FAYETTEVILLE — Autumn in Arkansas farm country is marked by turning leaves, migrating waterfowl and columns of smoke on the horizon.

Crop burning is helpful for managing residue left after harvest, said Jarrod Hardke, extension rice agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Fire helps eliminate insect pests, weeds and diseases and speeds field preparation for the next growing season.

Counter intuitively, burning can help farmers reduce their carbon footprint by permitting no-till or reduced-till field preparation in the spring, reducing fuel use and potential soil erosion, officials say.

Smoke from crop burning, however, can cause hazards when it moves across roads and highways. It can also have negative effects on air quality and pose risks to human health. Hardke said a little planning and a few precautions can reduce those impacts.

“Take weather and wind direction into account and try to keep the smoke away from people and communities,” he said.

Arkansas Voluntary Smoke Management Guidelines for Row Crop Burning, available from the Arkansas Agriculture Department, contains recommendations and helps farmers develop a plan for safe and effective crop burning, Hardke said.

The publication was developed by a smoke management task force that included the Division of Agriculture, the Arkansas Agriculture Department, the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board, the Soybean Promotion Board, Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, the Agriculture Council of Arkansas and Arkansas Farm Bureau.

The information was adapted from the Arkansas Forestry Commission’s Arkansas Voluntary Smoke Management Guidelines for forest management.

“We adapted the recommendations for row crop burning,” Hardke said.

The booklet also includes the phone number for the Arkansas Agriculture Department’s Dispatch Center, which coordinates prescribed fire activities, reports fire weather and assists with voluntary smoke management.

The number is 1-800-830-8015. The last page of the booklet includes a short checklist of information to have ready when calling, as well as a checklist of recommended precautions.

“I highly recommend landowners call the number before burning off residue,” Hardke said.

Hardke said crop residue needs some time to dry before burning. The guideline booklet recommends a minimum of four days, but Hardke said growers usually want to finish their harvest before burning. The residue often dries a few weeks before being burned.

But farmers have a relatively narrow window between harvest and the start of fall rains for burning, Hardke said.

“If wet weather sets in,” he said, “you’re stuck with it and looking at dealing with it in the spring.”

The trade-off to burning crop residue in the fall is having to till it in the spring, Hardke said. That means a higher expense for fuel, higher risk of erosion and more time needed to prepare for planting. It may also result in higher costs for weed and pest control.

Information about crop burning and smoke management, including a link to download Arkansas Voluntary Smoke Management Guidelines for Row Crop Burning, can be found on the Arkansas Agriculture Department website: https://www.agriculture.arkansas.gov/arkansas-voluntary-smoke-management-guidelines

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without discrimination.

— Fred Miller is with the U of A System Division of Agriculture.