Cornstalks cut and in boxes for sampling
SAMPLE AND LEARN: Cornstalk sampling before harvest can give you an indication of how well your nitrogen management system is performing.

What conservation farmers can do at harvest

Salute Soil Health: Harvest is a key time to learn and plan for next year.

Developing and maintaining soil health is a year-round proposition. Harvest may be at hand, but there things you can do to assess how well your management programs worked this year, and to get ready for 2018. You also need to make sure you can protect your soils properly over winter.

Information included in this Salute Soil Health column was prepared by Indiana Conservation Partnership personnel and other partners. This project is led by a team of Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel, including Don Donovan, Brian Musser and Clint Harrison, district conservationists; Susannah Hinds, grazing specialist; Scot Haley, resource soil scientist; Kris Vance, public affairs specialist; Victor Shelton, state agronomist/grazing specialist; Tony Bailey, state conservation agronomist; and Shannon Zezula, state resource conservationist.

Stalk sampling
Farmers wanting to know how much nitrogen their corn crop took up this past growing season can do cornstalk nitrogen testing this fall, Musser notes. Cornstalks are removed after the black layer stage but before harvest.

Consultants typically advise taking 8-inch sections of stalks from the lower part of the plant. Collect several stalk sections at random within a sampling area to form one sample. Then send samples to be tested at a commercial lab.

Nitrogen that was not used to produce grain is stored in the lower portion of the cornstalk. Results with high nitrogen suggest more nitrogen was applied than needed for grain production, and low nitrogen test results suggest not enough was applied for this season, Musser says.

He adds that cornstalk nitrogen tests don’t provide recommendations for current or future nitrogen applications, but do help farmers evaluate how past nitrogen rates worked with the given crop year’s weather and other factors. For more information on cornstalk nitrogen testing, visit the INField Advantage website, infieldadvantage.org. INField Advantage is managed by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.

Harvest and erosion
October is harvest season in Indiana, and the time to learn what your crop has produced for the season. Harrison says it’s also a great time to see how your fields have held up during spring and summer rains. This year provided a severe test for many fields. 

Is the combine bouncing over gullies or sedimentation bars? If your fields were eroding with an actively growing crop, what will the fall and winter season of bare soil leave behind for spring planting? 

Cover crops can protect the soil by providing ground cover and roots needed to keep soil in place, Harrison says. Some cover crops are rated as much better for soil protection than others. You may want to consider erosion control ability when deciding which species to plant.

Harrison says cover crops can also hold on to the nitrogen that may have been lost until next spring as well.  Cover crop species that overwinter can also curtail next spring’s erosion by providing biomass and ground cover prior to crop establishment.

This harvest season, think about if cover crops could work for your operation. They just might make for a smoother ride in 2018!

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