Farm Progress

NRCS agronomist is advising Iowa farmers to leave crop residue in their fields after corn and soybean harvest.

Rod Swoboda 1, Editor, Wallaces Farmer

November 16, 2016

4 Min Read

Iowa farmers who bale cornstalks for livestock bedding or sell it to other livestock producers are entering into a losing proposition due to the lost nutrient value and soil health benefits, according to officials with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

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Based on current commodity prices and the value in each bale, Neil Sass, agronomist with NRCS located at West Union in northeast Iowa, says farmers should leave crop residue in the field in the fall. “The plant residue left in the field after harvest is a valuable resource,” says Sass. “The value in cornstalks can be better used for reducing soil erosion, providing extra organic matter content in the soil, and contributing nutrients back to the soil.”

Farmers should consider nutrient value of bales before selling them
Cornstalk bales weighing one ton are currently selling for $20 to $30 per bale across Iowa. The latest estimates show that each one ton bale has a value of about $32 when considering the nutrients ($7 per ton), custom raking ($3 per ton), and custom baling ($22 per ton).

Sass says farmers should also consider the nutrient value of hay, given today’s prices. “Selling hay bales or cornstalk bales and removing them from the farm at current prices is equivalent to having a fertilizer sale,” he says. “Rather than selling them, farmers should consider using them for bedding.”

Rick Bednarek, state soil scientist with NRCS in Iowa, says plant residue contributes directly to soil performance through added organic matter. “The additional organic matter that crop residue provides helps the soil’s nutrient availability, nutrient holding capacity, and water holding capacity,” he says. “Crop residue also protects the soil from the impact of raindrops, helping to maintain soil aggregate stability, which affects infiltration, aeration and drainage.”

Farmers who decide to harvest crop residue are encouraged to adopt the following practices:

1. Reduce or eliminate tillage operations.

2. Adjust crop rotations to minimize low residue crops.

3. Grow cover crops.

4. Add manure to fertility plan.

For more information about conservation planning and financial assistance programs, contact your local NRCS office or go online to ia.nrcs.usda.gov.

Something else to think about this fall; mud is not your friend
Farmers who are baling cornstalks this fall to sell to cellulosic ethanol plants or to other buyers need to pay attention to soil conditions. “Mud is not your friend when you are harvesting cornstalks,” says Mahdi Al-Kaisi, an Iowa State University Extension agronomist who specializes in soil management.

In some areas of Iowa, this fall has been wet, especially earlier this fall. Some farmers have created soil compaction and wheel ruts in fields when harvesting corn and soybeans and hauling them to the bin. Soil erosion is also a consideration when you remove stover from a field. But the biggest factor for the cellulosic ethanol plant could be mud in cornstalk bales. “If you are worried that you will lower the quality of the cornstalk residue by baling it, then you don’t want additional contact with the soil,” says Al-Kaisi. “Harvest the stalks carefully.”

Always keep soil quality and erosion and groundcover in mind
If mud gets into baled cornstalks, it creates problems for the cellulosic ethanol facility. If they want to use the bales for industrial purposes, they will have to either remove the soil from the corn residue or decide not to use those bales.

Same goes for stalks that are baled wet and stored. That could cause quality problems. “The farmer has to decide whether to remove corn stover from the field and how much to remove,” says Al-Kaisi. “If conditions are wet, you may want to leave more of the corn stover on the field than you usually do. Also, you may not want to make an extra trip across a muddy field or a wet field to bale corn stover because you could create soil compaction.”

Not all areas of Iowa have been wet this fall. “There are some fields where you don’t have to worry about mud. But farmers should always keep soil quality, soil erosion and ground cover in mind when baling cornstalks,” he says.

About the Author(s)

Rod Swoboda 1

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Rod, who has been a member of the editorial staff of Wallaces Farmer magazine since 1976, was appointed editor of the magazine in April 2003. He is widely recognized around the state, especially for his articles on crop production and soil conservation topics, and has won several writing awards, in addition to honors from farm, commodity and conservation organizations.

"As only the tenth person to hold the position of Wallaces Farmer editor in the past 100 years, I take seriously my responsibility to provide readers with timely articles useful to them in their farming operations," Rod says.

Raised on a farm that is still owned and operated by his family, Rod enjoys writing and interviewing farmers and others involved in agriculture, as well as planning and editing the magazine. You can also find Rod at other Farm Progress Company activities where he has responsibilities associated with the magazine, including hosting the Farm Progress Show, Farm Progress Hay Expo and the Iowa Master Farmer program.

A University of Illinois grad with a Bachelors of Science degree in agriculture (ag journalism major), Rod joined Wallaces Farmer after working several years in Washington D.C. as a writer for Farm Business Incorporated.

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