Mari Brothers of N.E. Colorado Enthused With Strip-Till System, But Always Seeking Improvement
Left: Bob Mari (at left) and his brother Rod have grown sugarbeets for Western Sugar Cooperative since 2000, prior to its becoming a co-op. Their father, Clarence (right), a second-generation grower for the old Great Western Sugar Company, stopped raising beets in 1972, so there was a nearly 30-year gap for the crop on the Mari farm near Merino, Colo.
Bob Mari will never be a poster boy for the “This Is the Way We’ve Always Done It” club. First, he’s a sugarbeet grower. Second, he’s a young beet grower. And third, he and brother Rod are relatively new beet growers, so they’re not bound by long-term habits or tradition. They are, instead, motivated simply by the desire and need to make their operation as efficient — and profitable — as possible. And employing a strip-till production system is a primary vehicle for the Mari brothers. The northeastern Colorado growers have planted their center-pivot sugarbeet acres under strip till since the 2005 crop year.
The Mari foray into strip tillage began with corn back in 2000 — the same year they began growing sugarbeets for Western Sugar Cooperative. Corn prices were very low at the time, and they saw strip till as a way of cutting inputs without sacrificing productivity. Its success in corn on their southwestern Logan County farm prompted the Maris to expand the practice into beets — and they’ve never looked back.
The Maris initially used a leased DMI, but now own an eight-row Schlagel Till-N-Plant machine. They run it across their upcoming beet ground in early spring, anywhere from a week to a month ahead of beet planting, working the soil to a 12-inch depth. They follow corn, tilling and planting directly on top of the old 30-inch corn rows. The three-point Schlagel unit’s aggressive tillage does a very good job of eliminating corn root balls in preparation for the beets, Bob affirms. Custom-made firmer/rollers mounted on their JD MaxEmerge planter, coupled with trash managers, help assure a firm, clean seedbed.
“Some guys like to move over 15 inches from the old corn rows, and others will criss-cross,” planting the beets at an angle to the prior year’s corn rows, Bob notes. “But I’ve found that even with 200-bushel-plus corn, the Schlagel will clean out the residue.”
The Maris graze their corn ground, which definitely helps in dealing with crop residue, Bob adds. “The key is the cows,” he quips, “and having a machine that will clear the remaining trash efficiently from the row.” The planter’s residue managers easily handle the occasional corn root ball that may remain on the row surface.
Bob admits he may not be a “pure” strip tiller, because he does add an in-season pass through both the beets and corn with a short-blade cultivator. “I’ll go quite slow — 4.0 mph or less in beets — because I don’t want to throw any dirt on them.” He’ll sidedress nitrogen during that pass, and also runs an anhydrous-type shank down the row centers. The shanks’ primary benefit comes much later in the season: Their slots serve as a guide for the defoliator tractor’s single-rib tires, helping the topper stay right on the beet row. Father Clarence, who operates the defoliator, says the measure really aids defoliation quality.
Mari has not yet seen a downside to planting beets into the old corn rows. He has used RTK for the past three years, and says his Trimble AgGPS EZ-Guide® guidance system fully complements it. “Staying in that controlled traffic zone leaves the ground so mellow,” he emphasizes.
“I used to travel at 4.5 mph; now I’m going 6.0. And I’m still tilling at the same depth.” The looser tillage zone soil also translates into reduced fuel consumption, he adds.
Another noted advantage to planting beets in the previous corn rows is the need for significantly less applied phosphorus. “I sample the row, not the ‘ditch,’ because that’s were I’m going to grow the crop,” Mari says. “On about half my ’09 beet acres, the only phosphorus I put down was three gallons of 10-34-0, because that’s all the soil test called for. On some fields, I saved $50-60 an acre this past year.” On the other half of last year’s beet acreage — which had not been farmed previously under strip till — he applied a different nitrogen/phosphorus mixture.
Bob Mari came up with the concept for these firmer/rollers for his JD MaxEmerge beet planter. He took the idea to Stahley Enterprises, a machining/welding firm in nearby Merino, and they built the attachments. The firmer/rollers “press the bed where the Schlagel strip-till pass went, and then I don’t need to do anything with my trash whipper other than ‘tickle’ the soil a bit,” Bob explains. “Also, in a wetter spring, sometimes the strip-till shank slot doesn’t close back up as well, leaving air pockets. [The firmer/roller] will help close those pockets.” The fillers inside the rollers ensure that no corn root balls will become stuck.
Minimizing wind erosion is generally seen as a primary benefit of a strip-till production system. Most row-crop producers will also cite soil moisture conservation as another big advantage. Bob Mari agrees with both observations for his farm; but ironically, 2009 provided the opposite scenario in terms of moisture. It was the wettest year that his 80-year-old father could recall — and the Merino area wasn’t as wet as parts of nearby Sedgwick County that tallied 18 inches of rainfall in June alone — two inches more than their average annual precipitation. “We actually lost some nitrogen in our strip-till slots because we had nine inches of rain — and a lot of it flowed into those slots,” Bob recounts. But water infiltration — especially as compared to nearby conventionally tilled fields — was excellent, and field runoff negligible on the Mari strip-tilled fields.
Bob says his biggest current challenge in strip-tilled beets is to fine-tune his fertility program, especially nitrogen. “I’ve been doing variable-rate fertilizer application for three years now, and my data [are] getting more accurate each year,” he says. But accounting for the corn residue is a challenge. “Since I’m not burying it, the material tends to break down later in the season — so it can suppress my sugars,” Mari observes. “I’ve had very good tonnage with my strip-tilled beets, but I’m still not where I want to be on quality.
“It’s a process,” he continues. “We’re constantly tweaking the system, making adjustments. Those small investments add up.”
Like many others, this northeastern Colorado producer appreciates the compatibility of a strip-till production system and Roundup Ready® sugarbeets. His labor costs in strip-till beets were close to $75 an acre prior to the introduction of Roundup Ready beets. “Roundup has complemented strip till,” Mari affirms. “We now have a [weed control system] that is keeping up with the way we farm.
“Strip till and Roundup have made beets almost as easy to grow — other than harvest — as corn,” he smilingly concludes. — Don Lilleboe
Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower