Now's the time to plan crop residue recycling — to trim fertilizer costs next season

This season's crop residue can replace a chunk of your 2021 fertilizer bill. Several "bio" firms offer live organisms, enzymes and stimulants for your  soil's natural fungi nd bacteria which digest those lignin-laced cornstalks.

August 10, 2020 By Jerry Carlson — Thousands of farmers are also seeing how multi-species cover crops amplify soil biodiversity, which accelerates residue recycling. Each cover crop species hosts almost a dozen unique beneficial bacteria and fungi. They all work together to dissolve tough lignin and cellulose into plant-available NPK plus micronutrients. When you team up covers with fall residue treatments on a 200-bu. corn crop, those stalks will be gray and crumbly by the time peak nitrogen demand kicks in the following spring.

Below you'll see descriptions of a few products and techniques you can use, plus links to further information. 

First, here's an overview of residue recycling principles, written by Brad Forkner, owner of Nutrient Management Specialists, LLC based in Cherry, Illinois. We reported on one of Brad's presentation in a March 2020 article on our website.

By Brad Forkner
Nutrient Management Specialists, LLC

 Just as there are many options for choosing your machinery, cropping methods, harvesting heads, you have many choices for managing crop residue.  

 
Is there one correct method? I say no — as long as your choice utilizes biological breakdown and recycling and can accomplish this in a timely fashion to minimize the spring carbon penalty.  
 
Brad Forkner
 
The carbon penalty is a polite way of saying what happens if you didn’t start breaking down the residue last fall. That residue includes the overwintered cover crops we may be incorporating in the rotation. Don’t forget those who use stripper heads to allow standing residue to trap snow and keep soil on their own farms.
 
Many times, grazing livestock are also a wonderful residue digester system. Name me a more efficient method of breaking down cellulose and fiber than inside a cow's rumen!
 
This said, is there a “best” time to introduce a residue management program into your annual system? You can find someone who agrees with your personal beliefs if you are only asking for validation. You can observe a neighbor, or see pictures on any of the social media and print platforms and analyze how they accomplished on their farm with their soil types, ground slopes, and available equipment.
 
I like to utilize residue recycling as an opportunity to rebalance what is going on in the soil. If we are long on bacteria and short on fungi, (often the case), I prefer to add Pacific Gro fish hydrolysate, derived from Pacific Ocean-caught salmon plus crab and shrimp shells. No oils or solids are removed in low-temperature enzyme digestion, so it contains several micronutrients. I also love Sea Crop, which is Pacific Ocean water with most of the salt removed. These two products bring in water-soluble micronutrients, seaweed remains, and enzyme activity.  
 
I also recommend including a multi-source sweetener to feed the broad spectrum of biology for extra support. If we are short of total biological species, this is the perfect time to introduce a live biological tea or extraction to ensure a robust population of microbes that break down residue into dissolved nutrients. If you have excess nitrogen left in your soil in the fall, be sure there is adequate residue to break down so excess nitrogen doesn’t lead to the eating of your soil's humus and other organic matter.  Better to break down introduced manure, or even cellulose from composted yard waste, than to lose organic matter.
 
Molasses and live-organism biology with either liquid or dry humic material may be the best choice if you have sands or heavy clays. These products provide nutritional bonding sites. They also break loose some heavy metals to stabilize and free up bonding sites on the clays.
 
In sandy soil, you are re-introducing purified humus to hold water, and all the nutrients to sustain the next crop. Applying micronutrients isn't just for crops. They also support the health and viability of the soil biome to keep live organisms in the soil food web running at peak performance.  
 
And the next point is to expose any pathogens to breakdown instead of leaving them protection free housing with a food source to wreak havoc on the next crop.  
 
If you apply residue management in the spring, remember to check earthworm activity to see if they are still hibernating.  If they are rolled up and inside of their winter ‘cave', then you should not be doing tillage at that time!!
 
Thanks for giving me a few minutes of your precious time, I trust it is of value!!  Call Jerry or me to discuss specific questions, concerns, and unique challenges so we can efficiently and effectively recycle on-farm nutrients so we don't need to buy them!!   
 
 
If you visit Brad Forkner's website, you'll see his point that any residue digestion package he recommends will include management that fits your operation, not just selling bugs in a jug. In September 2018, we published an extensive report on residue management — harvesting your 'second crop' — which included reports from Brad as well as information from other firms such as AgriEnergy Resources. 
 
Next, here are leads to several crop-residue digester products and the firms behind them.
 
1. One of the newest residue management product lines comes from one of the most experienced minds in microbiology. A few months ago we met Dr. Fred Farley, a Florida scientist who has invested more than 30 years in developing and testing microbial families for many environmental remediation purposes, including crop residue digesting. Dr. Farley's firm is Biodyne Inc., also called Biodyne World.
 
Now Dr. Farley is sharing his decades of knowledge with nephew Gilman Farley, who's growing a new firm, Biodyne USA, based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Biodyne USA is focused on a full-season biological program for crop growers. The firm's Midwest expansion has been rapid, and as of 2020 Biodyne has a product production plant based in central Iowa.
 
Our Renewable Farming team got acquainted with Biodyne USA's people and products a couple of years ago. Now we're participating as a distributor in the firm's innovation-based growth. The firm's fall residue-digesting blend of biologicals is labeled Meltdown. Check the link for details. 
 
2. The vintage version of residue digesters is Residuce, which originated at AgriEnergy Resources, Princeton, Illinois about 30 years ago.We've used it on our research farm, and marketed it for several years. On our website you can read how a veteran user of Residuce, Jim Mitchell, makes the most of this technology by hiring a little extra help to apply Residuce right behind the combine. 
 
3. Another residue breakdown product is offered by a Texas firm we know little about — but they have an excellent online description of what their digester product does. It's trademarked Accomplish from Agricen, a Loveland Products firm. The online description cites data from 2010, so this has been around awhile. Worth checking out. 
 
 
There are several other crop digester products on the market. They'll show up if you do a web search for "crop digestion products." As we get further data, we'll add them to our lexicon.
 
Also, a helpful companion practice for breaking down stalks is to crack the stalk rind physically. Chopper rolls on your combine are a big help. We've reported earlier on the Devastator stalk crimping rollers made by Yetter which ride under your combine header. My favorite stalk prep is a flail shredder which you can set low, skimming the ground, which leaves an even shield of mulch covering the soil. By spraying a digester product just ahead of the shredder, stalks get coated with microbes and the nutrients to stimulate them. Dave Schwartz of Guthrie Center, IA has been doing this several years and says that even before planting time arrives, the shredded residue is so crumbly that he can plant with an ordinary disk-opener planter.