Unharvested Crops

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 Spring management options for un-harvested crops
How can you best to capture the highest value from your un-harvested crop that was overwintered, while managing cost and risk, and ensuring soil health for subsequent crops.

Check on your Insurance FIRST

Before you take action with and un-harvested crop, contact your crop insurance provider to ensure that your plans are not contrary to your insurance policies’ recommendations or restrictions, and determine what is required in order for them to assess loss and make a claim.

Is the crop worth harvesting?

Those who decide to harvest the crop are often pleasantly surprised at what they get. Yes, yield and grade can be reduced, but the value may be surprising and worth the effort. In some cases the crop may not be as tough as last fall. Take a representative sample of the crop to determine quality.

If rodent or wildlife damage has destroyed or shelled the grain, or if the crop is too flattened to pick up with a combine, then harvesting is not an option.

What are my crop management options?

To decide which management option is most suitable, consider the condition of the crop (standing or swathed) and soil conditions.

Take into consideration what the field conditions were last fall. This will have an impact on spring field access, as the presence of the crop and or swaths will slow soil drying and delaying entry to the field. When considering how best to manage the un-harvested crop, consider when field access is possible, the economics of the management option, current cropping plans, risk of equipment damage, and conservation of soil, soil moisture and the long term health of the soil.

The solution must leave the field surface in good condition for subsequent equipment operations and for crop establishment.

There are several different management options that can include harvesting, baling, grazing, mowing, chopping, residue stacking, tillage and harrowing, each with their own pros and cons as well costs will vary.

If any un-harvested areas are involved in land-use or conservation programs, check with the program facilitators first, to determine if there are any residue management practices that may not be allowed while participating in their program.

What downgrading factors may have worsened in a crop left overwinter?

Sooty molds caused by naturally-occurring fungi will become more prevalent on dead plant material of any kind, including unharvested crops. These molds/mildews can be a downgrading factor. Additionally, freeze damage, rodent excreta, and sprouting are also downgrading factors that can be more common in spring-seeded crops that overwinter.

What if the overwintered crop delays the timing of my normal seeding operations?

When overwintered crops threaten to delay normal seeding operations, it may be wise to be ready to seed an early-maturing crop, or a silage crop, to ensure that late-seeded fields have a chance to reach maturity.

Will crop diseases be worse in a crop that has overwintered?

A crop that goes long past maturity without being harvested may have lots of fungal growth on it. The growth of most fungi only occurs when temperatures are above freezing and lots of moisture is available, so this is not an issue during the cold winter months. Fungal growth is a natural occurrence on crop residues every year, and is not a cause for great alarm. In some cases, the fungi may be plant pathogens, but they will not cause any elevated risk of disease when good crop rotation and disease management principles are followed.

It is important to note that some fungi may produce mycotoxins (poisonous compounds). As a result, it is wise to get overwintered, or moldy crops tested for their levels of mycotoxins before feeding them to animals.

Can I seed directly into the un-harvested crop?

It may be possible to seed into an un-swathed crop. Although some equipment can seed through standing crop residue, the crop material will affect crop establishment and equipment performance; resulting in hair pinning, poor seed to soil contact and emergence issues. If the area of un-harvested crop is small, this approach may work but as the number of acres increases it would become more difficult.

The down side of seeding directly into the un-harvested crop will be volunteer plants and weeds from the last year’s crop, so crop selection will be key.

Burning: what to consider:

One of the last options to consider is burning the crop. However, sometimes this is the only option available. Check with your county or municipal district, most will require permits before burning your crop. If you are in the Forest Protection Area of Alberta, you need to get a fire permit from the Government of Alberta. There may also be fire bans or restrictions in place, especially early in the spring. Please check albertafirebans.ca for any restrictions and remember to contact your crop insurance agency.

Burning un-harvested crop will not provide any value to you from the crop and may negatively impact the soil. Smoke generated from burning can have air quality as well as visibility impacts that can result in health issues and even traffic accidents. The impacts of burning can be far reaching depending on weather conditions.

Should I burn my crop to prevent diseases and mycotoxins from spreading?

