Growers who bale corn residue have a good reason to chop corn stalks. But everybody else could just as well skip that trip across the field and save about $8/acre.

That's one piece of cost-cutting advice from Midwest Extension experts.

“We want growers to evaluate each operation and ask, ‘Is it making me money?’” says Gary Zoubek, University of Nebraska Extension educator in southeast Nebraska.

In many parts of the Corn Belt, it's traditional to manage corn residue by chopping or shredding it after harvest, says Mahdi Al-Kaisi, Iowa State University Extension agronomist. “But there are better management options,” he says. These include:

  • Strip-tillage
  • Using residue managers on the planter to push residue off the seedbed
  • Properly weighted planter and down-pressure springs to maintain the correct planting depth
  • Carefully calibrated combine to ensure uniform residue distribution

Shredding residue costs from $4.25 to $13.50/acre, according to a 2008 custom rates survey by the Nebraska Extension Service. Iowa State University estimates are similar.

In addition to expense, fall stalk chopping has environmental costs, Al-Kaisi adds. Compared with standing stalks, light, loosely chopped residue is more likely to blow away or wash off, leaving the soil unprotected. “And our research shows that chopping residue doesn't speed decomposition,” he says.

Research across the Corn Belt has found no economic advantage for shredding cornstalks, Al-Kaisi and Zoubek say. In 2004 and 2005, for example, several southeast Nebraska growers compared fall cornstalk shredding vs. not shredding. The replicated strip trials were performed at multiple locations on irrigated, corn-on-corn fields.

Fall shredding did not increase corn yields, Zoubek says.

RON MAKOVICKA participated in Zoubek's stalk shredding research a few years back. He raises corn and soybeans in a three-year sequence on very productive irrigated ground in York County. He ridge-tills and had always shredded corn stalks after harvest to help manage all the trash. But “it was costing us to shred,” he says.

In 2005, Makovicka did side-by-side comparisons of shredding and not shredding in five pairs of replicated strips across an entire field. The strips with the standing stalks actually yielded slightly better than the strips with shredded residue, he says, possibly because they “caught more snow and conserved more moisture.”

So Makovicka quit shredding corn stalks in the fall. He continues his usual practice of going over the corn residue with a rotary stalk chopper right before planting in the spring, to prepare the ground. The spring field operation is faster and cheaper than fall shredding, he says, and it's better for erosion control.

“Every year, if there's something new, some way of cutting costs, we're willing to try it if it makes sense for our operation,” Makovicka says. This season, for example, he lowered soybean populations from 160,000 seeds/acre to 140,000.

“The key message is to have producers think about all the practices they do,” Zoubek says. “Evaluate each tillage operation and determine if the benefits outweigh the costs or expense,” he says.

“Can you eliminate one operation — be it disking, cultivating, shredding or a second disking? Look at what you're doing, and what makes you money. You want to get a good payback on every operation, not just a dollar back fora dollar spent.”

CUT THE RIGHT STUFF

In challenging times, it's more important than ever for farmers to know their cost of production, “so they can tell where to concentrate for trimming expenses,” says Mike Duffy, Iowa State University Extension economist. “Too often in such times, the strategy is simply cutting back, but this can do more harm than good if cuts are made in the wrong area.”

Cost-cutting decisions should be dictated by return on investment, Duffy says: “The economic principle is spending a dollar just to the point where you have a dollar of return.”

Extension experts have identified many of these cost-saving ideas. In the coming months, Corn & Soybean Digest will bring you more tips from farmers and researchers to help you manage production costs.

Cost cutting is on Stuart Spader's mind, now more than ever. He's made quite a few cuts already, and it's hard to know where else to cut, he says.

The York County, NE, grower raises corn, seed corn and soybeans on irrigated silt loam soils in southeast Nebraska. He's a shareholder in a 2,500-sow farrowing unit and finishes market hogs, feeding most of his corn crop. He's feeling the squeeze from many months of thin or negative livestock margins, plus this year's tight row-crop budgets.

Spader keeps his fertilizer outlays low by applying swine manure. He's eliminated tillage, except for incorporating manure on corn ground. He boosts irrigation returns by using soil water sensors and maintains a 50-50 corn-soybean rotation and applies generic herbicides. He and a neighbor harvest together, maximizing their labor and machinery efficiency.

Barry Ward, Extension economist at Ohio State University, can sympathize. “Where to scrutinize first? These decisions are very complex,” he says, “and growers have to look at their whole system. If they cut on seed genetics and technology,” for example, “they may have higher herbicide and insecticide costs.”

One of the first places to sharpen your pencil is machinery cost. “We have to be careful not to be caught up in machinery or technology that may not give us a return on investment,” Ward says.

The same goes for some of the extra goodies that growers can afford in flush times, such as plant-health fungicide applications or “other non-traditional products that may boost yield a little,” he says. “But is it enough to pay?”

Another area where growers can look for savings is seed selection, Ward says. Consider whether the traits being offered are ones that will earn you a profit. For example, the Bt corn borer trait isn't usually economic in Ohio, where corn borer infestations are low, he says. If you can't find the elite seeds you want without buying traits you don't need, check out the regional seed companies, which may offer genetics “more targeted to a region or state,” he says.

Other cost-cutting suggestions from Ward include buying fuel and fertilizer in bulk, switching to generic herbicides, cutting soybean populations and sidedressing nitrogen.

Keep a close eye on fuel costs, too, Duffy suggests. That means “evaluating trips, keeping power units tuned and properly inflating tires.” And don't neglect soil testing, he adds, so you know which nutrients you really need.