Once corn harvest ends, you know you’ll have a field full of residue this fall. Over the last few years, farmers also have noticed more corn residue remaining in fields well into spring. This is due to modern practices such as better fertilization, which can increase yield; increased use of foliar fungicides, which helps strengthen stalks; decreased use of tillage, which encourages the breakdown of residue; and seed with stacked Bt traits.
Managing this residue during and after harvest — and even in the spring, if necessary — is a crucial practice to ensure more uniform stand establishment and higher future yield.
Knowing all of this, it’s incredibly important to figure out the best method(s) for managing corn residue in your fields.
“There are many options, such as fall tillage, stalk chopping with equipped corn heads, or using postharvest equipment and baling residue,” says Pioneer agronomist Pat Reeg.
You also can add fall nitrogen fertilizer to the fields to help break down the residue further or, if you have livestock, allow your livestock to graze on the leftover corn stalks in the field.
There are a lot of benefits that come with these various measures.
“It prepares the seedbed for spring planting, controlling pests and diseases and increasing yield for future crops,” says Reeg.
“Through tillage and chopping corn heads, you can size down the corn residue to a manageable size, which can be broken down faster by the soil and environment. Through tillage and chopping heads, you are starting the breakdown of that residue,” says Pioneer agronomist Bradley Mason.
“It prepares the seedbed for spring planting, controlling pests and diseases and increasing yield for future crops.”
However, while corn residue management comes with numerous benefits, the methods themselves also come with a few considerations.
“Sometimes, with vertical tillage tools and chopping corn heads, you can size down the material to a point where it can easily move. That can become an issue if you have big rains or windy days as the residue will move and settle in less-than-ideal places,” Mason says. “You can lose nutrients and organic matter when those pieces move. In addition, the residue that moves with rain often moves to low-lying areas and can create patches that struggle to dry out during the spring for planting.”
“Baling removes a large amount of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) nutrients, which must be replaced. Commercial fertilizers have drastically increased in prices since January of 2021, so this practice can impact the bottom line due to the increased fertilizer requirements, or fertility will be mined or reduced to undesirable levels if P and K rates are not managed after baling,” Reeg says.
That’s why it’s important to fully measure the pros and cons of each method and work with your trusted advisors to figure out what will work best on your farm to meet your goals.
It’s especially important to consider the best residue management for your fields if you’re planting continuous corn.
“With corn-on-corn, you are dealing with a high amount of residue that can tie up nutrients that might be crucial to the next year’s crop. Not to mention that, by planting corn on corn, you are more likely to create an environment where disease can thrive. Many of those diseases overwinter on residue, so managing it can be critical,” Mason says. “It can be done in an effective way through managing residue with the combine, but knowing how the field reacts to a corn-on-corn crop is extremely beneficial. More nutrients or advanced management of the crop in-season might be warranted.”
“With corn-on-corn, you are dealing with a high amount of residue that can tie up nutrients that might be crucial to the next year’s crop.”
Poor residue management in corn-on-corn operations can result in setbacks such as delayed germination, uneven emergence, and more disease and pest activity, all of which can result in lower yield.
“Continuous corn requires a higher level of residue management, but other crops such as soybeans should be considered too. Residue distribution from combines is often overlooked and should be closely monitored through harvest to make sure distribution is spread out evenly,” Reeg says.
So, regardless of what crop you’ll be planning in the field next season, it’s a good idea to think about some type of management now and prepare yourself for a smoother spring.
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