It is an inevitable question that we as Agronomist answer every fall; “What am I doing when I remove crop residue?” It is an incredibly strait forward question that has more layers to it than an onion. There are the soil health aspects, nutrient removal pieces, planting effects for the next season, as well the need to possibly balance all of those factors with your need for livestock feed. And while we have this discussion every year, as commodity and input prices ebb and flow, the economics of this change every year. And the truth of the matter is, I will probably never change your mind one way or the other when it comes to stover removal. I also know that for most accounts that what done is done for this year. But, I can make sure that you are fully informed about both the short term and long term costs that go along with this.
So let’s look at each aspect of stover removal, starting with the livestock aspect. This is the best reason on the positive side to remove residue. I honestly can’t begin to talk intelligently about roughage and DDG’s and things of that nature, but I know that the reasons are real and that stover fulfills an important roughage need. On the other side of the positive column for stover removal is planter issue remediation. I fully acknowledge that when we are in a corn on corn environment that we have to have a plan to deal with residue. Residue doesn’t break down like it used to. When we have to deal with the plantability issue on top of nutrient tie up, especially Nitrogen, there are definitely reason to remove residue.
However, on the other side of this conversations are the reasons why stover removal may not be a good idea, and first and foremost is soil health. Residue is a vital component in the protection of the soil surface. Impact from precipitation and wreathing are both factors that not only affect our best top soil, but also water infiltration and other factors. When residue is in place, it protects the top soil from many of those bad things by serving as a buffer between the weather and the soil. When we take more than 40% of our residue off, we really open up the soil to future problems.
And then last, but not least is the cost of the residue removal. For those of you on Medium and Heavy textured soils where Magnesium is in adequate to excessive supply, the cost of nutrient removal this season is around $6.50 per ton. While that isn’t a tremendous cost, remember that it compounds with the other factors it can quickly add up to more than what you receive in benefits, especially if you are selling the stover. However, if you are a light texture soil, or sandy ground farmer, I will make the argument that you cannot afford to ever remove stover. This year, the cost to replace the Magnesium from stover removal with KMAG is over $47 per acre. When Mag is already a limiting factor to your production and providing pressure to your crop input budget, tripling the amount that you need due to stover removal is crippling.
So my take home for today is simply this. I understand that even if I could change your mind on stover removal, it is too late for this fall. But, there are so many more factors that go into determining the cost to benefits when it comes to stover removal that it is seldom a simple addition/subtraction proposition. Complex issues like this are where having a trusted advisor proves valuable. What is right for you operation in the long term might be the decision that makes the least sense from a financial position right now, or vice versa. But for my money, I know that unless manure is going back on the spot where stover was removed, there are very real challenges that we need to make a plan now for in addressing needs and challenges for the spring.