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7-step checklist for fall and beyond7-step checklist for fall and beyond

Salute Soil Health: No matter the tillage system, the crop season doesn’t stop with harvest.

July 26, 2023

3 Min Read
A close up of someone holding a clump of soil with crop roots
IMPROVED SOIL TILTH: Here is the payoff you are looking for through better soil planning. Look how easily this soil, growing a winter cover crop, breaks apart. Tom J. Bechman

by Tony Bailey

It may still be summer, but fall and the harvest season are quickly approaching. Take a few minutes before you head to the combine to review your 2023 cropping program and plan for 2024. It could make next year run more smoothly while also making gains toward healthier soils. 

Here are seven areas to evaluate: 

1. Residue spreading. Is your crop residue spread evenly? Uneven or windrowed material means you either have bare spots or thick blankets. Bare spots are more prone to soil erosion. Inconsistent conditions make both establishing cover crops and planting in ’24 more challenging, no matter what tillage or planting system you use. Plus, uneven residue spreading can tie up nutrients and impact herbicide applications.

2. Soil compaction. How much time does soil compaction cost your operation? Are there traffic patterns across your fields? Yield reductions vary from a good year to a bad year, but soil compaction will cause reduction in potential yield. If possible, try not to drive over the entire field, but confine traffic to one area or wheel track. Reducing soil compaction during harvest equals less water-ponding and root-stunting next year. Avoid addressing soil compaction with more steel. Planting a groundbreaking cover crop mix, such as oats and daikon radish, can help alleviate soil compaction caused during harvest.

3. Fall tillage. What is the purpose of fall tillage besides the fun of driving a tractor? Pay attention for opportunities to cut expenses, such as reducing trips across the field. Fewer trips reduce fuel, equipment and labor costs, along with lowering potential of soil compaction. Less tillage also minimizes erosion and improves soil health.

4. Soil sampling. Have all fields been soil sampled within four years? After harvest is an ideal time to take samples. Fall sampling gives you more time to plan your nutrient application program. While fall and early winter are great times to address lime and potash needs, the goal is to apply nitrogen and phosphorus as close to next year’s crop as possible. 

5. Weed control. What weeds escaped? Identify “hot spots” and diagnose why weeds were present. Proper identification is key. Pay attention to weed populations on field edges and in the field during harvest. Clean out the combine before heading to the next field, especially after fields with herbicide-resistant weeds or high weed populations. Have you explored using a high-biomass cover crop, such as cereal rye, in your weed control management program? 

6. Cover crops. Seed cover crops as soon as possible after harvest. If already seeded, hopefully moisture has been adequate to get them up and going. If you have irrigation, one pass might germinate or add enough growth to pay for itself. Usually, the earlier a cover crop is seeded, the more growth. Pay attention to cover crop species and varieties vs. planting variety not stated, or VNS, seed. 

7. Next year’s plans. Have you been thinking about switching to strip-till or no-till corn, adding a cover crop, or establishing a grassed waterway or filter strip, but haven’t made the leap? Use combine time to develop a strategy. Successfully implementing conservation and building healthy soil on your farm takes time, commitment and planning. The earlier you start, the more effective your strategies will be. 

Bailey is the state conservation agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Indiana. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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