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By the U of A System Division of AgricultureNov. 1, 2017
(647 words)(Download this story in MS Word format here.)
STUTTGART, Ark. – Following harvest season, it’s not uncommon to see plumes of smoke
rising in the flatness of the Arkansas Delta. Many of the fires are intentional with
the flames used as a production practice by rice and other crop producers, said Jarrod
Hardke, extension rice agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of
“Contrary to many beliefs out there, burning of crop residue is a recommended crop
management practice,” Hardke said.
Because crop residue can serve as an effective wintertime shelter for insects, weeds
and disease, “there is a need to burn crop residue as a means of pest management,”
he said. “In addition, hard-to-control weed species can be eliminated by burning residue.
This practice is another tool in the toolbox for growers to effectively manage their
Burning is used by rice, wheat, soybean and corn growers. Rice growers use it the
most, with about 25 percent of Arkansas rice fields being burned. Fire isn’t always
necessary, but it’s especially helpful in rice to manage problematic residue.
“Rice residue can be slow to break down,” Hardke said. “To prepare the field for the
next season, it can be very beneficial to remove residue by burning, because tillage
alone is not always sufficient to remove it for fall field preparation.”
Waiting on the residue to break down over winter can be a gamble. Winter conditions
can slow breakdown and result in increased tillage and delayed planting, resulting
in increased production costs and lowered yields in some cases. In fields that cannot
rotate to crops other than rice, excessive remaining residue in the field can be detrimental
to the establishment of the next rice crop.
There are many factors that can affect a burn and the amount of smoke it produces,
including the length of time and weather conditions since harvest and the way the
residue has been managed with tillage equipment. In many rice fields only 30-40 percent
of residue — mostly loose straw — may be burned. Where the residue has been laid flat
to the soil, about 80 percent may be burned. The amount of moisture or still-green
matter left in plant residue can impact the amount of smoke produced from a burn.
Burning in crop fields can mimic what nature does to prairie land and other ecosystems,
“If we weren’t here and this was all still prairie, it would burn and regrow every
few years,” he said. “Fire is nature’s way of reducing residue in some systems and
we can continue to use it to our advantage.”
However, burning is not a necessity in every case.
“Nutrients are tied up in residue and some of these can be lost if residue is burned,”
Hardke said. “So, where there is not a definable benefit for burning, it’s advised
to avoid the practice.”
Residue burning has attracted criticism because of its potential effects on air quality.
There are online petitions seeking to end the practice of burning, and when smoky
haze appears around cities and communities, speculation in social media often points
to rice fields.
“To be clear, there are many sources of haze and even low-lying smoke during different
parts of the year,” Hardke said. “In production agriculture, most farmers make a legitimate
effort not to affect any neighbor when they need to burn a field. However, winds change
and inversion conditions can set in without warning. These are not excuses, just acknowledgement
that sometimes even the best intentions can be overturned by unpredictable conditions.”
Hardke also said that while research and extension can improve practices and timing
over time, farmers still need to be able to burn crop residue to effectively manage
their land in many situations.
“We need to work together on solutions in this and many other agricultural matters
today,” he said.
To learn more about effective farmland management, contact your local Cooperative
Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu.
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen
agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption
of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative
Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work
within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas
System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension
and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity,
sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran
status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative
Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
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Media Contact: Mary HightowerDir. of Communication ServicesU of A System Division of AgricultureCooperative Extension Service(501) email@example.com