Cereal straw – incorporate or sell?

Here are the pros and cons associated with the decision to either incorporate or sell straw.

Cereal straw – incorporate or sell?

Cereal straw has become an increasingly versatile and valuable commodity. Today, straw markets include renewable energy systems, for both domestic heating and power generation, overwinter carrot production and mushroom production. This is in addition to its traditional uses in the livestock sector. At the same time, the incentives to chop straw have increased. Soil health is one of the main drivers, with many aiming to reap the longer-term benefits associated with straw incorporation. Another key reason cited for incorporating straw is that it is an ‘easier’ option, for some.

Pros and cons

Our publication looks at the pros and cons associated with the decision to either incorporate or sell straw.

Incorporate straw

Advantages

  • Returns nutrients and organic matter to the soil
  • Reduces nutrient and soil particulate loss
  • Improves soil health (e.g. measured by earthworm numbers)
  • Removes compaction risk associated with straw removal
  • No delay in accessing the field for the next crop

Disadvantages

  • Increases fuel costs
  • Contributes to combine wear-and-tear costs
  • Provides a ‘green bridge’ through crop residue (e.g. increases threats from some pests and diseases)
  • Causes nutrient lock-up issues associated with crop residues
  • Crop residue can limit in-field operations

Sell straw

Advantages

  • Provides useful cash flow from sale
  • Facilitates easy entry for the following crop
  • Reduces pest pressure (including slugs) and disease pressure

Disadvantages

  • Weather can interfere with plans (e.g. wet conditions can delay removal and reduce the window for establishment of the following crop)
  • Risk of compaction (especially if operation needs to be carried out on suboptimal ground)
  • Nutrients are removed from field
  • Less organic matter is returned to the field
  • Problems can spread from one field to another (e.g. weeds)

Nutrient content of cereal straw

Straw contains significant amounts of potash, and some phosphate and magnesium. Typical values of phosphate and potash contained in straw are published in Section 4 of the AHDB Nutrient Management Guide (RB209).

A muck-for-straw deal can be used to provide livestock farmers with a bedding source and an enhanced source of nutrients for arable farmers. For further information, visit ahdb.org.uk/knowledge-library/livestock-and-the-arable-rotation

Further information

Get more from your straw

A 2013 review established some of the true costs of straw removal. Take a look at this CPM article that assesses the findings.

Get more from your straw (CPM article, April 2014)

“Incorporating straw isn’t the best way to maintain or increase soil organic matter. It’s far more effective to apply farmyard manure, biosolids or compost.”

Read the review (Research Review 81)

Rape straw and herbicides

If oilseed rape straw has been sold, it is important to check which herbicides, if any, were applied to the crop. The active ingredient aminopyralid can remain manure and affect crops on land where it's spread – so check herbicide labels and seek advice from an agronomist.

Straw and bedding

Straw is the most frequently used bedding material. It has good thermal properties and moderate absorption capacity. Barley, wheat and oat straw are the most commonly used, although rye and triticale straw may be available in some areas. For further information, see the AHDB Bedding materials directory.

Available in print