THINNING OUT. No-tiller Jerry Perry changed knives and choppers on his combine to help distribute straw evenly on his Kentucky farm, allowing his planter to cut through the straw with the help of row cleaners.
One of the most crucial management decisions any no-tiller faces is deciding how to handle stalks, cobs, fodder, root crowns and straw from ever-increasing crop yields.
Some growers have soil biological activity that is robust enough to break down copious amounts of residue with little or no trouble.
Other farmers aren’t so lucky and are using strip-till or turning to their planter, combine or other tools to handle residue and potentially give themselves a better chance of success at planting and seeding time.
No-Till Farmer editors recently surveyed readers about their biggest residue challenges and how they’re addressing them. Dozens of no-tillers and strip-tillers responded, and their answers are varied and diverse.
Headers, Combine Tweaks to Tackle Residue
We’re utilizing spreader technology to help distribute straw evenly (above photo). This allows us to cut through the straw with the help of floating row cleaners.
Before we had a problem with the straw being so thick, and we had a hard time getting the row cleaners to move the straw out of the way to place the seed. So we changed the knives and choppers on our combine to make the straw finer and found this to be more efficient.
The residue from the cereal rye eventually becomes an organic compost, breaking down and then adding organic matter back to the soil.
— Jerry Peery, Clinton, Ky.
NEATER FINISH. South African no-tiller Egon Zunckel uses a Geringhoff corn header to cut stalks during harvest and leave a cleaner finish for subsequent planting, while soybean residue is chopped and spread evenly with the combine.
No More Plugging
In a wet planting season, residue often plugs up in front and in between the row units — especially in narrow rows. Long corn stalks left after harvest can interfere with normal operation of the planter and cause the drive chains to come off.
We use a regular Geringhoff corn header and feel it cuts and breaks corn stalks adequately, leaving a neat finish.
In soybeans, we chop and spread the residue evenly with the combine. When planting into heavy corn residue we’ve had success with planting in between the old rows. This keeps the residue from plugging up between the rows as the standing corn stalks from the previous harvest “comb” the area between the planter units.
The cutting disc, fertilizer double discs and seed unit are all in line. We also have Yetter row cleaners on the seed unit. Allowing livestock to graze the residue lightly also helps, if time permits.
— Egon Zunckel, Bergville, South Africa
Feed the Chopper
We haven’t had problems dealing with too much residue for some time. I think the last problem we had was when I was still trying to use red clover as a cover crop.
In the spring it would get a burndown spray, then was strip-tilled before planting corn. Especially if the weather was cool and wet and there was too much mulch between the rows, the soil wouldn’t dry out or warm up and sometimes the seed would rot.
We try to stick to a strip-till corn/no-till soybean rotation. When harvesting corn, we like to run the head as high as possible so the stalks stand high. The no-tilled soybeans are planted between the old corn rows.
We feel having the old stalks standing makes the soil dryer and warmer and also helps support the soybeans so they don’t lay down later. Having more material to run through the rotors means we don’t have to push to keep the rotors full, so we’re not cracking beans.
We raise mostly food grade soybeans and the buyers don’t want cracked beans or stained seed coats. The extra material and weight helps the straw chopper work really well, leaving an even 30-foot coating behind the combine that has an almost perfect carbon-to-nitrogen ration for decomposition.
If we could change anything, we’d like even more residue for more carbon substrate to turn into soil organic matter. We’re trying to find the cover crop program that will work at this latitude, even after 200-plus-bushel corn.
— Rod and Rick Sommerfield, Mazeppa, Minn.
Planting corn-on-corn ground is my largest concern. Some of my acres are irrigated and residue is very heavy. I used to shred the stalks in the fall where I was going to go corn-on-corn the next year, but now I run a Geringhoff Rota Disc head that breaks down the residue into manageable lengths. I also apply NH3 prior to planting.
I’m on 20-inch corn rows, so I plant at a slight diagonal to the old corn rows. This seems to be working for me — some of my fields have been in corn for 5 years, and all have been no-tilled for more than 30 years.
— David Wessel, Chandlerville, Ill.
SEEKING ANSWERS. South Dakota strip-tiller Scott VanderWal planted corn into corn residue after building strips in the spring. VanderWal has been comparing the results of chopping stalks vs. not chopping them and sees pros and cons to both practices.
To Chop or Not Chop
We’re in east-central South Dakota, where soil warm-up is a challenge. We strip-till in the fall as much as possible, and if it freezes too early, we will do some in the spring.
