Many stalks in Nebraska are left ungrazed for various reasons. One reason I’ve heard is the potential impact of increased compaction and reduced yield of the next crop. Nebraska Extension has long-term research addressing this concern…in fact, 16 years of research conducted at the Ag Research and Development Center near Mead. There’s various components to this study and you can view the full report at: http://go.unl.edu/8mp6.
In this study, cattle were allowed to graze corn residue in the spring (February to mid-April) or the fall (November through January) and these treatments were compared to an area not grazed. Corn and soybeans were planted the spring after grazing the residue for 16 years to determine the effect of grazing on the subsequent crop yield.
In the fall grazing treatments, the corn and soybeans were planted no-till. For corn or soybeans planted into the spring grazing treatments, three tillage treatments were also implemented for nine years: no-till, ridge-till, and spring conventional till, after which all treatments were converted to no-till. This result of the tillage by spring grazing treatments for either corn or soybean yield over nine years showed no interaction and suggested the same effect on yield regardless of tillage treatment used after spring grazing.
Spring grazing across all tillage treatments did increase soybean yields statistically (58.5 bu/ac for spring grazed vs. 57.0 bu/ac for ungrazed) and had no effect on corn yields. The results were similar looking at 16 years of grazing vs. not grazing under no-till for both corn and soybeans in the spring; there was no yield effect found for corn and the soybeans showed a slight yield increase with grazing.
Looking at a 10 year period of no-till management for both spring and fall grazed corn residue and subsequent corn and soybean crops, fall grazing statistically improved soybean yields over both spring grazing and no grazing (65.5 bu/ac vs. 63.5 bu/ac and 62.1 bu/ac respectively). No grazing effects were observed on corn yields in either season. All statistics were at the 95% confidence level meaning the researchers were 95% confident any yield differences were due to the treatments themselves vs. random chance.
Regarding compaction, in the fall, the field was typically frozen and the researchers felt any mud and compaction associated with grazing cattle was minimized; highest subsequent soybean yields were achieved with fall grazing. The spring treatment was designed to look more at potential compaction and muddy conditions after spring thaw till right before planting-thus the implementation of different tillage treatments as well. They used a stocking rate consistent with UNL grazing recommendations resulting in removal of half the husks and leaves produced (8 lbs of leaf and husk per bushel of corn grain produced). Results of this study indicate that even with muddy conditions in the spring, grazing increased subsequent soybean yields compared to not grazing regardless of tillage system used and that corn yields were not different between grazing vs. not grazing and regardless of tillage system used in the spring. This study was conducted in Eastern Nebraska in a rainfed environment with yields ranging from 186-253 bu/ac with a 16 year median yield of 203 bu/ac.
Additional Grazing Study
A five year fall grazing study (December through January) was conducted in an irrigated continuous no-till corn field at Brule, NE to determine the effect of corn residue removal via baling corn residue or fall grazing on subsequent corn yields. That environment receives limited rainfall and residue is deemed important for reducing evaporation of soil moisture in addition for catching/keeping snow on fields. Farmers were questioning the effects of any residue removal on subsequent corn yields and the study was implemented.
Treatments were 1) fall grazing at 1 animal unit month/acre (AUM), 2) fall grazing 2 AUM/ac, 3) baled, or 4) ungrazed. The researchers found that residue removal did not affect corn grain yields from 2009-2013 in the continuous corn rotation. There were no statistical yield differences with 5 year average yields of: 152 bu/ac, 155 bu/ac, 147 bu/ac and 148 bu/ac respectively for the above-mentioned treatments.
Grazing corn residue provides many benefits to both livestock and grain farmers, yet many corn stalks in our area are not grazed for various reasons. With as much hail as we’ve had this fall, grazing is also an option to remove ears and kernels that were lost, preventing volunteer corn next season. Normally there is less than a bushel of ear drop per acre, but we most likely have more than that in some of our fields this year. Two kernels per square foot or one ¾ pound ear in 1/100 of an acre is the equivalent of 1 bu/ac yield loss. In 30” rows, 1/100 of an acre is 174’ long if you count in one row or 87’ if you count in two rows.
