Southern Spotlight: Residue Management for Better Planting

James Banahan

James Banahan

We work in an industry where lots of important factors like the weather and market prices are totally outside of our control.  We have to take our footholds when they’re presented, and that’s exactly what planting is for us.  Whatever we say about climate and soil conditions when we plant, we ultimately have control over the timing and process.  You say you want perfect seed to soil contact?  Then go get it.

However, other choices that you make throughout the year affect the ease of your control over planting.  Your residue management is a prime example.  Well managed residue will not interfere with your planting operations and will provide a boon to your fields over time as it returns nutrients to the soil and beefs up your total organic matter.  With excellent residue management, sinking a seed into a field will not only be easy to do, but the soil into which you place the seed  will boast superior nutrient content and water holding capability.

Your best course of residue management depends upon your practices.  However, we can generally break down management into two categories: mechanical and chemical.  Vertical tilling and using certain types of row openers or drills during planting are examples of mechanical management.  Chemical management of residue depends less on equipment and more on the chemistry used to promote breakdown.

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Some farming practices do not leave much residue on fields.  Residue is instead used to feed cattle or sold to the ethanol market.  Most people do leave the residue in fields because of the benefits that it offers to our soil which includes protection from erosion and topsoil drift over the winter and early spring months.  However, this dry, windy winter was not kind to those who value the benefits that residue gives—it was a little disheartening to see all those benefits blown into the fences and ditches!

Chances are even the biggest residue aficionado among us has struggled at some point with its management.  In the 1930s, when growers were making seven tillage passes per season, residue management was a moot point, as the tillage passes pummeled the residue into a non-issue.  However, such practices also brought on the Dust Bowl.  Today, we’ve, for the most part, reduced our tillage to just one or two passes, and for the hardcore among us, sometimes no passes at all.  This is good for the soil, but has certainly made residue management a modern concern.

Let me offer my father as an example: my father, a modern grower, doesn’t own a disk anymore.  Therefore, he has issues with residue.  It takes years to break down foot long chunks of stalk, and years of foot long chunks in your field makes for difficult planting.  What’s a man to do?!

If it fits with his capacity and philosophy, he could do some minimal tilling, or better yet, vertical tilling, to mix his residue into the soil which will hasten its breakdown.  If nothing else, he needs a good row opener to ensure that residue doesn’t get pinned in the seed bed and affect seed to soil contact.

If tilling doesn’t fit with his operation, or if he would desire to complement some mechanical management with some chemical management, he could look towards products to assist with hastening residue breakdown.  This is as easy as adding extra N, which essentially helps the microbes in the soil digest residue faster and more effectively.

The benefits of bumping the N rate in your fields to aid microbes in the breakdown of residue shouldn’t be underestimated.  It is one beautifully simple solution to a residue problem.  A $6 per acre investment in extra N not only assists residue management, but with proper rainfall could make for a ten bushel bump in yield come harvest as the increased digestion of residue by microbes creates even more N.  A $6 investment today then could mean an extra $45 dollar profit come October.

Perhaps you addressed this during a fall burndown.  If not, as May approaches, we approach the primetime for microbe activity, which switches on at fifty degrees, and you’re already headed out into your fields, right?  Keep in mind that that extra N is an easy addition to your operation with potential benefits for your yield, your residue management, and your successful planting next season.