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Good yields, what about all that residue?

By Ryan McAllister, CCA, Team Sales Agronomist for Beck’s Hybrids

BIg yields often bring abundant crop residue. Here is how to handle it.

Thankfully, with an early harvest underway, we should have the time this fall to complete tillage operations that we were unable to do last year. In some cases, a deep tillage pass may be necessary to break up some compaction layers. In other cases, simply a leveling pass will be required.

Possibly just as important as leveling and ripping this year will be attempting to answer the million-dollar question, “What am I going to do with all of this residue?” Genetics have changed. We all know that. Some yield reports coming in for April planted corn are simply mind-boggling considering the saturated conditions early followed by the hot and dry conditions late. With improved genetics, in terms of yield and plant health, come challenges in terms of managing all of the residue.

Some of those challenges include uneven moisture and temperature throughout a field. This can create areas “fit to plant” and areas that are “not quite fit.” This can result in uneven emergence, sidewall compaction in some areas and not in others, and reduced yield in some areas and not in others. Our goal should be to help our corn and soybean crop to emerge as even and uniform as possible. That begins by creating a seedbed that is as uniform and even as possible in terms of moisture and temperature, and that begins this fall. Let’s take a look at five recommendations to answer the question, “What am I going to do with all of this residue?”

1. Set your combine for an even residue spread at harvest. Residue management begins at harvest. Many of our challenges to achieve even soil moisture and temperature relate back to an uneven residue spread at harvest. Harvest is the end of one crop year and simultaneously the start of the next. Think of it this way. Do everything you can do to get the most accurate and even residue spread.

2. Chop or size the residue to help facilitate the breakdown of residue by soil microbes. Simply mowing heavy corn stalk residue is a great way to “cut those stalks down to size” so to speak. A fall vertical tillage operation can do a great job of sizing residue as well. Smaller residue pieces will break down quicker and cause fewer problems in the spring in terms of “hair pinning” and matting.

3. Incorporate the residue in the fall to get good residue to soil contact. Simply sizing the residue can help somewhat. However, incorporation of crop residue will kick start the mineralization process. This is indeed a process. Doing this in the fall is extremely important. We want to front load that mineralization process so the breakdown of residue (which requires nitrogen) is not coinciding with a young seedling’s fertilizer demands in the spring.

For those growers that wish to maintain as much residue on the surface as possible, this tillage pass will most likely be a vertical tillage pass. Vertical tillage will mix enough soil and residue while sizing at the same time to get the process started in the fall. The fall is the key. This year, with abundant spring rains, spring vertical tillage in many fields began the residue breakdown process at the same time our young corn or soybean seedlings have a high demand for early nitrogen, robbing the crop of its needs in order to feed the mineralization process.

4. Apply a nitrogen source in the fall. Liquid or dry fertilizer blends, which include 20 to 30 units of total nitrogen, will help break down residue. Apply the nitrogen source as soon as possible after harvest. We want to feed the mineralization process in the fall to prevent nitrogen tie-up in the spring. This is a process that takes some time. It is crucial that a nitrogen source be applied only when sizing and some sort of incorporation has been done or will be done in the fall. Nitrogen without the incorporation of residue is much less beneficial than tillage plus nitrogen.

5. Adjust your row cleaners. For those growers struggling with excessive residue and the joys that it brings, row cleaners will become increasingly more important. The removal of residue from the row, whether corn or soybeans, will increase soil temperature and the evenness of that temperature, increase the rate of drying and the evenness of soil moisture. Some growers may choose to utilize strip tillage to clean the row. Whatever method you choose, ensure a residue-free row to minimize within row variability and maximize your opportunity for an even emerging crop.

What are you going to do about all of this residue? You probably will have to do something different than what you have been doing if residue management has been a concern for you. Putting into practice these five recommendations will be a great start to getting your residue to work for you, not against you. Good luck this fall!

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