Either way, if we don’t have a nice, black strip cleared, the plants in the rows with some residue over them are delayed and are behind all year. It looks bad when driving by the field.
We’ve been working to adjust the trash wheels on our strip-till rig, but varying row conditions make it a challenge. The residue in combine and grain cart wheel tracks acts differently than residue in row middles without wheel tracks.
We run a chopping corn head and have tried turning the choppers off for part of the field to compare how that works. Each method has its pros and cons. The chopped area looks better, but the smaller pieces tend to blow into drifts just like snow.
The residue in areas we didn’t chop doesn’t move around, but the longer pieces are more of a challenge for equipment in the spring.
Comparing soybean emergence this spring in both areas was inconclusive. Stand counts and emergence were very similar.
— Scott VanderWal, Volga, S.D.
We began operating the Bargar Farm in 2009 and June and the late Robert Bargar really stressed to us they wanted the land operated in a conservation way of farming.
So we’ve tried to do continuous no-till, minimal use of insecticides (to not kill off anymore “good” bugs than we have to), and we’re now mixing in some cover crops. The cover crops we’ve used are oilseed radish in 15-inch rows after wheat harvest and cereal rye seeded after soybean harvest.
We have relatively tight clay soils, including Hoytville and Nappanee on the farm. The challenge with leaving a lot of residue on top of the soil is getting it to dry out underneath so we can plant in a timely fashion in the spring.
One challenge this spring was torrential rains and wind that moved a bunch of corn residue into the ditches along the farm, reducing drainage and plugging up culverts.
Our basic idea on managing more residue is that by doing continuous no-till for a few years, the soil really comes alive — and between the good bacteria, fungi and earthworms, a bunch of residue goes away.
We don’t have a chopping corn head. We like to leave as much corn stubble standing — 8-12 inches tall if possible — so it’s not matted down on the soil surface during spring soil dry-out.
Our combine has dual tires that go between the corn rows to leave more of the stalk standing in the fall, rather than having large floater tires run some rows down.
We recently purchased a Great Plains Turbo Max vertical tillage tool that we plan on running in the fall on fields that have been in longer-term, corn-soybean rotations and where the previous year’s corn residue is building up.
A lot of our fields are in a corn-soybean-soybean rotation and the extra year of soybeans really helps give the corn residue more time to break down — thus not needing to do any tillage to the field.
As far as planting into cover crops, we haven’t had any issues when planting soybeans into radishes or cereal rye. We’ve planted corn into cereal rye twice, and the only issue we had was the rye wanting to wrap on our fertilizer coulters in the early morning until the sun came out and dried up the dew.
— Josh Gerwin, Oak Harbor, Ohio
Roll it Away
Two simple things have leveled out residue accumulation. First is to maintain sharp (square) stalk rolls on our Case IH 1083 corn head. We’ve found it’s tough to improve on that series head for processing stalks without chopping them.
Next is rolling cornstalks after no-tilling soybeans, as it gets more stalk on the ground and crushes root crowns down and allows a lower cut.
— Paul Dubbels, Fergus Falls, Minn.
Break and Cover
The biggest problem isn’t having enough residue left following soybeans, even though we might have 60-plus bushel yields.
We strive to ensure there is even combine distribution of chaff. We have a Calmer corn head that breaks stalks to allow decomposition without shredding the stalk and letting it blow into piles or wash into the waterways or roadways.
We plant the right cover crops on all of our acreage, which gives us more residue but allows greater biological action. We also graze these covers and crop residue to further help with soil biological activity.
— John Stigge, Washington, Kan.
Far and Wide
In central North Dakota, I don’t have the trash to deal with because we have 100- to 150-bushel corn and 50-bushel wheat. I do have a John Deere 1860 drill, so the amount of trash doesn’t bother me. I have fair biological activity in my soils.
One thing that I like is my John Deere 843 corn head because it leaves a lot corn stalks standing so I don’t have to cut through them in the spring. My cover crops aren’t so aggressive yet that I have a problem getting through them during planting. And I try my best to get our wheat straw spread the full width of my 30-foot John Deere 930 head.
— David Porsborg, New Salem, N.D.
Sizing It Up
Generally, the past year’s corn residue causes the most problems. Often it manifests during spring anhydrous ammonia application, when plugging and bunching occurs.
When that happens, it becomes a real mess to try to plant through — and the corn planter becomes plugged as well between the rows. This past year, I even had the previous years’ soybean residue plug the anhydrous applicator and cause bunching.
