Dwayne Beck, South Dakota State University plant science professor and manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, Pierre, S.D., probably has more research experience with combine stripper headers than almost anyone in the country. Beck recently responded to questions about his experience:
• Speed, capacity and snow catch are pluses for using stripper headers.
• Stripped fields can be planted easily with a disk-type seeder.
• The biggest disadvantage is that stripper headers can’t harvest soybeans.
Q: When do you use a stripper header?
A: We have combined small grains, peas, flax, pinto beans, lentils, chickpeas, proso millet and maybe a few others with a stripper header. Determining when and on what to use the stripper depends on the architecture of the crop.
The Shelbourne Reynolds stripper header works best when all of the material to be stripped — like the wheat heads — is situated in an 8- to 10-inch vertical window. This does not happen with modern soybeans because there are pods up and down the stem. It also does not occur all of the time with the semi-leafless peas. It does happen when peas lodge badly and are lying in a mat on the soil surface. Lodged pinto beans also work well. Consequently, we will always use the stripper on lodged peas and pintos. It works great on lodged wheat even if some plants are still standing because you can “push” the standing plants down in line with the lodged ones. When all the wheat is standing, that is good also, as long as it is thick enough to resist the rotor.
The only time we have opted not to use a stripper on wheat is when it is very short and thin. In this case, the “group” inertia of the standing plants is not sufficient to resist movement in response to the stripping action. Lack of adequate threshing and shattering can occur. Also, trying to push peas or soybeans down so they can be stripped can cause too much shattering.
The stripping fingers need to access all parts of the head. Crops like sunflower, sorghum, etc., do not work well. In sorghum, it is hard to get any action on the backside of the head.
Q: What is it like to plant into stripped stubble?
A: One of the biggest misconceptions regarding no-till is that long-cut straw is tougher to handle. If you are seeding with a disk-type seeder — and that’s the majority of people in the U.S. — there are fewer issues with long straw. The reason is that short straw will tend to hairpin into the trench. When you jumped on boards as a kid, the long ones broke and the short ones did not. It is simple physics.
If you are using a hoe or knife-type opener (dump rakes have teeth shaped like that), then you need short straw to allow it to move through the machine.
The bottom line is that most farmers get better stands behind a stripper header than behind straight-cut (chopped) straw. The same is true with a corn header. If you can leave the cornstalk as intact and upright as possible, you get the best stand the next year.
With stripper headers and very tall wheat, there is sometimes an issue the next spring when snow takes down the residue in a random pattern. In other words, it gets swirled and tangled. This is still OK if where the straw attaches to the soil is intact. But if that attachment rots, the straw tends to move as a mass. When cover crops are drilled, this can fix the problem because the cover crop remains anchored.
We use flax in our mixes to help with this. Straw and cornstalks that are finely chopped tend to blow or float away, or form concentrated mats (in the ditch).
The point is, it is normally much easier to seed into stripped stubble than into small, cut pieces. If you look down at the soil in stripped areas, you can see the soil. The fine-cut stuff forms a mat that gets really gooey unless it decomposes. A mat of residue will prevent the soil from drying more than standing stubble (lots of data exists on that). The standing stubble will stop wind, catch snow and provide a better microenvironment for young plants (lots of data on that, too).
Once the plants have emerged and gone through the early growth stages, there is an advantage to having the straw flat later in the year. This often happens because of rotting at the base of the straw and wheel traffic, etc. Differences in moisture depend on whether it snows and the like. Active earthworm populations will probably be able to cycle short-cut straw on the soil surface faster than the standing material.
We did side-by-side studies in the 1990s. The most striking difference occurred when I was seeding one of these fields and repeatedly got stuck in the short-cut residue and not in the stripped material. I was running narrower tires than we use now. These could not support the weight in the short-cut areas. The stripped stubble (because of the long straw) supported the weight better. It was a bit like laying boards down to cross a boggy area. I was totally surprised by this. I am not sure we can make assumptions based on this, but it dispelled my assumption that you will have more trouble getting stuck in stripped stubble. In this case, the opposite was true.
Based on lots of years of experience, I am confident that with stripped stubble, I can plant sooner than with cut stubble. I also need high-volume tires and good fertilizer openers. If you do not capture the snow uniformly across the field, it will end up in the ditch (which may be OK in a wet year), or more likely in the low spot. This makes the wet area wetter and the dry area drier.
Q: What are the pros and cons of using a stripper header?
A: We use a stripper header to improve snow catch. If I can catch more moisture in South Dakota and figure out how to use it to make money, that is a good thing. It is the same with no-till. No-till saves water, but if I don’t devise ways of using the water productively, it can be harmful. If you no-till without using diverse rotations, you may not do as well as with tillage during certain years. If you use a stripper header without paying attention to other management details, it may not be an advantage (other than it allows you to work faster).
Another important reason we use a stripper header is that it can harvest crops like wheat faster with a small combine and lower horsepower requirement. We had a John Deere 4400 when we started, and a 9410 now.
We also can harvest wheat and not worry about nonuniform straw spread. We can harvest wheat when it is wetter or the straw is tougher (more hours per day, less over-dry wheat, get done before the hailstorm). It harvests lodged wheat much better than with a straight head. Long straw means fewer seeding issues and cleaner grain.
Disadvantages include the need to own an extra head. A stripper does not do soybeans. A flex head will do soybeans, wheat and other crops. If you use custom harvesters or rent a combine, you probably need to own a stripper head, or figure out how to assign different machines to different areas.