No-till is winning in farmer's test plot but strip-till is close behind

The Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District and farmer Vance Johnson of Breckenridge, Minnesota, talked about his 60-acre field to study soil health and conservation practices during a field day on July 13, 2022.

Farmer standing in beet field.
Vance Johnson is a fourth-generation farmer at Breckenridge, Minnesota.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Editor's note: Jeff Beach will be checking up with Vance Johnson throughout the growing season as part of our Follow a Farmer series.

BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. — If it were a race, Vance Johnson says he would be betting on the sugarbeets he planted into no-till corn with no cover crop.

That’s the leader of a six-horse race in his 60-acre test plot just north of Breckenridge. The field is first divided into three tillage sections – conventional tillage, stip-till and no-till. Then, each of those sections are divided into halves – half with cover crop and half without.

After being planted to corn last year, it’s sugarbeets this year, and Johnson says the field overall, while a small plot, is on par with his other beet fields.

After no-till and no cover section, both the strip till areas look pretty good, Johnson said.


“Those three have probably looked best all along, I think, and especially as of late,” Johnson said.

Johnson and the Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District hosted a field day Wednesday, July 13, to talk about the test plot, with Johnson answering questions about the process and the district sharing data from sensors in the plot.
This is the second year of a planned five-year experiment at the site. The data also is shared on the Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District website and Kim Melton, the district technician said she is happy to share and answer questions about the data.

“The soil temp probes tell us everything about this spring. How did the soil warm up? Is the no-till warming up compared to the strip-till and the conventional tillage and where is everything at,” Melton said.

Kim Melton is the district technician with the Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Evan Girtz / Agweek

While the race is still on within the test plot, Johnson said, the field is on par his other beet fields, but with the late planting this year, none of the fields are outstanding, though Johnson said he is happy with crop progress overall.

“Given the late start, I’d say overall everything looks pretty good,” Johnson said.

Johnson grows for the Minn-Dak Farmers Co-op across the Red River in Wahpeton, North Dakota.

“If we could get an average crop, we’d be tickled because of the late start. I don’t expect that to happen but we’ve been surprised before. “

Like all his fields, the test plot was planted late, but it was planted all on the same day.


“I really didn’t expect to be able to plant my no-till at the same time as my conventional and strip till sections,” Johnson said.

While it was wetter than the other sections, he said it planted well.

Now the crop is at the stage where it is closing rows.

“Watching it close rows, the no-till and the strip-till really closed rows a lot faster than the conventional did, which kind of surprised me,” Johnson said.

Sugarbeets were planted into corn in this field near Breckenridge, Minnesota. This section of the test plot used conventional tillage.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

The earlier the row gets closed, the earlier the plants can maximize the amount of sunlight they are able to capture to feed growth of the beetroot.

It also helps to shade out weeds and when there is rain, less moisture is lost to evaporation.

Johnson said he hopes the experiments encourage others to try things. He said the cover crops are easiest to incorporate from a management standpoint.

“Not everything is going to fit everyone’s management ability,” Johnson said. “There’s some risk to it all.”


Melton said getting farmers to take that first step is the hardest part, but then interest in conservation practices grows.

Johnson had to plant his strip-till area without the help of a custom strip-till machine. “I like what I see with it,” Johnson said of strip-tilling, “I just haven’t made the jump myself.”

Custom strip-till equipment is no small investment, but Melton sees it catching on.

“I know of seven people that bought strip-till machines in our area,” Melton said. “That’s just amazing to me because that’s not something you would have talked about three years ago or even two years ago.

Reach Agweek reporter Jeff Beach at or call 701-451-5651.
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