Burning may destroy crop residues but will have little to no effect on crop diseases. The mycotoxin risk will be removed only because there will be nothing left to feed animals. As a result, burning crops is not recommended to prevent diseases or destroy mycotoxins.

Should I burn my crop to remove the crop residue?

Research has shown that burning crop residues has more negative effects than positive. Burning reduces soil organic matter, carbon and nitrogen. Additionally, it can have negative effects on soil erosion, permeability and air quality. Finally, burning disrupts the balance of microorgnisms in the soil reducing the biological activity and overall soil health

In cases where mechanical methods to remove the crop are not possible, or insufficient to handle the residue, burning could be used as a last resort to remove crop residues prior to seeding. Make sure to check with your crop insurance provider, and with municipal authorities, for permission to burn.

If you decide to burn: Burning tips

  • Do you have your fire permit? Follow the directions on the permit or as directed by the municipality.
  • If you plan on burning, make sure you also have sufficient property insurance in the event that your fire gets out of control, or spreads to neighboring land.
  • Monitor your burn; don’t leave your field while it’s burning.
  • Burn small areas at a time and avoid lighting the entire field on fire at once.
  • Have a plan to deal with any emergencies.
  • Have a water truck and other equipment on hand.
  • Till the outside rounds of the field to create a fire break.
  • You will also have to monitor after your burn.
  • Consider baling the un-harvested crop, removing it from the field and later burning the bales away from your field. Burning the bales in a smaller controlled area is easier to monitor and manage than burning swaths in a field. This option will also help preserve the ground cover, residue and organic matter in the field.

Call 310-FARM for more information.

