It’s often said that a successful season in a no-till system starts with last season’s harvest. That means how a no-tiller processes and distributes his corn residue can either help him or hurt him when it comes time to plant the following spring. As you begin this season’s harvest, consider the following tips experts have shared for better residue management.

1. Raise the corn header. One way to manage residue is to limit it. Penn State University Extension recommends raising the corn header to avoid taking in too much residue. However, stalks shouldn’t be so tall that they can get stuck in the planter or drill during planting. 

University of Nebraska Extension ag engineer Paul Jasa suggests leaving 10 to 12 inches of stalk height in the field after harvest, which will help keep residue from blowing, catch snowfall and reduce wind erosion.

2. Check condition of header, spreader. Iowa State University agricultural engineer Mark Hanna recommends no-tillers check the knives in the chopper and the rotational speed of the shaft — if it’s belt-driven, make sure the belt hasn’t worn or isn’t subject to slipping. Also be sure to check that rotational veins or bats are working properly on the spreader. 

3. Distribute residue across width of combine header. If a no-tiller is using a 15-foot header, then the residue needs to be spread uniformly over those 15 feet behind the combine, Penn State University Extension says, adding that larger headers will require more aggressive residue spreading. According to DuPont Pioneer, combines with header widths of 20 to 30 feet or more may not be adequately equipped to uniformly distribute large volumes of residue. In such cases, no-tillers may want to consider after-market straw choppers to help spread residue more evenly.

4. Drive straight down rows.  No-tiller and Calmer Corn Heads founder Marion Calmer says no-tillers need to drive straight down the rows so when the residue is processed through the combine it will end up in the bottom of the row and stay there. If the no-tiller drifts an inch or so off, then the cornstalks will start shooting out at an angle, which can get in the way of row units during planting. Calmer recommends no-tillers use a navigation system with auto-steer and “cat whiskers” to stay on track during harvest.

5. Speed up decomposition. No-tillers may find that their corn stalks are tougher and take a longer time to break down, particularly if they’re growing Bt varieties. One way to help speed up the process is to use crushing knife rollers that crush stalks so soil microorganisms have several points of entry to decompose the material while it remains attached to the soil, says Penn State University Extension. 

For more information on managing residue, watch our latest webinar, “Managing Crop Residue Decomposition — Turning Trash Into A Treasure,” or check out the articles below. 

Laura Allen,
Associate Editor
No-Till Farmer