By Amanda Kautz
Though it has sometimes seemed like it would never happen in 2019, we will eventually be ready to harvest.
Harvest is always an eventful time on the farm, no matter the year. Sometimes the to-do list seems endless. However, with some planning, here are three key things you can do that can make your next crop season run a little more smoothly. These practices will also help return soil function and health in the long run.
There are more things I could add to this list, but here’s where I would start:
1. Spread residue well. Make sure crop residue from the combine is spread evenly and along the entire width of the header. If the combine is only spreading in small areas or over part of the header width, it will make a thick blanket in some areas and bare spots in others, causing issues with planting next spring, especially in no-till.
The planter will have trouble cutting through heavy residue and placing all seeds at the same depth. Seeds could also have trouble growing through thick areas, causing uneven emergence. If you’re planning on cover crops, uneven residue can cause the same issues and affect cover crop stands. Bare areas are left open to the elements, with little armor to protect them from winter rain and snow, leaving chances of erosion and soil crusting.
Keeping residue evenly spread throughout the field gives both cover and cash crops the best chance of an even stand, which maximizes your investment.
2. Minimize soil compaction. Think now about your traffic patterns. Avoid driving over the entire field by confining traffic to one area or wheel track. The less soil compaction caused during harvest, the less water ponding and root stunting issues you’ll have next year.
Consider leaving the grain cart at the edge of the field. Or buy an extender so it can drive on the set of already established wheel tracks from the previous combine pass. Driving the grain cart all over the field is the easiest way to cause soil compaction, especially as it becomes heavier with grain as it follows the combine.
Check to see if any ruts or large areas of compaction were formed from equipment tires throughout the year, and plan to fix those now. Planting a cover crop species with deep roots, such as annual ryegrass or a mix including oats and daikon radish, can help alleviate soil compaction.
Better yet, plant the cover crop before harvest, and it will help build resilience in your soil structure to better support fall harvest and future field activities.
3. Sample soil. After harvest is the ideal time to take soil samples. You have free access to the field, and it will give you a good idea of what nutrients you’re banking for next year and what you may need to add.
Soil sampling after harvest also gives you time during the winter to think about your nutrient application program for 2020. If you’ve been planting cover crops, you may be able to figure those into next year’s nutrient budget. Some cover crops will provide key nutrients, such as nitrogen.
Kautz is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.