The pros and cons of various mechanical management practices to harvest or manage un-harvested crops.
    • Allows for seed or residue collection and/or distribution.
    • Can manage a standing crop, tall stubble or swathed residue.
    • Can be the best way to get the maximum value from the un-harvested crop.
    • Less volunteers in subsequent crop.
    • Readily available.
    • Difficulty managing crop with high moisture.
    • May have difficulty picking up swaths, cutting a flattened crop or stubble.
    • May be better to swath instead of straight combining to reduce the risk of equipment damage, so an additional operation is required.
    • High operating cost; fuel, operating, depreciation and machine wear and tear.
    • Ground will need to be frozen or dry to avoid soil rutting.
Baling and Bale Silage
    • Most all types of residue; standing or swath can be managed.
    • Once baled, residue can easily be handled or removed from field, used or dealt with later.
    • Silage baler can manage high moisture residue
    • Once collected the material can have many uses and potential revenue.
    • Cheaper operating costs, then combining or chopping
    • Equipment is not as heavy as combine; less impact on wet soil.
    • Less volunteers in subsequent crop.
    • Readily available.
    • Spoilage is a risk if baled at higher moisture.
    • Difficult to dispose of spoiled bales.
    • Silage bales require extra management and monitoring before and after baling.
    • Bale wrapping (silage) adds to cost.
    • Bale wrappers are not readily available.
    • Low cost
    • Livestock are generally available.
    • Reduces time management, the animals do the harvesting.
    • Other direct values such as manure/nutrients and possible revenue from feeding.
    • Field needs to be fenced and a water source needs to be available.
    • Increases time management, animals need to be managed.
    • Risk to livestock; ingesting contaminated/spoiled, fungus infected feed and forage.
    • Applicability of this option depends on crop type.
    • Animals can cause compaction in wet soils.
    • Volunteer and weeds in subsequent crop.
    • Cereal crops can be deficient in calcium & magnesium which can cause downer cows or milk fever.
    • Be careful when grazing the material, as it is high energy grain with low energy straw, supplement and manage grazing so the animals don’t experience grain overload, bloat or acidosis.
    • Smaller horsepower tractors can be used.
    • Can cut/chop most residue types.
    • Lower operating cost; fuel, machine wear and depreciation.
    • Readily available
    • Not effective in high moisture residue.
    • Will not widely distribute residue; multiple passes may be required.
    • Less effective in swathed crop than un-swathed crop
    • Volunteer plants and weeds in subsequent crop
Forage Chopper for Residue Spreading
    • Most all types of crop can be managed.
    • Can manage a high moisture residue if just spreading.
    • Residue can easily be handled and removed from field and dealt with later.
    • Chopped feed/forage crop results in higher palatability and if supplement is added, can be a high value product.
    • Very aggressive; can widely spread and distribute chopped material over field
    • If crop is chopped and removed from field, less volunteers in subsequent crop
    • High cost if collected product has no value or use, more difficult to dispose of later.
    • Equipment is not readily available.
    • High operating cost; fuel, machine wear and depreciation.
    • Moderately heavy equipment; ground will need to be frozen or dry to avoid soil rutting.
    • If crop is chopped and just spread in the field, issue with volunteer plants and weeds in subsequent crop.
Residue Stacking
    • Many different methods to stack residue; collect straw and chaff directly form combine, forage chopper to cut and blow windrows into stacker, pull-type pick-up and wagon.
    • Most all types of residue, standing or swathed can be managed.
    • Residue stacks can be used as livestock feed and forage on field location; can be strategically placed.
    • Residue can easily be handled and removed from field and dealt with later.
    • If crop residue is removed from field, less volunteers in subsequent crop.
    • Residue spoilage if stacked at higher moisture; heating
    • More difficult to dispose of spoiled residue later
    • Could result in higher costs; depends on type of equipment and availability.
    • Can be labour intensive if collected.
Conventional Tillage (Disc & cultivator)
    • Cuts, breaks and incorporates crop and residue.
    • Disc can handle more residue than a cultivator.
    • Dissipates and spreads crop material.
    • Many types of tillage tools; match the proper tool to field and crop conditions.
    • Moderate operating cost; fuel, machine wear and depreciation.
    • Readily available
    • Soil conditions must be dry.
    • May require multiple passes to manage un-harvested crop
    • Soil and stubble disturbance; reduces soil structure, quality and cover.
    • Releases green house gases.
    • Not always effective in heavy ground cover, un-harvested swaths.
    • The carbon offset market does not allow tillage practices (max. 10% of cropped area in the field) and will not pay offset dollars to producers if they till; carbon credits will be lost for that year on that field.
    • Volunteer plants and weeds in subsequent crop.
    • Can cause compaction in wet conditions.
Vertical Tillage, Multi-tool and Other Specialized Tillage & Residue Management Equipment
    • Cuts, breaks and incorporates crop and residue
    • Dissipates and spreads crop material.
    • Many types of tillage tools; match the proper tool to the field and crop conditions.
    • Moderate operating cost; fuel, machine wear and depreciation.
    • Readily available
    • Vertical Tillage tools operate best at high speed; quick area coverage
    • May require multiple passes
    • Soil and stubble disturbance; reduces soil structure, quality and cover.
    • Results in release of greenhouse gasses.
    • Not effective for swathed crops, research the proper tool before use.
    • Has limitations in heavy residue situations.
    • Requires higher horsepower than conventional tillage equipment.
    • The carbon offset market does not allow tillage practices (max. 10% of cropped area in the field) and will not pay offset dollars to producers if they till; carbon credits will be lost for that year on that field .
    • Volunteer plants in subsequent crop.
    • Dissipates and spreads residue piles.
    • Many types of harrowing tools; match the proper tool to the field and crop conditions.
    • Low soil disturbance.
    • Can operate at high speed; quick area coverage.
    • Can be operated with low horsepower depending on tool type and residue.
    • Low operating cost; fuel, machine wear and depreciation.
    • Readily available.
    • May require multiple passes.
    • Soil surface and stubble disturbance; reduces topsoil structure, quality and cover.
    • Not all harrow types will work in high residue situations.
    • Limited effectiveness in un-swathed or swathed crop.
    • Some equipment and residue situation may require high horsepower.
    • Volunteer plants and weeds in subsequent crop.

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For more information about the content of this document, contact Jeanna Friedley.
This document is maintained by Kelly Kempton.
This information published to the web on March 16, 2017.
Last Reviewed/Revised on March 17, 2017.