What may also be of interest to you is a recent finding between corn grain loss pre-and during harvest and sudden death syndrome (SDS) of soybean. Many asked me this this year, “Why did I see SDS this year when we’ve never had it in this field before?” It’s a great question and I often responded by saying we need to sample the areas affected with SDS for soybean cyst nematode (SCN) as the two diseases are synergistic. Sampling for SCN still remains free through your Nebraska Soybean Board Checkoff dollars and you can stop by the Extension Office for free sampling bags. Crop consultants should contact the UNL Plant and Pest Diagnostic lab directly at (402) 472-2559 if you are requesting 10 or more sampling bags.
Anything that moves soil can transport the fungal soil-borne pathogens causing these diseases. But recent research from Iowa State University also suggests that the fungal pathogen causing SDS (Fusarium virguliforme) survives on grain lost during the harvest process in fields and that SDS management in soybean actually needs to begin at corn harvest.
Studies were conducted for two years in greenhouse and in field plots with nine treatments to determine the survivability of Fusarium virguliforme (Fv) on corn and soybean residue. The treatments were: 1-Corn kernels + Fv; 2-Corn roots + Fv; 3-Corn stem/leaves/husk + Fv; 4-No residue + Fv; 5-Soybean seeds + Fv; 6-Soybean stem/leaves/pods + Fv; 7-Soybean roots +Fv; 8-Corn stalk on soil surface + Fv; 9-Corn kernels and stalk on soil surface + Fv. The researchers consistently found in both the greenhouse and field experiments that Treatment 1 of corn kernels at average harvest loss resulted in the most SDS. Treatment 2 consistently resulted in the second most SDS.
This helps to explain why some farmers are finding SDS in fields that have been continuous corn for a period of years, are finding SDS in corn and soybean rotation when little or no SDS was previously observed, and why SDS has increased in seed corn fields that may have higher harvest losses. They did not experiment with tillage systems and their recommendation is to reduce harvest losses to reduce the risk of SDS.
Grazing residues can reduce your risk from these harvest losses and for those losses which were incurred with the hail/wind storms we’ve experienced since Labor Day. When grazing corn residue, cattle are selective. They will eat the grain first followed by the husk and leaf followed by the cob and stalk.
It’s also important to be aware of grazing restrictions from herbicides applied to row crops; you can read more about that in this post.
It’s nice seeing cattle being turned out into corn stalks! One point that I haven’t mentioned recently is that we all need to be checking the herbicide label for any grazing restrictions of crop residues.
So check the labels from in-season applied herbicides to row crops and fall-applied herbicides to crop residue for any potential grazing restrictions…and any restrictions on grazing cover crops planted into crop residues following application of those chemicals to a row crop. If the label doesn’t specify any restrictions, then it should be ok. If you want to be on the safe side, a rule of thumb many chemical reps use is to use the pre-harvest interval for the amount of time to wait before grazing stalks.
Some labels will say that residue should not be grazed or baled and fed to livestock. Sometimes studies were actually conducted to know there is a safety concern. In other cases, the chemical company may not choose to conduct all the studies the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required for labeling due to high costs. If that’s the case, the EPA requires the strongest restrictive language be placed on the label.
Regardless, if it says there’s a grazing restriction on the label, the label needs to be followed as it is a legal document and the law. Your cattle may/may not be affected by grazing stalks or cover crops where a chemical with a grazing restriction is on the label, but there may be other concerns such as problems with the chemical affecting the calf or being retained in the cow’s milk.
For quick references, the 2015 UNL Guide for Weed Management shows Forage, Feed, Grazing Restrictions for Row Crop Herbicides on pages 174-177. A new weed guide will be released January 2016. These pages just provide a reference; it’s truly best to read and follow the label.