Where Do We Go from Here?

It seems that every few years, harvest becomes a long, hard, drawn out struggle. Most years, ground conditions allow for a quick, efficient harvest with only an occasional day that the combine cannot run, and those days are welcome to rest up, repair equipment, and move grain.

Harvest 2018 in west central Indiana was not normal, soybeans matured slow therefore their harvest began later with corn harvested first in many cases.

Corn yields were excellent with large amounts of grain to move and store. Once the soybeans finally matured and were ready for harvest, the fall rains came and days suitable for harvest became rare, especially multiple days in a row.

Thanksgiving came, and many combines were still in the field. Christmas came, and there were still isolated fields of corn and beans awaiting harvest some afternoon when the ground was frozen. No question about it, harvest 2018 was hard, long days, damaged equipment and worry about crops deteriorating, the stress level was high.

What are the lingering impacts of a hard harvest, in many cases fields heavily damaged by combines and grain carts. Many of the last fields harvested were rutted up and will need attention prior to planting in the spring of 2019. What are some options, what can be done for the future?

Obviously, the immediate concern is getting a field leveled up, so the 2019 crop can be planted. Depending on the severity of the damage, a vertical tillage tool, disk, field cultivator, or “one pass” tillage tool can be used in the spring to level the field and prepare an adequate seedbed for planting.

It would be a wise decision to limit this tillage to the area that was damaged, especially if you are in a no-till system. It is also a wise decision to resist using a deep ripper tool in the spring since the typical wet spring soil conditions will not allow a deep ripper to be effective and could possibly cause additional damage by smearing the soil. While this will allow a crop to be planted in 2019, the true problem is much deeper and will require additional treatment.

Assuming a nice quick normal harvest in 2019, what can be done to help fix damaged areas. In all likely hood, you will be able to pin point them once you have your yield maps. Areas of compaction, leading to stunted growth and reduced yield, especially if the summer of 2019 is dry will be obvious. What can be done? These areas probably should be high on the priority list of the areas you are considering installing subsurface drainage. If areas are wet during harvest, they are likely wet during spring planting, some drainage will improve the overall situation.

The initial thought on many farmer’s minds is; To correct damage from rutting, I must get out the deep ripper and get to work. If the fall is good and dry after harvest, you might be able to might be able to help a little, but sometimes pulling a ripper is a feel-good operation and provides very little true benefit. The reason being, when you are harvesting, the combine tire usually cuts down to the deepest recent tillage pass. However, the true damage to the soil structure can be a foot or deeper than the bottom of the rut. To completely correct the compaction, you must be completely under the problem, very few rippers will go that deep. So, the question remains, what can I do to fix the problem that is deep in the soil? Try something besides steel, try the power of roots. Cereal rye or annual ryegrass roots will grow to depths of over 40 inches over the winter so seeding disturbed areas to a cover crop after harvest will go a long way to improving soil structure, breaking up compaction, and improving infiltration in disturbed areas of a field. If you are feeling adventurous, try some strip trials, cover crops versus no cover crops. You just might discover all the benefits cover crops can bring to your operation.

Now, it is time to determine what you as a farmer can do to keep this from happening again. The weather is the weather, farmers cannot impact what happens, What you can do, is build a soil that is more resilient to impacts from weather, protect it from erosion over the winter, infiltrate and store water for those hot dry days of summer when your crop needs it, and build a soil that will hold up during those rare years that harvest is wet. Developing a management system that involves the four principals of soil heath; Keeping a living root as much of the year as possible, diversity of plants within your cash crop and cover crop, a never till system, and keeping the soil covered all year long will build a more resilient soil.

Primarily reducing soil erosion and improving infiltration and water holding capacity have been the reasons for implementing a soil health system. However, harvest 2018 provided another benefit, one that we only see every few years during harvest.

Many Indiana farmers who have used the four principals of soil health to change their soils harvested the benefits this fall, being able to harvest on days their neighbors could not, and little to no damage to their fields.

Is it time for you to consider changing to a system that will build soil health on your farm?

For information on soil health systems contact Jackson County Soil & Water Conservation District office at 812-358-2367 ext. 3.

Donald Donovan is district conservationist from Parke County. Send comments to [email protected]