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Finding Alternatives to Burning Leftover StrawBy David Elstein
February 19, 2004
Chopping up straw or turning it into an on-farm source of fuel are two alternatives that Agricultural Research Service scientists are exploring to replace the practice of burning straw that remains after harvesting grass seed.
Beginning in the 1940's, farmers burned post-harvest straw residue as an easy and economical means of clearing the straw from fields and controlling diseases, insects and weeds.
During recent years, however, this practice has been phased out by many jurisdictions in response to environmental and safety concerns.
ARS recently completed a 10-year study to find alternatives to managing grass seed production without burning the leftover straw. Scientists at the ARS National Forage Seed Production Research Center in Corvallis, Ore., report that chopping straw or turning it into fuel are two alternatives that make economic sense for farmers while maintaining the high quality of seed from the Pacific Northwest.
The researchers found that chopping the straw into very small pieces and placing it back on the field increases the straw's rate of natural decomposition. This practice does not hurt yields in most grass crops, and combined with the use of no-till farming, it reduces soil erosion and enhances the water quality of adjacent streams. Both of these methods are cheaper than using traditional tillage.
Gary M. Banowetz, research leader at the Corvallis center, is also leading a research effort to turn straw into electricity or other bio-products, such as liquid alcohol fuels, on the farm, so straw that is not chopped back onto seed fields doesn't have to be shipped elsewhere for disposal.
Additional research in this study looked at the impact of alternative straw management on the occurrence of blind seed, a fungal disease in grass seed crops previously controlled by post harvest burning.
Read more information about this research in the February issue of Agricultural Research magazine.
ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.