I realized the knives on my stalk chopper on my combine were not sharp enough to cut the soybean stems thoroughly enough. I will replace those knives before harvest this fall. Last year I installed the Calmer BT Chopper knife rolls on my John Deere 643 corn head. That really helped to size the residue to help it get through the ammonia applicator.
I’ve had trouble with my Yetter 2995 liquid fertilizer coulters on my corn planters plugging with old corn residue, and after countless hours of modifications and frustration, I gave up on those and decided to go with the Yetter Viper single-disc fertilizer openers. They work like a dream compared to the old ones.
I also have trouble drilling soybeans into cereal rye residue with our John Deere 1590 no-till drill. The standing rye makes it very difficult to follow your planter marks, so I must use my Raven SmartSteer auto-steer with WAAS. It does a much better job than manual driving.
Also, this past spring I had some trouble with soybeans stands from drilling into late-harvested SmartStax corn. The residue was so heavy that the soybeans just didn’t come through the residue, so the stand suffered more than I would like to see. I may try some vertical tillage on those acres in the future.
— Kevin Holst, Eldridge, Iowa
Planter, Drill Adjustments Tame No-Till Residue
SLIDING THROUGH. New York no-tiller John Kemmeren plants silage corn into cereal rye that was seeded Sept. 28, 2014, and terminated the day before planting with Gramoxone. “By waiting until we plant to terminate the rye, it keeps the ground covered into August and acts as a deterrent for crows and geese, which don’t care to walk or land in it,” Kemmeren says. “When the rye finally goes flat, the corn is 4-6 inches tall.”
In managing residue on our farm we do some different things. If we’re planting into cereal rye cover, we let it grow as long as possible and kill it 1-2 days prior to planting. The challenge we have with this is needing GPS to stay on the rows.
In corn stalks we use Yetter SharkTooth floating row cleaners, which do an excellent job and move virtually no soil. Last year our last corn was harvested in December and with so much residue, we brush-hogged it to facilitate breakdown. I think it was the right decision.
Our October corn was well decayed going into winter. Our no-till drill can seed through anything and residue isn’t a concern as long as it’s dead.
— John Kemmeren, Bainbridge, N.Y.
Double-Crop, Double Trouble
In North Carolina we have some warm weather every month of the year and residue beaks down all year-round. So we don’t have a lot of trouble in the spring.
Our biggest issue with residue is planting double-crop soybeans into residue from high-yielding wheat — especially if we have some lodging from wind or rain. If the wheat is down it overpowers our combine’s ability to chop and spread the straw.
We do whatever it takes to get it planted. We plant with either a Kinze planter with interplants and row cleaners, or a John Deere 750 drill. In normal conditions, the row cleaners will move the straw out of the way and we’re able to get the seeds placed in the ground.
If straw is laying on top of more straw, the row cleaners get tangled up and push up piles of straw. Sometimes it’s thick enough we can’t get the seed in contact with the soil. We’ve mowed the residue to get it on the ground so the row cleaner can move it, and we keep the planter and drill in good condition, with sharp discs and appropriate weight to maximize the openers’ cutting action.
We wait until the dew has dried in the morning and the straw has become brittle and easier to plant through.
— Jim Howard, Mooresville, N.C.
Row Cleaners Key
My biggest challenge with the residue is usually related to combine performance. I don’t have enough acres to justify a combine and trucks, and with a full-time job in ag retail I don’t have the time anyway, so I rely on custom harvesting.
As the headers have gotten wider, I sometimes see residue heavier directly behind and less farther away from center of the combine. I normally don’t have a huge issue with this, because it’s usually a little later by the time I get in to plant because of my job, and it’s pretty well dried out.
I recently bought a different planter that had coulters on it, but I didn’t get residue managers purchased for it. After this spring, I will never plant another acre without them. I noticed a rougher ride for the planter units, and more uneven emergence because of the soybean residue being different depths as the planter came through the field planting corn.
When it came time to plant soybeans, I still had a lot of corn residue left from last year’s big corn harvest.
More About Managing No-Till Residue
Is your corn header managing residue properly? Looking for an improvement? Click here, where No-Till Notes columnist Jim Leverich discusses new header technologies on the market and the pros and cons of each.
I also had some tracking from a little bit of wet ground at harvest. I hired a neighbor to run a vertical-tillage machine over one farm and I liked the job it did, but I think I should have done that last fall. I think it would speed up the residue breakdown process and create a more uniform seedbed.
