillage and then adapted both the practice and the machinery to suit their operation.

Martin Spuelher of St-Bernadin gave a very insightful talk on a modified ridge-tillage system adapted to local conditions, proving that not everything has to be done by the book or relying only on expensive new equipment.

A home-made ridging machine is used to re-form ridges and add granular fertilizer in the spring. One of the main reasons for spring ridge building is that it keeps seedlings from drowning during early season heavy rainfall. Much of the fine sandy loam found on the farm is not tiled and slow to warm up. Spring ridging solves these problems while allowing for an easy way to apply all the P and K fertilizer.

Planting operations follow 1 to 2 days later, depending on soil conditions. Trash wheels mounted to the front of the seed unit remove crop residue, soil clumps and level off the row area. This allows for a more even depth control of the double disk opener. A roller pulled behind the planter in rough corn ground improves germination. It is also used on all soybean and white bean ground to level off the six ridges evenly. This improves harvest operations with the flex head.

Band spraying is followed with 1-2 cultivations to control weeds. A Liliston rolling cultivator is used for the first pass. A 3-tooth modified conventional row crop cultivator is used for re-ridging and applying liquid 28% UAN.

Spuelher has also adopted strip cropping for the entire farm, using an original approach by not increasing the population of corn plants in the outside rows. Besides keeping input costs in check, Spuelher believes this allows more sunlight into the inside rows. Yield increases have been observed but so far no side by side comparisons have been made.

An other observation was that strip tilled corn stands better in the fall compared to solid seed fields. A possible reason is that the outside rows are subject to wind shear stress during the entire season and develop a stronger stalk and rooting system accordingly.

A homegrown approach is also used with the harvesting of white beans. The beans are first mowed and windrowed using a European-type double bladed sickle mower. The combine follows later when the beans have dried out and is equipped with a belt pick-up instead of a flex head.

This system reduces harvest losses in two ways. Firstly, beans mowed and windrowed under moist conditions do not shatter as easily. Dry pods remain attached to the stem and less dry ones are given a chance to desiccate before combining. Secondly, windrowed beans are easier to harvest; forward speed is limited by combine through-put capacity and header losses are reduced.

 

Cereals in circulation

Barley is grown on the Grenier farm for seed and represents a small percentage of the overall acreage with normal practice being mulch tillage and solid seeding. Grenier wanted to determine how well barley would do in strips and with differing manure dosages. The windbreak effect of the corn strips may help prevent lodging. The experiment worked well in 1993 as Grenier reported that strips with high manure application rates doubled in yield. Plans for next year are to no-till the barley into soybean residue.

Grenier has also been conducting trials using liquid poultry manure as a top dressing for corn in June. Since tillage is out of the question a different approach was needed to safely and economically apply the manure. He has made several modifications to a 3,000 gallon liquid manure spreader with 120 inch wheel spacing and a disk incorporator in order to make it suitable for the injection of manure, the biggest problem being the plugging up of the distributor unit with feathers. Another problem was that some rows received insufficient nitrogen while others too much.

"The unit would work fine for a hog or dairy operation with liquid manure, but we have had to make some modifications. Due to the injector system, however, there are no ammonia losses," Grenier commented. He added that he has been disappointed by the amount of government funding committed so far to help share the risks of such trial operations.

Grenier has been conducting trials this past summer to compare the application of chicken manure as a top dress with anhydrous ammonia, as well as comparing 30 " rows of soybeans seeded at 85 lbs/acre with 14" rows seeded at 105 lbs/acre in a corn-soybean strip system. Both experiments were replicated six times.

The soybeans were also planted more as no-till than ridge till due to the heavy clays present on parts of the farm, which due to the wet spring tended were harder than usual. This had a negative effect on the disk hillers of the Suk-Up cultivator, as they tended to break off; the mounting plates were reinforced to solve this problem. Deep banding tips were also added to the sweeps to improve penetration, although they did not perform as well as expected.

 

Dairy schedule

Fraser has been no-tilling for 4 years and is satisfied with the results so far after experimenting with ridge tillage and strip cropping. The main problem with the latter two is the incompatibility of the work schedule with the needs of the dairy herd.

"When its time for cultivating corn its also time for haying. So I hay," says Fraser in explaining how he has kept the no-till operations to suit the dairy operation. Since he doesn't have the time cultivate he has to rely on herbicides more for weed control, which also presents a problem for strip cropping as the number of herbicides that can be used is very limited.

Other dairy farmers in the area are also experimenting with no-till despite the obstacles facing non-cash croppers of uncertainty and the high cost of new equipment. A $25,000 planter is difficult to justify for less than 200 acres of corn, compounded by the endless design changes from one year to the next.

 

Fraser's crop rotation is:

Year 1 no-till corn into forage ground

Year 2 solid seeded beans with a JD 750 drill

Year 3 15 foot corn-soybean strips

Year 4 no-till spring wheat

Year 5-7 no-till forages

 

Fraser says that residue management is what makes no-till work and he relies on a fall kill-down of old sod, followed by burning off the trash to ensure good conditions for the first year. Corn can be seeded into soybean trash without problems, but he points out that corn into corn doesn't work except on sandy soils.

