As crops are being harvested and fields are being prepped for the winter, there are several field management decisions that need to be considered. It is important to note that there is no single correct management plan. Different approaches to field management will fit some farms better than others - it all depends on the goals you have set for your farm based on your management strategies.
As a quick side note, although cover crops are becoming a popular practice to implement in the fall, planting cover crops this late in the year is very risky. Cover crops need to be well established to survive winter and give you the best return on the money invested. There has been some late season push for cover crops, partially due to the mild weather that we have been having. I would encourage you, if you have not yet put cover crops in, to wait for next year. The prime time to start on cover crops is between late July and Late September.
Residue management is a major aspect of post-harvest field treatment. Dealing with crop residue in the fall will help to avoid issues in the spring. The residue that we are concerned with is the chaff and stalks that are left after grain harvest. Some issues that are encountered, due to too much residue, in the spring while planting include attaining good seed-soil contact or disease issues due to a field not drying out. Another issue that can arise from improperly managed residue is large populations of slugs that can decimate young seedlings. Residue can help to over winter problematic insects, act as inoculum for diseases and slow soils from warming up and drying out in the spring. Sanitation of the field and intensive management of residue can help to break up insect pest life cycles as well as disease cycles.
As alluded to above, there are two ways to look at this residue. On one hand, the buildup of too much residue can cause problems in the spring and throughout the next season. On the other hand, it can act as a mulch that lessens the impact of rain falling on the soil, lessen the amount of erosion, help to retain soil moisture, and add organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.
The decision on how to manage residue should be strongly based off your tillage and field management plans. In a no till or conservation tillage system, residue is considered more of a benefit to the field and left mostly as is. In a more intensive tillage system, residue is incorporated and broken up to influence a more rapid breakdown. There are benefits, as well as drawbacks, to both of these systems.
In an approach focused on conserving the residue, as previously stated, there are several benefits when looking at soil health and soil management. Conversely, the risk for insects to over winter and for diseases to carry over is also greatly increased. If there are fields on your farm with histories of diseases or insect problems, consider looking at how you have been managing the crop residue. If you would like to be able to work the soil, but do so with more of a conservation tillage approach, and be able reduce the risk of disease and insect infestations, using different tillage tools, such as vertical tillage, may be of interest to you. Using a vertical tillage tool serves several purposes. One way is that it helps to chop up and spread out the crop residue. These tillage implements also often kick the soil up in a way that covers up a considerable percentage of the residue. This is important because covering the residue with soil will help to increase the rate at which decomposition occurs. This encourages decomposition because it puts the crop residue in contact with the microbial life in the soil. This approach, aimed more towards conservation tillage, may be of interest to those who have been involved with more intensive tillage. Intensive tillage and turning of the soil certainly results in a faster breakdown of crop residue. However, this tillage system leaves more soil exposed and can result in more wind and water erosion.
Finding a system that can appropriately manage the crop residue while also maintaining some form of soil structure and improving soil health, will not only help the crops from year to year, but will also increase the sustainability and productivity of your soil.
Frank Becker is an OSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Assistant and IPM Program Coordinator. He may be reached at 330-264-8722.
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