Strip-till Agriculture

I recently stumbled upon a cool article about strip-till agriculture. Most folks that might be interested in RethinkAg probably have heard of no-till agriculture, a cool way to directly drill seeds or transplant into a cover cropped or mulched field. As exciting as no-till is, it may not work in every soil and climate.

Mahdi Al-Kaisi at the Southeast Farmpress (twitter:@FarmPress) neatly sums up why strip-till is a great option for farmers in the southeastern US:

Strip-tillage, which creates a soil environment that enhances seed germination, is an alternative to no-till in areas where poorly drained soils are dominant.

As most southerners know, the heavy clay soils we have down here sometimes classify as “poorly drained”:

This soil in Georgia has been inundated. Credit: mikemol@flickr

As Mr. Al-Kaisi indicates, the typical way to implement strip-till farming is with a new tractor implement that incorporates shanks and seeders:

Tractor image from

These implements are too expensive for many first-time farmers (myself included) joining the local food movement.

At CEFS Small Farm unit, we replicated strip-till techniques using a small walk-behind BCS tiller, similar to those silly Mantis brand tillers you see on TV. Once tilled, we had a nice clean seedbed to drive a push-seeder down or to transplant into.

At RethinkAg, we advocate incremental improvements on large, established farms as well as radically innovative systems thinking on small, local start-up farms. Strip-till is a useful tool for both applications.

Thanks to @cowgirljesse at the Pearl Snap Ponderings blog for the idea for today’s post.


2 thoughts on “Strip-till Agriculture

  1. Hey Eric, can you describe strip-tillage? I didn’t really get it from the linked article. (The name evokes strip mining, but I’m guessing that it is not analogous.)

    1. Thanks for your question! This is probably an example of a scientist reading articles from their own field with a trained eye.

      Common forms of tillage turn over the soil profile. Creatively, they’re called “inversion” tillage. Other forms of tillage are more like a rake where tines cut through the soil like a knife. Strip tillage can be like either form of tillage, except disturbing the entire field, much like strip mining. Strip-tillage is very different: small strips of soil are disturbed every few feet. For example, with tomatoes it would be common to till up an 12-18 inch row every 3-4 feet. Usually, you’re disturbing about 1/2 the soil instead of the whole field.

      Because you have strips of undisturbed soil (often with a dead annual cover crop), water runoff and nitrogen loss from the ecosystem are usually a lot lower. This is especially good because it means you’re losing nitrogen, which can be kind of expensive. Also, you’re probably using less energy to use strip tillage as compared to inversion tillage, perhaps 1/2 per pass of the tractor. Sometimes you can skip a whole pass with the tractor, which is a really big environmental (and labor) cost.

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