Harvesting grains with a relatively new and underused device called a "stripper header" may boost profits and conservation benefits at the same time, according to an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) study.

Farmers in the harsh climate of Colorado looked to ARS scientists Brien Henry, Merle Vigil and David Nielsen to determine if it was worth considering the new combine header instead of a traditional one. Vigil, a soil scientist, and Nielsen, an agronomist, work at the ARS Central Great Plains Research Station in Akron, Colo. Henry, a plant geneticist, was formerly at the Akron facility and now works at the ARS Corn Host Plant Resistance Research Unit in Mississippi State, Miss.

The stripper header removes just the head of grain, leaving the rest of the plant standing to enhance precipitation storage and erosion protection. Traditional combine headers cut off most of the plant stalk with a sickle and leave the stubble short.

The researchers studied whether the stripper header would reduce yields by losing grain through increased shattering, and whether it would work as well with millet as it does with wheat.

In a 4-year experiment with proso millet, they showed that the header did not reduce yields. And it left up to an 18-inch-tall stubble, compared to 3 to 4 inches left by the combine's sickle bar header. For wheat, the stripper header leaves 2-foot-tall stubble, compared to 6 to 8 inches left by the sickle bar header.

"The Akron area is dry, with strong winds," Vigil says. "Each year of the study, these winds blew away a third of the millet residue left by the combine's sickle bar header within 10 days after harvest.

"This crop averaged only 2 tons per acre of residue measured about a week after harvest. There were 3 tons per acre of residue for the stripper-harvested crop."

Farmers usually harvest millet in two operations: one pass with a machine that swaths the plants into windrows, and a second pass with a combine to remove the grain. The stripper header eliminates the need to swath the plants, saving time and fuel. The more crops on which a farmer can use the stripper header, the more affordable the machine becomes, the researcher say.