By Jamison Schneckloth
One of the biggest questions I have run into this off-season has been what to do with unworked corn ground. Last year presented challenges through and through; it is likely that this year will present similar issues dealing with corn residue. One of the more difficult obstacles that we will face will be proper management of corn stalk remains in our tillage systems and rotations this spring. Every situation is different, and there are a million ways to farm, but for some of us, this may be a first-time attempt to bury corn residue in the spring.
The first challenge presents itself—how do we properly manage this problem? Challenge number two—how do we go after the hard-pans that we created this previous growing season while planting, spraying, or harvesting our crops in non-ideal conditions? In addition to this, a third problem may arise—how do we get rid of the ruts that we have created during the harvest season?
Many people have suggested that the freeze-thaw cycles in the Midwest have helped our case when it comes to compaction, and I believe this to be true. However, in most freeze-thaw cycles during the off-season, we are only breaking apart the top six inches of ground, give or take a few inches either way. This process may result in the deeper hard-pan remaining untouched. In situations such as this, the frost could work in our favor by working itself deeper in places and breaking up the ground.
To throw insult to injury, corn stalk residue is one of nature’s best insulators. In turn, the remaining corn is holding soil moisture longer and slowing down the drying process. These are some of the obstacles some producers will face heading into this growing season. So, where do we start?
Keep in mind that every situation is different and not everything will work the same for everyone. However, here are a few guidelines to follow when deciding how to tackle corn residue. First, if any tillage is to be done, the lighter the machine, the better the result. We already have a large amount of compaction out there from the previous growing season—let’s not add that to the list. In terms of machinery, a field cultivator is unlikely to do it alone if your main goal is to bury residue. If you are looking to scratch the topsoil and attempt to find some black dirt, it might work. However, the biggest issue would remain at controlling the residue. This late into the spring, a chisel plow alone will not do too much for the soil in a lot of cases because it will bring up too much subsoil moisture and could make matters much worse. A lighter disk-harrow could benefit growers looking for a form of shallow tillage. This would help break up corn debris while also helping disturb the soil beneath. Depending on the adjustments, a disk-ripper may be suitable enough to hide some of the corn residue. If this is the route you decide to take, remember to consider the weight of your disk-ripper. As I said earlier, the increase in weight that runs across that field will increase soil compaction.
Depending on the need for tillage in your operation, a vertical-till implement may have an upside as it will help both cut and knock down stalks, while delivering a certain amount of soil disturbance. In some cases this spring, a two pass tillage approach may just be the option depending on your fields. In addition to secondary tillage options, there are many other additional ways to set up your planter with more aggressive coulters or trash whippers. These, in combination with secondary tillage options, are many of the different approaches to consider when planning for this spring. To address the underlying hard-pan, growers will have to wait until after harvest this year to get a good crack at breaking some of it up. In cases where soil compaction is your biggest issue, and there are not as many ruts in your field as your neighbors, then 2019 could be the year that your try to no-till your soybeans.
Remember, each and every situation is different, and every farm has unique needs. At the end of the day, consult with your local agronomist or University Extension Agent to determine what practice is best for you. We at All American Co-op wish you a safe and successful planting season!