By Mitch Greve, AgriGold agronomist — Ohio
Corn and soybean harvest is in full swing throughout Ohio and as growers race towards completion it is imperative to be simultaneously thinking ahead towards next year. The most important question when exiting a field post-harvest is, what condition did I leave this field in? No-tillage, fall tillage, and cover cropping are the main practices a grower uses to help manage their fields in the fall. Irrespective of a growers management strategy, the importance lies in creating a level seed bed for spring to induce good seed to soil contact which promotes uniform seed emergence.
No-tillage is when a grower leaves the fallow ground untouched post-harvest. A no-till management practice promotes better soil structure with larger macropores which can beneficially influence water and nutrient availability throughout the heat stress portions of the growing season. However, wetter springtime soil conditions coupled with cooler soil temperatures creates a more conducive environment for early season seedling blights on heavier or untiled ground. No-till is often more cost effective as less equipment passes are needed to manage the soil. If no-till is practiced, it is important to have evenly distributed residue and ensure no areas of the field are compacted beyond freeze-thaw repair ability. Planting corn hybrids or soybeans varieties with excellent emergence and early season vigor are also key to enhancing yield in no-till environments. Having late emergers or struggling plants can reduce the no-till yield potential long before corn even gets into the reproductive stages. Likewise, having 10% to 25% soybean stand attrition on tough clay sidehills, or waterlogged zones can significantly reduce soybean yield.
Fall tillage is another management practice used throughout the state to help incorporate manure or fertilizer, manage residue, and prepare a seedbed for the subsequent crop. Disk rippers, vertical tillage (VT), strip tillage and moldboard plows are all common methods found in Ohio. Whichever method is employed, do not perform tillage when it is too wet, which can create an uneven soil fracture or an artificial plow pan which can restrict root growth the following year. The benefits to fall tillage if done properly include warmer and drier springtime soil conditions, faster germination, and quicker root development. However, more fuel and labor are typically needed to achieve these operations in a timely manner. Additionally, tillage-based programs may want to think about incorporating a Phosphorus (P) based starter at planting to accelerate corn growth and development. Tilled environments typically dry out quicker in the summer heat, so getting crops to canopy quickly will help conserve water by reducing evapotranspiration. Please remember tillage is a balance beam, tillage can help manage tougher soils, but too much tillage can be counterproductive.
Cover cropping is when a grower utilizes a green crop during the fallow period or in between cash crops to help preserve the soil. Cover crops are useful for helping keep nutrients and soil in place, improving soil structure and water quality, suppressing weeds, and help to resolve compaction areas in a field. The key strategy with a cover crop is determining if chemical, mechanical, or natural termination are the right method for your operation. Eradicating a cover crop in a timely manner is crucially important as to not interfere with your cash crop. Be on the lookout for cutworm, armyworm, or slugs that feed on your cover crop because they will feed on your cash crop as well. Also, allowing cover crop growth for too long in the spring may tie up necessary nutrients to jumpstart your corn or soybean crop. With multiple local, state, and federal funding programs available to assist with the cost, cover crops have been increasingly affordable to plant.
There are multiple decisions to be made throughout the year but investing time in managing your soil post-harvest will typically pay. Creating an optimal seed bed for spring planting is crucial to increasing your probability of greater grain yield. Your maximum yield potential is set the day you plant so what are you doing to help protect it?