What do you call crop material left after harvest? Residue? Trash? No matter what you call it, planned results should be the same: residue spread uniformly across the soil surface. Evenly spreading residue allows all cropping systems to work better.
It’s especially important if you’re in a high-residue system such as strip till or no-till. Successful high-residue planting systems begin at harvest!
Benefits of even spreading include improved crop emergence after planting due to more even soil warming, improved carbon-to-nitrogen ratios and less nutrient tie-up in strips across the field, more even weed seed distribution, and reduced soil erosion. Each benefit is important, no matter what cropping system you use.
8 tips for crop residue management
According to the Purdue University Extension publication Managing Crop Residue With Farm Machinery, here are eight tips for designing a crop residue management program.
1. Planning begins at harvest. Leave as much residue as possible, but spread it out.
2. Adjust combine properly. Spread residue uniformly over harvested swaths. This isn’t a problem for combines with four-row corn heads or 15-foot grain tables. However, larger corn heads and 30- to 40-foot grain tables make it difficult to spread residue evenly over the entire width of the swath.
3. Consider a chopper for wide heads. Chopper attachments should be adjusted to spread the full width, and the addition of a chaff spreader attached to the rear axle should be considered. Chaff spreaders are most effective for spreading wheat and soybean residue because a larger percentage of residue is handled by the cleaning shoe.
4. Spreader attachments work, too. Some combines offer a spreader attachment in place of the chopper. While a spreader distributes residue more uniformly, more cover can be obtained with a chopper, as residue is chopped into smaller pieces before spreading. The spreader attachment, by design, spreads whole pieces of residue and consequently doesn’t cover as much surface. One drawback to the chopper is that small pieces of residue decompose quickly and are subject to movement by wind and water.
5. Rethink combine size? The challenges of spreading residue from a combine have increased as size of equipment has increased. The ability to handle what comes out the back end hasn’t kept up with harvest widths at the front end. However, newer combines offer more alternatives to spreading residue evenly. But if you’re unable to spread the residue evenly from the largest combine plus attachments, consider a smaller combine or smaller heads.
6. Residue size matters. Consideration should be given to sizing of residue, as smaller pieces have an increased potential to move and accumulate in low spots and drainage ways. Leaving stalks attached and upright, or planting a cover crop, will help keep residue in place.
7. Clean the combine from field to field. This becomes more important if there are troublesome or resistant weeds. A strategy of saving the weediest fields for last can help. Make sure the header, feeder house, rock trap, grain tank, unloading auger, tailings elevator, chopper, cleaning shoe and moisture sensor are cleaned with compressed air or a vacuum.
8. Pay attention to details. Uniformly spreading residue at harvest will pay dividends. You’ll reap benefits in any tillage or planting system, but especially in reduced-tillage, strip-till and no-till fields.
Bailey is the state conservation agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Indiana. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.