Because he feels that having dry land is essential for making no-till work, he is considering adapting the strip cropping idea by establishing 30 foot strips of corn and alfalfa from which he can side spread manure onto the corn in late spring. This would allow the no-till planting to take place earlier in soil that would be too wet for a manure spreader to travel on, thereby not delaying the crop by having to wait for manure application.

 

Change it

Robert Dicaire farms 400 acres of ridge-till corn and 50 acres of soybeans in corn-soy strips near Bainesville. A visit to the machinery shed revealed a gamut of homemade and custom tailored equipment to make the field operations more effective.

A 1967 Allis Chalmers no-till air planter has been retro-fitted and fine tuned over the last three years with homemade ridge skimmers, trash bars, seed trench covering units and countless other customized modifications that would surely have the original AC engineers scratching their heads. It's low-cost and it works but there is also a certain risk factor associated with this approach because it is impossible to test homemade equipment until spring. This can result in mad dashes back to the equipment shed for last minute modifications.

 

Wacking the weeds

Ron McRae of Bainesville has gone from conventional tillage on land that was mono-cropped in corn for 25 years to no-till and then onto ridge till with strip cropping of corn and soybeans. Conventional plowing caused excessive soil erosion and eventually yields suffered as a consequence.

It is six years since the fields were tilled and the proof of the improvement in the soil in this case is not in the pudding but, rather, in the amount of earthworms. Their abundance is known to be an indicator of good soil health; consistently good yields under the no-till regime have not gone amiss either.

McRae is currently conducting two trials to compare the yields of strip cropped soybeans with those of a solid stand. The first is a comparison of 30 inch soybeans in a whole field environment to soybeans in 15 foot corn-soybean strips. The second experiment is rotary hoe weed control in soybeans versus herbicides. Both experiments are replicated 6 times.

The strip cropped soybeans appeared identical in condition to the whole field segment; the rotary hoe soybeans, however, had noticeably more weeds.

The transition into no-till and then ridge-till was not problem free however, and McRae has had his share of challenges. One issue of particular debate has been weed control.

McRae uses as combination of banded herbicide and cultivation with a rotary hoe, and a burn-down with Roundup for established weeds in the fall. He tried two passes with the rotary hoe last year in an attempt to reduce herbicide use but only ended up with more weeds in the trial plot, particularly ragweed.

"The rotary hoe alone isn't going to do it," says McRae, who adds that he is looking into experimentation by Iowa farmers with cover crops and several passes with the rotary hoe.

McRae has also overcome another common weed problem in ridge till systems - milkweed. He mounted a "Wick Wacker" on the front of the tractor and applied a mixture of one third Roundup and two thirds water at the same time as cultivating.

Raising and lowering the boom with hydraulics and controlling the flow rate of the herbicide by vacuum, the soaked fabric of the Wacker "just fried them," according to McRae. He added that the contact application of herbicide has to be done early before the soybeans get up too high; it is also possible, he says, to control isolated quackgrass at this time.

Row crop cultivation is done with a Hiniker unit. Liquid 28% UAN is applied during the second pass. A JD soybean header is mounted to the IH combine for soybean harvest. This is advantageous in ridge-tillage because the spouts can go down into the ridge valleys to gather low lying pods.

All the equipment has been adjusted to 120 inch wheel spacing. This has reduced soil compaction in non-traffic areas and may partially contribute to the increased infiltration rates. The traffic areas remain firm and allows corn to be harvested in weather conditions which would sink combines on tilled ground.

 

The executive committee of the eastern chapter for the Ontario ridge-tillage & strip cropping club were very satisfied with the tour and would like to thank everyone for making it a success. Any questions regarding the club can be addressed to:

 

Ron McRae president (613) 347-2698

Alain Leduc v.p. (613) 538-2547

Jack Fraser communications officer

(613) 527-2572

 

 

Alex Holzgang of St-Etienne (l) talks with Jack Fraser (r) of Maxville about the fine points of no-till practices during the eastern Ontario tour of farms with the Ontario Ridge Till and Strip Crop Club. Holzgang is in to his second year of ridge tillage on his cash crop operation while Fraser has been experimenting with various forms of no-till on his mixed crop dairy farm.

 

A modified ridge till cultivator that allows Robert DŽcaire of Bainesville to apply 55 lbs of liquid nitrogen per acre as a top dress while he cultivates. There are two hoses for the nitrogen, one for the liquid and one to capture and apply the 15% of the nitrogen that usually escapes as vapour. DŽcaire says that the recycling of the vapour also prevents leaf burn.

 

A home-made modification on Ron McRae's ridge cultivator to the plates that turn the soil up onto the ridges during cultivation; adapting to each farms soil condition is key to no-till success.

 

No, this is not football training but merely a gang of ridge till trash tires put together by Robert DŽcaire. Folded for road transport, the gang is used in winter to flatten the crop trash on top of the ridges; frozen stalks snap off cleanly when the tires are run across the field at top speed. DŽcaire a little snow on the field makes the ride a little more even.

Copyright 1993 REAP Canada

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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