High-residue farming starts at harvest not at planting time. If you doubt that, take a country drive after harvest.

Check harvested soybean fields in particular, say soil conservationists and successful no-tillers.

Some will sport a perfect carpet of residue covering the soil surface. Others will show windrows of crop residue, with little covering the soil in between.

That spells problems with a capital P for farmers trying to move into no-till. Poor planter or drill performance and emergence problems can haunt you.

Veteran no-tillers like Dennis and Gary Scherer of Centerview, MO, found that out years ago. So they bought a chaff spreader from a short-line company to solve the windrowing problem.

“Our residue management program for no-till starts in the fall at harvest, not in the spring,” notes Gary. “We think it's critically important to get that residue spread as evenly as we can for beans and corn, too.”

Adds Dennis: “If the residue is left in narrow strips on the field surface in the fall, it keeps the ground cooler in the spring than where it's thin or there's none at all. Under those windrows, it's just like laying a rug on the ground. Even if you don't no-till, but use light tillage, planting into it can be a problem. And where it's thin or none at all, you can get soil erosion problems.”

Jim Kinsella, a Lexington, IL, no-tiller with 25 years of experience, says in some areas where no-till has become the dominate practice, you hardly see residue windrowing problems. But on trips to Iowa and Nebraska this past fall, he says, “I was shocked to see quite a bit of the residue-windrowing problem.”

Kinsella says spreading residue behind the combine “is absolutely critical to success with no-till. Not using an effective chaff spreader can be a huge problem because the residue windrows keep the soil wet and cold longer, and corn can emerge a week later under that heavy residue.”

The combine you had a few years ago simply might not have done the job well enough, and many no-tillers looked to short-line or after-market firms to get spreaders that did adequate jobs.

Today, say combine manufacturers, effective chaff spreaders, choppers or combinations of both come standard or as a factory or dealer option on new combines. And factory-produced units can be retrofitted on older-model combines to solve the problem.

Combine manufacturers have run into a bigger challenge in spreading crop residue uniformly, however, because combine heads keep getting bigger. Not long ago, 20' combine heads were big. Today, 25' and 30' heads are becoming more common in the Corn Belt, and even wider ones are used in wheat country. Spreading residue in those wider swaths, especially light soybean residue, has become a real challenge.

“All major combine manufacturers are striving to obtain better spread patterns,” notes Scott Knoblauch, a Caterpillar spokesman. “Spreading that chaff evenly over the whole field surface is becoming increasingly important for all of us in the industry.

“This has become a big thing, especially with no-till,” he adds. “And erosion control and environmental requirements have driven the industry to these higher standards today. Agriculture is going to be a focal point for erosion control and water quality for years to come.”

Cat offers a twin-disc, hydraulically driven, variable-speed chaff spreader that effectively spreads residue for swaths up to 30' wide, Knoblauch says. Other major combine manufacturers offer similar chaff or residue spreading systems and all are trying to improve their spreader performance, he says.

Case IH is a good example. Spokesman Mark Schmitz says the company did an upgrade for 2001 to its 2300 Series combines. It went from 1½'- to 3'- high batts in its twin spreaders and also offers a more aggressive curved batt.

These units can be retrofitted to older combine models, too. The results have pleased company engineers and customers who have tested the spreaders, Schmitz says.

“These new spreaders are doing a lot better job for both corn and soybeans, and we're pleased with their progress in the past few years,” he adds. “No-till was certainly one of the drivers, probably the primary reason, in getting those changes made.”

The result is that there is no longer an excuse for windrows of residue after harvest even if you don't have a newer combine. Fairly effective residue spreaders can be retrofitted to your older model combines directly from your dealer or, if you choose, from one of the short-line or after-market firms.