Tips for Managing Abandoned Corn Fields

Derecho damage in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. ( Mike Byers )

Surrounded by toppled 12’ corn with no way of salvaging the once-promising yields, some farmers might be wondering what’s the next step? Whether you suffered through the derecho in the upper Corn Belt, hail and wind throughout the eastern Corn Belt or endured another event that zeroed out your harvest potential, it’s time to shift your thinking from 2020 to 2021.

“Trying to pick this corn up will only lower their insurance check and destroy their combines and drive up drying costs,” says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. “Grain quality will be challenged by ear molds if they’re going to lay here in the ground another month.”

Because corn went down green, and before black layer, there is an incredible amount of biomass in fields that needs managed. Start strategizing what you can do now to break up the plants, break down the material and manage volunteer corn.

Break up plants to break it down

Obviously, you can’t expect microscopic microbes to break down full-sized corn plants quickly, so here are some tips to help them along.

“There’s a lot of dry matter we need to break down and try to do it just like the corn head does—into bite-sized pieces,” says Justin Render, Kinze tillage product specialist. “We need to get this residue through that life, death and recycling process as fast as possible, and the more we can break it up the better.”

The sun will help cure and dry the material as well. It might take more than one pass, tillage or otherwise, to size this crop appropriately.

“Take a look at what type of tillage equipment you have. Will it actually get through the residue and get it buried?” asks Andrew Phillips, Channel Seedsman, based in northwest Iowa. “The earlier we get that residue buried, the more heat and time the microbes in the soil have to break it down.”

Another option to consider is adding cover crops to impacted fields—which might sound counterintuitive, but could help boost microbial activity, Render says.

Manage volunteer corn

Yields were looking phenomenal in many areas that are now dealing with decimated fields—that means there are a lot of seeds to potentially germinate in 2021.

“We can get some of this corn germinated to reduce the amount of volunteer corn next year,” Ferrie explains. You could also consider using a moldboard plow to bury the ears deep enough they can’t germinate.

So, start planning your next crop now.

“If it was a corn-on-corn field to begin with it’s probably your best bet to go soybeans,” Phillips says. “However, if you planted a VT Double Pro (glyphosate resistant) product, you might be able to go corn again next year and use SmartStax (with glufosinate and glyphosate herbicide resistances) and control volunteer corn with Liberty herbicide.”

Examine your budget, field conditions and other management factors as you plan crops for 2021.