Question: The reason I'm writing is because my husband is concerned; he has a lot of corn stalk trash to work down for his bean fields. Last fall we got all our ground fall tilled, which is important in our area. Most of our fields were stalk chopped and worked. However, because of the late season and the fact that two of our fields didn't have all the stalks chopped before they were tilled -- those two fields have a lot of trash. This spring we didn't get a lot of rain, and he feels that helped contribute to the stalks not breaking down and rotting. Also, those fields had tremendous yield -- which is great -- but as the seed companies keep working at better traits -- more bushels, good quality corn -- what are we to do with the stalks?
He has talked to several neighbors, and they are having the same issues, and for the most part our neighbors did not get their ground fall tilled. So they are really hurting. We use a soybean drill for planting, but there are a lot of trash/corn stalks out there. He also thinks some corn is worse than others for deteriorating, because of the traits of that corn.
Are you hearing from anyone else with this problem -- and do you have any suggestions?
Answer: Many of us have the same concerns and are stressed with the issues you addressed in your comments. Struggles with the residue aftermath are common; at times it may seem like we’re fighting ourselves. Striving for higher corn yields, pushing populations to the limit, and demanding healthy corn genetics with good stalk strength, have all caused this extra residue.
Residue breakdown, for the most part, requires the residue to be in contact with the soil. The soil contains beneficial bacteria and fungi that use the residue as an energy/food source to survive, in the process breaking down the residue. There are several things we need to do to have robust, healthy micro-organism populations. Bacteria and fungi require air, moisture, and good nutrient load, just like the crops we are growing. This requires that we take care of the soil chemistry (pH and nutrients) and soil physical properties (air and moisture movement up and down).
Uniform Soil Density, a term used frequently at Farm Journal Corn College, allows the proper air and moisture movement for bacteria and fungi. We can also help the process by downsizing the residue at harvest. Set up the combine properly to do part of this, but it may also require stalk chopping. Continue your stalk chopping practice when time allows. How you handle the residue in the spring depends a lot on the soil type. Be careful not to cause more problems, than just heavy residue, by a tillage pass that leaves you in worse shape. The couple of fields that did not get tilled may serve you better by no-tilling. Avoid "tough residue times" during early morning, late evening and high-humidity days. Double-check the size of the coulters on your drill/planter, make sure the diameter is at the recommended size and the cutting edge is good. Work on growing beneficial bacteria and fungi, and your crops will thank you.
Previous Q&A with our Agronomists:
An Indiana farmer asks if by adding a nitrogen inhibitor in the spring nitrogen application, can he eliminate the need for sidedressing?
Could the N in manure be lower quality?
A dairy farmer from Wisconsin asks why when he applies manure to corn stalks in corn-on-corn, the next spring the corn still looks yellow and sickly.
We’ve launched this blog as an interactive way for you to have your questions answered by our Farm Journal Agronomists. E-mail your nitrogen, soil fertility, soil density, planter set up, scouting, and other questions to TestPlots@FarmJournal.com.