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Burning straw in the field - Is this a normal practice in North America?

 
steward
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I know a couple of guys who are writing a book.  They are submitting that straw from annual grain crops is often burned in the field.  This came as a surprise to me.  Can anyone confirm if burning straw in the field is a common practice in North America?  And if they're burning the stubble or all the straw?

Thanks everyone!
 
gardener
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Hey Mike;  I know that over in N Idaho they burn grass and wheat fields. It has become controversial in the last 20 years over the air quality in the Coeur D alene &  Spokane  area's.
Many farmers have sold their land and moved down to the Coeur D Alene Indian reservation or into eastern Washington where they still allow field burning. It is burned as stubble.
 
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steward
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Thanks Thomas!  So that is one confirmation that wheat/grain fields are still burned BUT that it is stubble being burnt, not the whole piece of straw.  

Any other folks with experiences to add?
 
pollinator
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No, it's not a common practice.  There were a few regions where people used to do it commonly (the Palouse of Eastern Washington and Idaho being one, as mentioned above) but improvements in no-till drills and other machinery have made this unnecessary.

When you think of straw, it's a byproduct from grain crops like wheat, oats, and barley.  Of those three, wheat (by far) is grown on a large scale.  Burning the massive wheat fields that range from Northern Texas all the way up to North Dakota (and even further, up into Manitoba, Saskachawan and Alberta) would be a massive environmental nightmare.  It's simply not done.  Perhaps on an isolate basis, where a farmer has a problem with cheat grass or some other invasive, but having grown up in this part of the world, people don't burn their fields.

 
Mike Jay
steward
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Thanks Marco!  That's what my intuition was telling me.  If all of the dakotas burned each fall, I wouldn't be able to see the sky here in WI.
 
steward
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In northern Utah it is rare for a grain field to be burned intentionally. Once in a while, a malfunctioning piece of equipment catches a field on fire, but it's not typically done on purpose.
 
master pollinator
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This is the first time I've heard of burning off the straw stubble.

I know that it used to be common practice in the mid West to do 'controlled' burns on old, dry pasture in order to get rid of the stand and get new growth going, but that's fallen out of favour.  It's still a common practice in parts of Africa where the short growing season lends itself to grass that gets over 5-6 ft tall.  That grass is very low in quality, so it's burned to stimulate new growth.
 
pollinator
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Just saw you specified North America only! Sorry!

Down here in southern Brazil there are good amounts of wheat fields, they are all harvested by a monster machine that separates the rice/straw/chaff and blows it all back on the fields.
grassland pasture is sometimes burned (as mentioned by Timothy above), but never cultivated fields.

But when I lived in Japan (rural North, until the late 90s), I distinctly recall farmers burning the rice straw in their fields in piles. Not the stubble or the chaff, which was kept on the rice til it was polished, but the straw. Some small amounts were used for traditional crafts, but for the most part it was burned. I used to do a lot of distance cycling through the countryside and I can still remember the smell distinctly.
 
Mike Jay
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Thanks Tereza!  Sorry, the book they're writing is likely for a North American audience so that's why I limited it.  I did see more mention of burning straw on Google with respect to rice farming.

When I refer to "stubble", I'm talking about the short piece of straw that is still attached to the roots after the harvester has come through.
 
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In the South there are still field burn offs, mostly it is the rice fields these days but it used to be wheat stubble too, now they use a fly over method for planting most of the wheat in the fall so they do very little tilling or burning of those fields.

Burning field stubble does do some good, just not as much good as simply planting through it and letting it rot in place.
Prairie is fire dependent as an example of why one would want to burn any field. The ash deposit rebuilds the soil, dormant seeds in the soil are activated to sprout and grow, that's how the prairie is replenished.

Most of the farmers here in the south harvest the crop (wheat, oats, rice) then some will harvest the straw about a week after all the seed heads have been harvested. Then, if they are going to burn, they light the fires.
Today most are growing the wheat crop and planting soybeans behind the wheat harvest.
The rice harvest is later in the fall so that land usually will get burned and laid to fallow over the winter, unless they plan to rent duck hunting space which means they are going to flood the paddies a second time.
 
Mike Jay
steward
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Thanks Dr!  Could you hazard a guess as to what percentage of the straw (not stubble) is burnt in the fields vs harvested and used?
 
pollinator
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It was common practice in England but has been banned for many years now. It was only the stubble that was burnt after harvest and after the straw was baled.
 
pollinator
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It is common practice to burn flax straw where I am. Flax straw takes far longer to break down than any other type of straw. It is not common practice to burn any other type of straw. Most of this burning is done in the winter when there is no risk of it spreading or in the spring before seeding begins.

 
pollinator
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Burning wheat stubble off isn’t too uncommon here. It’s not an every year thing though.

Prairies are burned off every few years to control brush and weeds. Not sure how often, maybe about every four years.
 
pollinator
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Here in Maine it is very common to burn blueberry fields. It has been done for centuries as it was done by the Indians, and mainer's took over the practice. It is done every other year though.

Lately there is a massive USDA program being done to move the rocks so that mowing can be done instead, under the idea that it would prevent forest fires and air pollution, but a lot of blueberry farmers feel burning is better than mowing. I am not a blue berry grower, so I am not sure if they are right, and that for blue berries burning is better, or they are just slow to accept change?

 
gardener
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Burning crop waste is a big problem in much of North india (though not as far north as I am). It contributes to the news you've been seeing every year in November, where Indian cities keep breaking air pollution records and adding digits to the monitoring equipment.
 
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I know it's not USA, but in parts of Australia, sugar-cane is burnt for a whole season every single year. It's meant to increase yield by a minuscule amount. Apparently our district is the worst for it - some folks actually like it as a tradition, turn up with a beer to watch the blaze.

My veggie garden gets blanketed with charred stalks and my heart condition acts up when they do a big burn 8km's away.
I don't get how it's legal, nor how the farmers don't understand that the black stuff flying on the wind is their soil carbon.
 
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Here in the midwest folks burn hay pasture fairly regularly, but I can't recall seeing grain fields/straw burned, either in conventional ag systems or in the numerous Mennonite communities I've worked around and traveled through.  Typically the straw his harvested and used as animal bedding or for other projects.
 
Mike Jay
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Thanks everyone for all the feedback!  I think it answered the question and hopefully will guide these fine authors in their quest.  Cheerio!
 
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