Flint on Crops: Soil Compaction Can Be Managed – Commentary

As they go about harvesting this year’s crop growers are seeing the effects of soil compaction in fields of all crops. In many cases the symptoms have been visible as differences in plant color, height, and overall growth. It goes without saying that there will be effects on yield as well, and this fact is being seen in both corn and soybean fields as combines roll. In many cases compaction symptoms are concentrated on traffic rows.

Recent years have produced a movement toward reduced tillage nationwide, and in most aspects this change has been positive. However there is a perception that the reduction in tillage may have more negative effects than positive. I beg to differ with this conclusion even though I agree there may be situations in which well managed tillage might have reduced some of the isolated compaction.

When we look at this entire scenario we need to consider all of the possible interactions that come to bear on the final result. Among these are the factors of moisture when heavy equipment passes over the soil, the history of the specific field, the soil type and physical properties, and the organic matter content of the soil.

Let’s face the fact that in today’s real world farmers must work when they can. This means they sometimes run heavy implements over soil that is higher in moisture than would be desired. They do this to get the work done on farms that are much larger than they were a generation ago, and the equipment is many times heavier than in the past. It is understandable that soil in the traffic pattern will be compacted.

Another aspect of this has been the use of guidance systems which place the traffic rows in the same place year after year. This may seem negative, however it is likely positive since there are fewer traffic rows.

We should realize that the positive impact of soil conservation provided by reduced tillage, along with improved utilization of nutrients and moisture in a reduced tillage system are worth more than the occasional reduction of yield in traffic rows. In most cases the overall improvement in yield, reduction in production cost, soil loss, moisture, and nutrients will more than offset the difference.

The fact is that most of the effect of traffic row compaction can be alleviated by increasing the organic matter content of the soil. Reduced tillage does this first, combined with a balanced fertility program, planned rotation, and cover crops to maintain soil organic activity.

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As I have suggested before, the cereal crops like wheat are likely the simplest and maybe the best for use as cover, but they may not be a good fit in those fields to be planted in corn the following year.

Cover crops like wheat planted prior to the planting of other crops like cotton, soybeans, and peanuts are a better fit, and will normally provide sufficient fiber and organic matter to carry the soil through one cycle of corn. The corn itself will then bring the entire level of soil organic matter back up as it decomposes after harvest.

Traffic pattern compaction is a problem to be sure, but we need to look at it as a necessary evil in most cases and deal with it by when possible avoiding traffic during wet periods and the use of appropriate cover.

Thanks for your time.

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