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How to efficiently get rid of crop residue

Read Time: 4 minutes

By Colin Bergstrom April 14, 2020

Residue management is time well spent before seeding

Last year’s delayed harvest left no time to clean up fields before we were forced to leave millions of unharvested acres of crop standing in Western Canada. Maybe you were lucky and got into your fields during some dry periods this winter. If not, you should still have a narrow window to prepare your fields for seeding this spring.

Residue management will impact how well you can seed your crop at a consistent depth, its emergence, and how evenly the crop will mature. Believe it or not, taking the extra step to deal with the trash on your fields will prevent delays rather than slow things down.

Not only can leaving residue untouched delay seeding, but it can also stagger crop maturity across a field by 10-14 days. I know time will be at a premium once you can get rolling, but you’ll be glad you tried one of these practices to manage trash on your fields.

Spread straw to the width of the combine header

Unfortunately, if you do have to get the combine out then your goal should be to spread straw to the full width of the combine header or windrower. One way to get ahead on this is to check that the straw chopper is well maintained with sharp knives, and given the challenges of last harvest, it’s more than likely your combine could have taken a beating. Ensuring the straw and chaff are spreading evenly can possibly buy you some time. You may not need to take the additional steps of heavy harrowing or vertical tillage…Or you may have to.

Harrow diagonally

Heavy harrowing is good for soil conservation and to quickly cover many acres. It is likely also the most practical solution for farms that need additional residue management, as it can spread residue in the field the last few feet your combine may have missed. For best results, harrow diagonally to your harvesting direction, and make sure crop residue is dry to increase spread while breaking up longer pieces of straw. For some fields, heavy harrowing may not be enough for substantial residue or persistent high humidity situations prior to seeding.

Employ vertical tillage for heavy trash

Vertical tillage units have become popular in the last decade due to their ability to go 2-3” deep to bury residue and knock out early emerging weeds while also smoothing ruts. With vertical tillage you don’t have to wait for the residue in your field to be dry, and the machine can easily cut up longer wheat straw or pea vines. However, it’s important to set the machine only as deep as required to effectively to manage your residue. While one of the goals of vertical tillage is to help dry out soil prior to seeding, going too deep can dry the soil past the point of maintaining a moist seedbed without additional rainfall.

Be careful not to vertical till every year. Doing so can compact your topsoil and reduce soil organic matter over the long term. 

Ensuring an even plant stand is key to getting your maximum return next harvest. Excessive or uneven crop residue is not only a barrier to getting the seed into the ground, but it can also block emergence and delay maturity. With time at a premium this spring, taking some time to deal with crop residue and formulating a plan to correct this prior to seeding can be time well spent – and ultimately saved.

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Colin Bergstrom

Colin is a regional crop inputs leader for Cargill in Alberta. He has over 22 years of industry experience, mainly in precision agriculture, where he connected the dots between the equipment, agronomy and data to provide value to farmers. He also has experience in farming, and seed and crop protection. Colin’s passion for agriculture and agronomy stems from a systems approach to the farm and he is always excited to take opportunities and practically implement them with farmers to provide additional value to their operations.