Overall, unless it’s been a terrible wet spring, I normally don’t have huge issues with residue as long as I keep a rotation going and have my planter set up with residue managers. I also run Exapta Solution’s Valion seed tube guards, seed firmers and Mohawk and Zipper closing wheels from Schaffert Mfg. Co.
— Phil Ruble, Nebo, Ill.
Hitting Residue from Every Angle
My biggest issue with no-till residue is corn stover providing a habitat for slugs to damage the following spring crop.
There are several steps I take to reduce that. First, I harvest corn as high as possible. Any residue that is standing will not provide cover for slugs. I also think that the standing stalk allows fields to absorb more rainfall over winter than fields where stalks lay over — and that makes them much more brittle when I come back in the spring with the no-till drill.
Second, I match my tire spacing on the combine so that I’m not running over stalks while harvesting. You can’t tell where my wheel tracks are in the field. Again, I don’t want to mash down the stalks — yet.
Third, I plant a cover crop with the no-till drill diagonally to the corn rows. When I have to knock down corn stalks, I want them touching soil, not each other. The drill will also do some damage to the residue and bury a little bit of it as it plants.
Fourth, I plant the spring crop into a living cover crop, if possible. If slugs are present, they will feed on that green cover crop instead of the spring crop, until the cover crop is terminated.
Fifth, if the spring crop is planted with the no-till drill, I run diagonally in the field again and plant at a different angle than the cover crop was planted. I want to keep moving that residue around and disturb slug habitat.
Even though I do these things with slug control in mind, I see residue break down very well over the course of the winter and early spring.
— Lyle Tabb IV, Kearneysville, W.Va.
PRECISION CUT. The versatility of the Cross Slot drill allows it to place seed at the proper depth as Washington no-tiller Tracy Eriksen transitions from 20,000 pounds per acre in wheat residue to zero. This area yielded more than 100 bushels per acre of soft white spring wheat.
The Right Drill
In the past, the main problem has been drilling into or through the thatch and getting a successful crop to emerge.
We resolved that by building a Cross Slot drill with 10-inch spacings.
From our experience, we’ve successfully emerged a crop with this drill in fields that ranged from zero to above 23,000 pounds per acre of small-grains residue — whether it’s standing or flat — as long as the residue is dry.
Where we farm in the Palouse hills of eastern Washington, winter wheat — with yields approaching 150 bushels an acre in parts of our dryland fields — is our highest residue producer.
When we grow back-to-back winter wheat, we can get significant acreage that produces 20,000-plus pounds per acre of residue. We harvest with a 1985 Gleaner N7 with a 2012 Shelbourne-Reynolds stripper header.
The N7 is notorious for a lousy straw spread. So with the Cross Slot drill, we find it’s best to apply no residue management operations — we harvest, we spray, we drill.
This year we’ve successfully seeded winter canola, winter wheat, spring wheat, spring barley, spring peas, Billy beans, sorghum and a variety of small- and large-seeded cover-crop mixes. All emerged with good stands in a variety of ground and residue conditions.
After 20-plus years of fighting residue, we now can plant with ease and make the residue work for us. In dry conditions, I can’t imagine another drill that will compete with it.
— Tracy Eriksen, St. John, Wash.
Handling No-Till Residue the Natural Way
A Better Ratio
Even with our small operation, handling fall residue can be trying. Every year we think we have it figured out.
As soon as corn comes off, we spray our residue digester — 2 quarts of Nutrient Mgt. Organo Hume Ultra (a 24% Black Earth humic product), 1 gallon of N-Stalker (43% molasses with microbes), 3-5 gallons of 28% UAN and water for a total of 15 gallons per acre.
This helps the soil microbes to overcome the 60:1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio afforded by 250-plus bushel corn.
Then we apply 100 pounds to the acre of Black Earth coarse mini-granules, hit the stalks with a vertical tillage machine, RTK in empty strips with a Red Ball strip machine, and if time allows, seed in 50 pounds per acre of cereal rye with a John Deere 750 drill.
— Larry Tombaugh, Streator, Ill.
Encouraging Soil Livestock
Our farm in northeast Iowa is in a corn-soybean rotation and the crops are planted in 20-inch rows, with corn populations ranging from 36,000-42,000 plants per acre. We’ve been in no-till for 11 years and been using cover crops for 6 years.
Last year we integrated oats into our rotation on a 10-acre field to mimic a three-crop rotation. After we harvested oats, we bailed some of the oat straw and seeded eight different types of cover crop mixes and hosted a soil health/cover crop field day.
