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Crop Residue and Why It’s Valuable

A close up look at soil and the organic matter that it is composed of.

Since he began using residue on his farm Brian Hora has learned more about residue management and benefits, and this is what he has to say, “Residue is not only a nutrient source, it is also food for the microbes, adding to our soil biology, and insulating the soil to protect against temperature variation and any type of erosion.” To farmers who are hesitant to implement residue usage for fear of damaging equipment, Brian says, “Most all equipment today is made to handle more reside, and using green cover crops allows us to better manage our residue amounts.”

Traditionally, farmers have utilized tillage to remove crop residue, thinking that they need bare soil to plant into in the spring. When adding no-till and cover crops into the operation, the residue is left on the soil surface. Many farmers are apprehensive about leaving this residue there, thinking that it won’t break down and will cause problems with their planting equipment and crop emergence. We have found on our farm that we are breaking down residue faster in a no-till and cover crop system, than we were with conventional tillage. One of the principles of soil health is always having an armor on the soil surface.  We are having a hard time keeping crop residue on the soil surface because the soil biology is breaking it down so quickly.

This year, we have been doing some testing to quantify our crop residue. To do this, we lay a 100-foot tape measure out along the soil, and count on every foot if there is crop residue there or not.  We’ve been monitoring the degradation of the crop residue in an array of different systems and have provided the data above. We find it interesting that where we are pushing our cover crops harder and getting more aggressive on adding carbon into the system, the crop residue is decomposing quicker. We are finding that more diverse biology is being stimulated because we are continuously feeding our worms, microbes, and other soil critters, and providing them with a better habitat via improved soil conditions. The nutrients in this residue are being returned to the soil in plant available forms, which is directly helping us improve our bottom line. This allows us to decrease our synthetic fertilizer and improve yields in a more sustainable and ongoing manner. When all is said and done, farmers need to understand that feeding biology is the key to a more sustainable future. As biology ramps up, we need less chemistry and human disruption to decompose residue, because we are allowing the natural system to take hold. When initially transitioning to no-till and adding cover crops, there can be more residue in your fields because your microbial communities are not built up yet. We must be patient, but aggressive when changing to regenerative systems. We need to feed the microbes, stimulate biology, and let them to work their magic, which can take 1 to 3 years. If done correctly by managing carbon to nitrogen ratio from the start, you can succeed in year one. I would be happy to chat about more information on this, and feel free to stop by our farm anytime to see it for yourself.

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