Stale seedbeds — wherein fields are tilled in the fall and then left untouched the following spring until the planter rolls in — have really caught on in Michigan the past several years. Nearly one-fourth of the state’s sugarbeet fields were planted into a stale seedbed this past season, compared to probably less than 5% just three or four years ago.
Clay Crumbaugh is a longtime member of the stale-seedbed fraternity. He, wife Christine and father Rex, who farm in the Breckenridge-St. Louis vicinity, have been planting beets into a stale seedbed for the past 15 years. They began doing so on half their acreage and within three years had expanded the practice to 100% of their upcoming beet ground.
More recently, however, the Crumbaughs have diverted some of their sugarbeet acreage into zone (strip) till. And it all began with a 2007 corn field.
“We’d heard about zone tilling. And since we liked our general stale seedbed, we thought, ‘Well, let’s see if we can prepare a ‘stale seedbed within a strip.’ ” They pulled their Brillion Zone Commander strip-till unit into the 160-acre field right on the heels of the corn combine, creating the tilled zones between the rows of corn stalks. The field sat untouched until the beet planter came through in the spring of 2008. (See photo on page 14.)
The results off that first field were good enough to persuade the Crumbaughs to expand their zone-till experiment. As of 2010, about half their beet acreage was produced under a zone-till system.
As yet, the Crumbaughs have not applied fertilizer during the fall zone-till pass. They maintain good N, P and K levels via broadcasting. In season, about half the beet crop’s additional nitrogen needs go on dry 2x2 with the planter; the other half is 28% liquid, banded on with the field sprayer after planting. Clay is considering applying P and K in the fall with the zone-till unit, but has not yet taken that step.
How have the Crumbaugh zone-tilled beets compared, in yield and quality, with those produced under a stale-seedbed system? They’re very similar. A Michigan Sugarbeet Advancement trial was conducted on the Crumbaugh Gratiot County farm in 2009, comparing single-pass zone till with a two-pass stale seedbed approach (disk chisel followed by field cultivator). Other inputs (fertilizer, weed control, fungicides) were identical. In the end, there were no significant differences in any of the measured parameters: final population (30 days after planting), tons per acre, percent sugar, pounds sugar per ton and per acre, or revenue per acre.
Single-pass seedbed preparation is a big one. Clay estimates he saves about $8 per acre in tillage costs as compared to the two-pass approach. Another advantage comes during inclement fall weather. “If we’re chisel plowing and get rained on, we’re ‘up a creek’ trying to get our secondary tillage done,” he says. “With the zone tiller, once we’ve made that pass, we’re done.”
Crumbaugh is adamant about creating perfect or near-perfect zones — including guess row spacing — for the next spring’s planter. “Placing the seed over the cut is important,” he states. The issue takes on an added dimension since their Brillion works just five 30-inch rows, while their planter is 12 rows and the harvester, six rows. RTK guidance is hugely important; and along with it, the correct ballast and tire pressure on their JD 8330. The GPS receiver on the 8330 gets shuffled over to other tractors from time to time, “so every time we switch a receiver, we calibrate — on our level shop floor with all tires at the correct pressure,” Clay stresses.
Another appealing aspect of zone tilling, he adds, is that “once we’ve done that tillage pass, we don’t touch those zones again.” With a stale seedbed approach, “we do that primary tillage with the chisel plow — and then we drive all over again with the field cultivator.”
Protecting young beets from spring winds is another key consideration. “Zone tilling offers more protection from wind erosion than does the stale seedbed,” Clay observes.
Might the Crumbaugh farm’s sugarbeet acreage eventually be 100% zone till? It’s possible, but Clay is not rushing headlong in that direction. “We like to do things on a ‘crawl-walk-run’ basis,” he explains. “We’re between a ‘walk’ and a ‘run’ right now. So we’ll do as much as we can on any field where we think we might have success with zone tilling.”
Clay hopes to have even more answers following the 2011 growing season, as he’ll be conducting another large-scale side-by-side comparison of zone-till versus stale-seedbed sugarbeets. — Don Lilleboe