It’s harvest season once again and we are sharing some reminders in order to better prepare your fields for next year’s planting. No-tilling means that harvest is the last operation to prepare your seedbed for next year. Managing residue with the combine helps to make spring planting go smoother. In previous newsletters, we have explored how leaving residue in longer pieces can make it easier for the planter to cut through in the spring. Don’t let the wind and water take your nutrient rich residue with it: save fuel, run faster, and stick with simple equipment.
The other big factor at harvest is compaction. The heaviest equipment of the year is driving over your soils and it’s prudent to manage the harvest traffic for least disturbance on the field. While wide tires and tracks can spread the load, it’s the overall wheel load that determines how deep compaction goes. Larger equipment continues to be common, with loaded weights of 80,000 lbs or more. It’s a lot of weight to unnecessarily carry around the field. The purpose of the grain cart is to prevent the combine from stopping to unload. However, there is no requirement that the grain cart has to be completely full before unloading at the truck. A forward thinking combine operator can harvest in a way to maximize the efficiency of the grain cart so they become full in the shortest distance from the trucks. The idea of controlled traffic is best used at harvest time, where if compaction does occur, it’s known which areas need to be in-line ripped if severely compacted.
Yes, tillage is a necessary evil in situations where compaction is limiting root depth and nutrient stratification. Low disturbance tillage is key; in-line rippers and rotary harrows leave the residue on the surface but still accomplish the goals. Once those compacted layers are destroyed, its best to get those channels filled with roots, whether it’s a cash crop or cover crop. If you, as a producer, feel tillage is necessary, the fall is the best time—so as long as a cover crop immediately follows—to get the soil structure back in place for the coming spring. Low-disturbance tillage should only be a once-in-5-year-or-more event. Continuous living roots will go a long way in preventing this pass from being needed.
To summarize, harvest is already logistically challenging. While the future will continue to move towards multiple, autonomous, lightweight equipment that can prevent compaction from recurring every season. However, today, managing residue and compaction must be top-of-mind for proper no-till seedbeds next spring.