We feel the best way to manage residue is having high biological activity and a very high earthworm population. We strive to implement cover crops across all our acres to keep soil biological life active and reduce soil erosion.
We have Case IH knife rolls on our corn head that cut stalk and expose the inner corn-stalk marrow to microbes. Then we drill covers with a Krause no-till drill with no-till coulters, double-disc openers and harrows.
Residue from the previous soybean crop isn’t a problem. Residue from corn, oats and cover crops easily passes through our 24-row corn planter, and we always keep an eye on the amount of down pressure on the row cleaners.
In mid-June, the microbes and earthworms have decomposed most of the oat and cover-crop residue from the previous year. Corn stalks usually decompose in 12-18 months after harvest.
— Don Bahe, Stanley, Iowa
Worms Rule 24/7/365
We have row cleaners on our corn planter and like to gently move residue to the side. We’re planting about 2 inches deep and use Dawn Curvetine closing wheels. We plant at 4.5 mph to give units time to properly move to the ground contour in dealing with our no-till conditions.
The improved soil health being created due to cover crops and no-till working in tandem has allowed for many more earthworms to live in our soils, and they’re consuming a lot of this residue 24/7/365. Earthworms improve soil structure while reducing residue that we must handle in spring. Cover crops also let soil health critters live an active life cycle in the topsoil.
If we understand that residue is a food source for biology located within our soils, then we will think differently as to how we optimize its usefulness to benefit us.
More biology means less residue in spring. The key point of having residue recycled by soil critters is, over time, organic matter increases so more water-holding capacity is created.
As for our equipment, we’ve used a John Deere chopping corn head the last two falls to reduce the size of residue. This operation has definitely reduced the residue size left on the surface. Smaller pieces of stalks are easier for earthworms to handle and consume.
But one issue we have with this unit is it tends to windrow residue on one side of the row, creating an issue the following spring at planting. This year we plan to try another header to find a more even spread between rows.
We’ve planted our cover crops the same direction with the previous year’s rows, as well as at a slight angle. We’ve gotten good stands of covers with a slight angle while knocking over a majority of the stalks.
We tend to operate the corn head at a low height during harvest to try and break up as much of the stalk as possible. The fact we’re operating a drill or planter to seed cover crops does tend to mix residue with soil to increase decomposition rate.
— Gordon Smiley, Greensburg, Ind.
Taking Control with Vertical Tillage Tools
Iron and Microbes
My biggest challenge with no till residue is with the combine platform plugging while harvesting soybeans.
I meet the challenge with a Great Plains Ultra-Till. Right after corn harvest, I spread dry fertilizer mixed with a cover-crop mix. Then, I run the Ultra-Till at a 30-degree angle to the rows, doubling back so it’s worked twice with the tool once in each direction at a ½-inch depth.
This sizes the residue and provides soil contact for fertilizer, residue and cover crop seed.
Another challenge is planting corn into heavy cover crop roots. It’s hard to get consistent depth control and seed-to-soil contact. I avoid heavy stands of annual ryegrass ahead of corn. I try to make residue my friend, and it gets better year by year as the microbial activity increases over time.
— Mark Graber, Delavan, Ill.
RIGHT ANGLE. No-tiller Robert De Brabandere uses an AerWay vertical tillage tool in the spring on corn or wheat-cover crop residue or for shallow cultivation on soybean residue.
The Right Width
Residue has not been a challenge, as our combine is set to spread the width of the header, and we also use a chaff spreader.
We also use an AerWay tool in the spring on corn or wheat cover crop residue, or for shallow cultivation on soybean residue. Our planter has standard spring down pressure with a Great Plains Turbo coulter, united mounted.
— Robert De Brabandere, Paisley, Ontario
Lots of Straw
We have problems with the wetness of soils in wheat residue. Our combine doesn’t do too bad of a job of sizing and distributing residue, but in 80-bushel wheat it was a problem. Our neighbor’s combine wasn’t set right and I didn’t check it — so there were more problems in parts of the field that he did.
We’ve tried a little vertical tillage, especially where the grain lodged, to cut it up a bit. I’m using cover crops on barley stubble, which seems to help. I’m not sure which is more important — the cover, or the fact that using a shank-type air seeder “opens up” the soil. And I’ve knifed in anhydrous ammonia in the fall as well.
One of the problems with soil disturbance is a higher level of volunteer grain coming the next spring, because the grain loss gets covered with a layer of dirt. Still a work in progress in my 10 years of no-till.
— Paul Overby, Wolford, N.D.