The quantity and quality of corn residues have increased in recent years. The quantity has increased due to higher planting populations. The use of foliar fungicides and incorporation of transgenic insecticide traits have increased stalk quality and reduced decomposition rates. As a result, high levels of corn residues remain on the soil surface and adversely affect the performance of no-till planting equipment. This has caused some soybean producers to revert back to tilling their corn stalks prior to planting soybeans.
Tillage is one option for managing corn residue. The first advantage of tillage is that some of the residue will be incorporated into the soil where soil microbes will increase decomposition rates. Another advantage is that less of the residue remains above the soil surface to delay soil warming and interfere with planting operations.
However, tillage has some disadvantages. Tilling the field increases production costs. According to estimates from the University of Wisconsin, each tillage pass costs $7 to $10 per acre in fuel, depreciation and labor. Depending on the intensity of the tillage operations performed, tilled soils are also more susceptible to wind and water erosion. If you have fields that have been designated as highly erodable land (HEL) by the USDA-NRCS, you should make sure that your tillage operations are consistent with your conservation plan to protect your eligibility for USDA-FSA programs.
An alternative to tilling the soil is to process the residue with your corn head at harvest. Decomposition rates will be significantly increased when the leaves and stalks have been crimped, chopped or crushed at the corn head. There are two main options for processing corn stalks with the corn head. The first option involves the use of knife-to-knife or tapered snapping rolls. There is a wide variety of snapping rolls available. Some will split, crush and crimp the stalks and others will chop the residue into small uniform pieces.
The second option for processing corn residue at harvest is to use chopping corn heads equipped with shredders underneath the head. According to Paul Jasa, agricultural engineer at the University of Nebraska, this technology has some disadvantages. Chopping corn heads weigh more, cost more and require more horsepower to operate. They also over-process the residue increasing the potential for wind and water movement. The over-processed residue is also more likely to form a dense mat which may delay moisture loss and soil warming in the spring.