The late harvest may have frustrated grain farmers, but it could help the soil.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of corn still remain in fields across the Midwest. Slow crop development and persistent fall rains parked combines longer than producers would have liked.
It also didn't leave much time for fall tillage and fertilizer application. Conservationists say that's not necessarily bad.
"From a soil standpoint, it's a good thing, whether it's because of nature or by design," says Bill Ehm, water policy director with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and co-chair of the Residue Matters campaign, established earlier this year.
The program was established to encourage farmers to switch to no-till or minimum-till ideology. Soil experts contend leaving the ground and crop residue — corn stalks, cobs, husks, soybean stems, etc. — alone after harvest will improve soil quality, reduce erosion, improve water quality, save time and increase long-term profitability.
Conservationists hope once farmers see the benefits next spring, they'll consider abandoning tillage equipment or use it sparingly.
Shaffer Ridgeway, district conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Iowa's Bremer and Black Hawk counties, says 3 tons of topsoil per acre is lost every year locally and needless money is spent on fuel and equipment on multiple tillage passes.
By switching to no-till or minimum-till, he says soil loss can be lessened by two-thirds and input costs reduced.
"Those that didn't get tillage done this fall will have more time to think about no-till or minimum till," Ridgeway says. "By not doing tillage, you're building organic matter. It's amazing what you can save with one less pass.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Crops and Weather Report said most post-harvest work stopped during the first week of December when cropland froze. Tillage and fertilizer application was 13% behind normal at that time. Some 69% percent of Northeast Iowa farmers completed all fall field work, while only 28% finished in south central Iowa.
Many farmers believe tilling the soil and incorporating crop residue before planting improves yields. They also think it reduces compaction, promotes root growth and allows soil to warm up faster in the spring, which speeds up germination.
Ridgeway says productivity is initially reduced going no-till, but there are government programs available to offset the cost. Eventually, production numbers return, he says.
The National Crop Residue Management Survey in 2007 indicated 13% of corn in Iowa is no-till while soybeans are at 41%.
"Farmers are pressured to till for the short-term economic gain. I understand that," Ehm says. "They're not looking at the long-term benefits."